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Cohen Talks Morale, Readiness

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 1998 – Low pay, spare part shortages, less-than-attractive retirement and health benefits. Hello! Is anyone listening to what service members are saying about these issues?

Yes, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said. The top brass is listening. Senior commanders, military service chiefs, congressional representatives and the president are hearing service members' calls for help. And, Cohen said, they intend to do something about it. They all know that quality of life and morale affect the military's bottom line -- combat readiness.

A day after appearing before Congress to discuss military readiness, the secretary set out Oct. 7 to visit service members stationed in the Persian Gulf. Earlier this year, a congressional delegation reported low morale throughout the region.

At the start of Cohen's seven-day, six-country swing through the area, he said his goal was to meet with local officials and talk with U.S. service members. "I want to get out and see our troops, … to pump up morale and see how force protection continues to evolve," the secretary said.

Talking with reporters on the way to his first stop in Bahrain, where he was to board the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Cohen said he could empathize with troops stationed at sea and at isolated stations in the region.

"I think they are under stress, being away from home, being in the desert with the heat, not seeing as clearly the nature of the mission they're carrying out --what progress is being made," he said.

Cohen said he intended to point out to America's troops that their mission is very real and that they have contributed to stabilizing the entire region. Compared to duty in Bosnia, where about 7,000 U.S. personnel serve with the NATO-led peacekeeping force, he said, it's "more difficult to see and understand on a day-to-day basis that the mission in the Gulf is just as successful."

"In Bosnia, morale is very high because they see a tangible impact that they're having," Cohen said. "It's more difficult when you're flying missions over southern or northern Iraq and not seeing measurable progress."

The military has great leadership and it is working to keep up morale under adverse conditions, Cohen stressed. While the declining post-Cold War defense budget has impacted readiness, steps are being taken to remedy the situation.

In September, President Clinton met for nearly two hours with the military's regional commanders-in-chief and later promised to put more money into defense. Service chiefs appeared in early October before the House and Senate to present their concerns. During Oct. 6 hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Cohen accepted the blame for not alerting the nation sooner.

The secretary also said a billion dollars is being put into the fiscal 1999 defense budget to deal with spare parts shortages. In some cases, he said, such shortages have forced mechanics to cannibalize equipment in order to remain operational. Shortages have led to long delays so that equipment is shut down or service members have to work extra hours to keep equipment operation. The added funding will take time to work its way into the system, so there will still be a little bit of a lag there, Cohen concluded.

Low pay and eroded benefits are also affecting readiness since they damage morale and have an emotional impact on service members and their families. Cohen said troops begin looking at whether they can afford to stay in the military, if they can adequately care for their families and if they can plan for retirement.

"When you have a high state of readiness, you've got highly trained, well-led, well-equipped people. That's one aspect of it, but there are these other factors which are contributing to their depreciation of morale. That has an impact on readiness in a different way."

Simply knowing what the future holds can boost morale, Cohen noted. "When I went to Fort Drum [N.Y.] to meet with the 10th Mountain Division, one of the biggest morale boosters was the fact that I said to them, "Next year you will be in Bosnia. You now have a year to plan your lives."

This announcement, Cohen continued, "gave them some stability in their planning. They can be with their families for a certain amount of time. They know when they have to go. They know when they're coming back."

Despite all the talk of low readiness, he stressed, America's troops remain the finest in the world. "The troops are still ready," he said. "Those who are forward-deployed are ready to carry out their mission."

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