Naval Crowd Grills Cohen on Pay, Housing, Healthcare
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
MANAMA, Bahrain, Apr. 6, 2000 “It’s a lot better for me to have you close, because I take advantage of every chance I have to look into the faces of the people who are serving us.”
That’s how Defense Secretary William S. Cohen began a talk April 6 with 1,500 sailors, Marines and DoD civilians in the naval support activity gymnasium here. He called them to step closer, and soon he was surrounded by a sea of desert camouflage.
Cohen spoke and answered questions about military pay, recruiting and retention, the housing allowance, health care and anthrax. He is on a trip through the gulf states that will end April 12.
He thanked the service members and civilians for their service. “All of you over here making the daily sacrifice is something we are immensely proud of,” he said. “I came to meet you and thank you and tell you that you are always on my mind, especially whenever I sign deployment orders.”
The first question Cohen received was on future pay raises. He said that following the record pay increase in fiscal 2000, the pay raise for the next few years is 3.9 percent. “Congress can change this, as they did last year,” he said.
Pay is an important part of keeping good people in the military, he said, especially since military people possess many of the traits private industry wants. “We’ve got the challenge of how do we attract the quality of people you represent into the military and then, once you are there, hold on to you,” he said.
“So private industry wants you, but I have the job of saying ‘but don’t go yet,’” he said. “We’ve got to remain competitive [with private industry]. We can’t match the private sector, but we can do better.”
One way is through reform of the basic allowance for housing. Cohen said service members living off-base in the United States pay an average of 19 percent of their housing costs out of pocket. “That’s simply unfair,” he said. “We’re putting $3 billion in the budget to go from that 19 percent down to zero in the next four-and-a-half years.”
The change would result in money back in service members' pockets.
Cohen called military health care the most important remaining issue he must deal with. “You cannot do your jobs if you are worried about whether or not your families are going to be taken care of,” he said. “The TRICARE system hasn’t worked as effectively as it was originally conceived. We are going to make a number of changes in how it operates.”
These changes include eliminating co-pays for TRICARE Prime and TRICARE Remote. Cohen also hopes to change the way the program is administered and seeks to use technology to help doctors, nurses and other medical professionals do their jobs more efficiently.
He assured the service members that he would deal with the issue of medical care for retirees. “We cannot make a promise to you as far as saying we will take care of you for life and then not deliver,” he said. “I am working with [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army] Gen. [Henry] Shelton to come up with a proposal to deal effectively with that issue.”
He said DoD is working on keeping the force strong for the future. He said modernization accounts have finally hit $60 billion in the fiscal 2001 budget request. Over the next five years, the modernization account will go up to $70 billion.
“We are finally starting to recapitalize our force,” he said. “We’ve been living off the build-up from the early 1980s, and we went through the peace dividend. Now we have to start rebuilding the military to make sure we buy the equipment we need to remain the best-equipped force in the world.”
Cohen answered a question about the anthrax inoculation program by giving a short history of it. He said following the Gulf War the regional commanders in chief said they had a real problem with the growing threat of chemical and biological weaponry.
“The commanders in chief recommended that we protect you against the possibility that Saddam Hussein might launch a Scud loaded with an anthrax warhead,” he said.
Cohen insisted on independent research, testing and safeguards and then launched the program.
“The notion that somehow [the anthrax program] should be voluntary -- that each one of you should decide whether you should get an anthrax shot -- is absurd,” he said. “Would it be voluntary to wear a flak jacket, or a helmet, or carry a weapon?”
The vaccination program is essential for force protection, he said.
“I know my decision was controversial in some of the reserve units and Guard units,” he continued. “But it seems to me it is my responsibility to protect you if I have on hand the ability to do that. I have no real option.”
Following the questions and answer period Cohen walked into the crowd and spoke with the sailors and Marines. He ended the visit by shooting baskets with Lt. j.g. Jason Panik, an intelligence officer with a P-3 Orion squadron. Cohen, who played hoops at Bowdoin College in Maine, had some trouble finding his range, but when he did, it was nothing but net.