Financial Stability, Family Support Top QOL Issues in '03 Budget Request
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 17, 2002 Military quality-of-life issues include much more than pay and housing, and if DoD wants to win the war on terrorism, it needs to give its people a strong quality of life.
DoD's top personnel specialist told Congress April 11 that the fiscal 2003 defense budget request includes money not only for pay and housing, but also for other critical quality-of-life issues such as spouse employment, and family readiness and childcare programs.
"The Department of Defense is competing with the private sector for the best young people our nation has to offer," Charles Abell, assistant secretary of defense for force management policy, told members of the Senate's Military Personnel Subcommittee. He said the defense family has changed in the last decade and is more discerning.
"U.S. military personnel are more senior, educated and diverse," Abell said in his prepared statement. "More military spouses work, and they are better educated than they were 10 years ago."
To meet the needs of these service members and spouses, Abell pointed to the department's recently completed Human Resources Strategic Plan. It "will serve as our roadmap for military personnel human resources issues over the next three to five years," he said.
Competitive pay remains key to attracting top people, particularly among the enlisted ranks. Abell said more than half of service members in enlisted grades higher than E-5 have some college, while more than 20 percent of E-8s and E-9s have a college degree.
Housing allowances are a major component of competitive compensation. He said DoD continues to work toward the goal of eliminating out-of-pocket housing costs by 2005. Provisions in the '03 budget will reduce members' average out-of-pocket housing costs from 11.3 percent to 7.5 percent.
With the advent of the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance in 2001, the estimated number of military members receiving food stamps from the U.S. Department of Agriculture dropped to 4,200 in fiscal 2001. Abell said DoD officials estimate that number will drop again to 2,100 -- roughly 0.15 percent of service members -- by the end of fiscal 2002.
DoD has also aggressively addressed compensation issues for members deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom. Military personnel serving in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and some in Turkey, enjoy such benefits as the combat zone tax exclusion, imminent danger pay and hardship duty pay based on their locations. They also continue to receive housing and subsistence allowances based on their home duty stations, Abell said.
He said an average E-6, married with two children, will earn nearly $600 more per month while serving in Afghanistan. "The department is committed to ensuring service members and their families are cared for through appropriate compensation while members are deployed serving their country in dangerous locations," Abell said.
He also cited the repeal of the so-called Redux retirement plan of 1986 and the implementation of the Thrift Savings Plan for military members as major recent improvements in the total military compensation plan.
Sixty percent of military members have family responsibilities, Abell said, so caring for those families is as vital as monetary compensation.
"Military members and their families make sacrifices in the service of our country and face special challenges," Abell told the senators. "A new social compact must recognize the reciprocal ties that bind service members, the military mission and families, and responds to their quality-of-life needs as individuals and as members of a larger community."
Family support programs need to focus more on the two- thirds of service members who live off base and on reserve component forces. To address this, the defense budget request includes $17 million more for family centers.
Abell cited the overwhelming success of the Pentagon Family Assistance Center in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon. More than 2,400 staff and volunteers provided "unprecedented outreach support to the families of victims who were killed or injured in the attack," he said.
Access to quality childcare and financial literacy are also critical to family quality of life. The Air Force Reserve is making childcare available to its members and their families through a variety of programs, he said, while the Air National Guard is running 13 test childcare programs around the country.
Abell said the budget request increases funding to childcare programs by 7 percent, or $27 million.
To address financial health, the services are increasing the training and assistance available to members and are putting more emphasis on spousal employment programs.
"As with most of America's young adults, those entering the military have little understanding of the basic tenets of personal financial management and little to no practical experience managing their own money," he said. This often results in poor spending habits and service members overwhelmed by credit card debt.
Abell also discussed educational opportunities for military members, expansion of the Troops to Teachers program, and recent successes of the Department of Defense Education Activity, which runs dependent schools on military installations overseas and in the United States.
Health care falls under the umbrella of quality-of-life issues, but it is much more than a benefit, Abell said. "This acknowledgement crystallized for all of us in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and bioterrorist actions involving anthrax," he said. "The capabilities of (the military health system) and its personnel contributed indispensably to the care and treatment of survivors and families and in assisting other federal agencies to identify remains as well as identify the anthrax samples."
Abell said the fiscal 2003 budget request includes "realistic inflation assumptions" for both health care and pharmacy costs. It also includes an $8.1 billion contribution into the accrual fund to cover the government's future liabilities for the TRICARE for Life program, which acts as a second-payer to Medicare for retirees and their family members who are over age 65.
Military funeral honors and benefits specifically targeting the more than 90,000 reserve component members called up for operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom were other issues on Abell's agenda.
"When we call upon the Guard and Reserve, we need to make sure their service is productive and meaningful and that we make every effort to take care of them and their families," he said.