Optempo, Housing, TRICARE Top Stennis Sailors' Concerns
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS, Arabian Sea, Apr. 7, 2000 Defense Secretary William S. Cohen praised the warriors of this aircraft carrier April 7, a day after they flew bombing missions against Iraq.
He then spoke to the crew about pay, housing and medical care before taking questions. The crew asked Cohen about service members on food stamps, dental care and pay. He flew to the carrier from Manama, Bahrain.
The USS Stennis is the heart of an eight-ship battle group in the Persian Gulf participating in Operation Southern Watch. About 1,500 of the carrier's 5,000-member crew and air wing heard Cohen thank them for their service.
F/A-18 Hornets from the carrier had struck Iraqi air defense targets in the southern no-fly zone April 6 in response to anti-aircraft fire. The Iraqis claimed the bombing hit a residential area and killed 14 civilians.
"The targets were all military targets, and they were not in residential areas or any other areas where civilians could possibly be located," said Vice Adm. Charles Moore, commander of the 5th Fleet. "The damage assessment is comprehensive and indicates we did significant damage to the targets.
"I don't have any idea of casualties," Moore continued. "My only comment would be, if there were casualties, it would be unlikely they were civilian casualties."
Cohen told the crew that the Stennis "responded appropriately" to the Iraqi provocation. He thanked the crew for their sacrifices and professionalism. The Stennis battle group has been at sea since January, when it left San Diego. On station in the gulf since late February, the group is slated to rotate out in May.
Cohen said he was proud to represent the sailors as their secretary of defense. "I will do my level best in the remaining months of my term in office to represent you to the best of my ability," he said.
He told the sailors he would work to repeal the legislative requirement that service members living off-base pay 15 percent of their housing costs out of pocket. Members experience actual out-of-pocket costs now averaging around 19 percent.
"That's simply unfair, so we're changing that," Cohen said. "We've got to get the help of Congress ... so there will be no money out of your pockets if you live off base. That's the only responsible thing to do." The hangar deck of the ship rang with cheers at that announcement.
Cohen said DoD must deal with health care. "TRICARE has had a number of problems," he said. "It's bureaucratic, cumbersome and complex. When you redeploy from one area of the country to another, you have to start all over again with different rules and different benefits."
He said he is working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress to improve TRICARE and make the benefits uniform throughout the TRICARE regions. DoD has proposed eliminating co-pays in TRICARE Prime and TRICARE Remote. Cohen said in response to a question that DoD leaders are looking at the dental plan and hope to strengthen it.
He also vowed to change the system to include retirees. "We promised retirees and their families that they would have free health care for the rest of their lives," Cohen said. "That's not something written into law, it's not a legal obligation, but it's a moral obligation, and we intend to keep that obligation."
One petty officer asked about service members on food stamps. "We don't want to see any of our men and women in uniform on food stamps," Cohen said, adding 12,000 of the roughly 2.5 million members of the military received stamps.
"We're looking for ways that we can eliminate that altogether," he said. "We are working on that to ensure those in the military don't have to turn to food stamps. We're working to raise the level of income to all families so they no one will have to be on food stamps.
Several sailors asked about operations tempo. One senior chief petty officer told the secretary that many talented E-4s and E-5s are quitting because of the stress of operations.
"As we have downsized, we have increased the deployments," Cohen said. "That's creating real stress on the men and women serving us and their families. This has been a principal concern to the Joint Chiefs, and they have been looking at ways in which they can reduce the operations tempo and the perstempo so that we don't overstress all of you to the point that you leave.
"There are different types of dangers than we had during the Cold War and ... we have to resist the temptation to become involved in so many missions," he said. "Everybody, when they are in trouble, likes to call upon the United States. We are the 911 for the whole world."
For example, he said, the United States was already heavily committed in Kosovo when East Timor erupted. When the call came for peacekeeping troops, the United States said it would provide logistics and communications support, but not peacekeepers. Australia has led the mission very well, he said.
Another chief asked if the duration of six-month deployments might drop.
"If the situation improves in the gulf, if it improves between North and South Korea, if it improves between China and Taiwan, then you can say there may be some reductions, but that's basing it upon a lot of 'ifs,'" Cohen said. "Right now we have to be prepared constantly. Frankly, I don't see any reduction in the time of deployed from six months at this time."