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Top NCOs Push Quality of Life Before Congress

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2000, Feb. 22, 2000 – Family housing, adequate child care, medical care and fitness centers were among the quality of life initiatives the senior enlisted members of the armed forces want Congress to address in the fiscal 2001 defense budget.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Robert Hall, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Herdt, Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Alford McMichael and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Frederick Finch testified Feb. 16 before the Military Construction Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

The four urged the representatives to approve Defense Secretary William S. Cohens proposal to increase the basic allowance for housing. Cohens proposal would eliminate out-of-pocket expenses for off-base housing by fiscal 2005.

The enlisted leaders spoke of optempo effects on their service members. [Last year] the pace at which we used land forces and soldiers reflected an increasing optempo for active and reserve units and proved higher than imagined, Hall said. Meanwhile, at their home stations, commanders were using funds allocated for training to address underfunding of our installations and quality of life programs that take care of our soldiers and families.

Hall told the representatives that during the Cold War, the Army responded to a small-scale deployment once every four years. Now it is once every 14 weeks, he said.

Our nation owes its soldiers a quality of life commensurate with that of the private sector and the peace of mind that their families will be taken care of when they deploy, Hall said.

All the senior NCOs said Congress has helped ease some problems by approving the fiscal 2000 pay raise, pay table reform and retirement reform. Now they want Congress to address problems associated with substandard housing and military medical care.

Hall said soldiers deserve decent living conditions. Soldiers do not expect to live in luxury, but they do deserve access to housing for their families that will give them peace of mind while they are at work, home or deployed, he said. He asked Congress to continue the military housing privatization plan. He said the plan could eliminate much of the military's substandard housing. He pointed to a massive Army privatization effort at Fort Carson, Colo. and said the Army expects to launch similar efforts at Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Meade, Md.

He said the committee should also consider the quality of life of unmarried soldiers. Our single soldiers are living in barracks 30 to 40 years old, Hall said. These barracks were designed for the austere standards of a conscript army and now need to be modernized. He said raising barracks living standards is the highest facilities priority for fiscal 2001.

Hall said TRICARE needs serious work. The bottom line is that our service members and their families must be able to count on their health care system, he said. "Our soldiers need to know that their families are being taken care of when they deploy.

Some declare TRICARE a success because of the rapid start- up for its 8.2 million beneficiaries across 13 Department of Defense regions employing seven different private health care contractors, he continued. I'm not convinced. Visible and corrosive problems detract from the successes, most notably the delay in health care claims payment to private doctors and hospitals; low reimbursement rates; the lockout of elderly, Medicare-eligible retirees; and health care problems for soldiers and families in remote sites with few community health care assets.

Navy's Herdt said that while sailors are used to deployments, improving their lives ashore is a priority. Sailors don't complain about deployments nor do they complain that they live in Navy-unique living conditions aboard their ships, in berthing areas that sleep 50 to 250 sailors, he said. Neither do they complain of average workdays of 14 to 16 hours while at sea seven days per week.

But in port their living conditions need to be improved, he said. Our solution for improving housing for sailors and their families should be a three-pronged approach: funding basic allowance for housing at 100 percent, sustaining traditional military construction housing projects, and continued public-private venture support.

Herdt said the 100 percent basic housing allowance would relieve some of the stress on base housing by making off- base housing more desirable.

He said Navy public-private military housing projects are under way in South Texas and in Washington state and called them crucial to the Navy because so many bases are located in high-cost areas.

Herdt said the plight of single sailors deserves Congress attention. The Navy is looking at ways to address one of the most pressing quality of life challenges, that of enlisted sailors living aboard ship when in home port, he said. Were currently evaluating options designed to ultimately provide the opportunity for sailors to live ashore when in home port.

Air Force's Finch said the most important concerns voiced by single and married airmen involve the need for safe, adequate and affordable housing. To give you an example of what our housing needs are, about 40 percent of our families live on base, with approximately 30,000 families waiting for quarters around the Air Force, he said.

Finch, too, said he wishes Congress would extend privatization authority so the service can continue to attack the problem.

He said the Air Force is currently 14,000 dormitory rooms short of the 75,000 it needs for single airmen. The service is working on a program that has eliminated all permanent party central latrine dorms. He said the service will continue the renovation regime to replace or renovate our worst dormitories by fiscal 2009.

The Marine Corps' McMichael said he, too, is concerned about the quality of life for his younger service members. He said the Corps must renovate bachelor quarters and barracks and called on Congress to provide the funds to renovate or replace 7,896 substandard bachelor housing spaces.

Beyond that, McMichael told the committee, more than 60 percent of the Marines' fiscal 2001 military construction request would go to replacing inadequate and deteriorating infrastructure. Many of your Marines work in undersized and inefficient workspaces that do not have proper climate control, utilities or fire protection."

Other areas the top NCOs covered included:

  • Child care -- Hall and Herdt addressed the services' need for child care. Hall spoke of the Army's building a single management structure for youth. Herdt said all the services need more infant and toddler care.
  • Fitness centers -- Finch quoted an Air Force survey showing that junior enlisted members believe base fitness centers are the most important base-level service offered.
  • Building military communities -- McMichael said building communities is more than just putting up or renovating houses and includes providing facilities all other Americans have such as community centers, ball fields, picnic areas, bus shelters and bicycle and jogging paths. Our vision for housing ensures a consistent level of quality is provided in all our neighborhoods," he said.

The services recruit members, but retain families, the NCOs said unanimously. All stressed quality of life as a means to enhance readiness.

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