Top NCOs Say Forum Worthwhile, Too Short
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 26, 2000 While it was a great opportunity to exchange views, the time allotted for DoD’s first Senior Enlisted Forum was too short.
That's what 84 senior enlisted advisors told Defense Secretary William S. Cohen at the close of a daylong forum focused on readiness and quality of life.
"This was too quick," Southern Command's Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jesse Laye said of the day's packed agenda. "It would be better if we came together for two or three days. Then we could really work the issues."
Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, hosted the first senior enlisted advisors' forum at the Pentagon June 22. Based on troop visits around the world, the Cohens said they've come to understand that NCOs play a vital role and that they're willing to speak their mind.
In his opening remarks, Cohen recapped DoD's recent efforts to improve pay and compensation. He highlighted the department's commitment to address housing and health care issues. "This is an opportunity for us to sit and listen to you," Cohen told the group. "You're the ones who have to deal with these challenges … on a daily basis."
Cohen asked the top NCOs to be as candid as possible. "You have to feel free to tell us exactly what's on your mind so that we can take and absorb that, analyze it, and see what can be done, what's realistic, what we can do without making false promises."
Laye, who's been a soldier for 29 years, agreed that the forum was a good opportunity for the top brass and the top NCOs to communicate.
"The biggest job we have is to be an 'honest broker,'" he said. "That's why this forum is so good. The secretary of defense gets unfiltered information. It doesn't go through all the staff offices and directorates. He got it straight from the senior enlisted.
"Frankly," Laye said, "it made everybody here feel very important, and it shows that the secretary understands the importance of the senior enlisted. A lot of the issues the senior enlisted know about never get surfaced to the top. So this is a very special forum. I think it was very worthwhile."
Pulling the active duty and reserve component senior NCOs together gave the senior enlisted advisors a chance to meet their counterparts, said Navy Master Chief Barbara Ryan, Naval Reserve Fleet Hospital, Fort Dix, N.J. The spouses are an important part of service members' decision whether to stay in the military, she said, and they have much to say about the issues they deal with daily.
"The briefings we got were very informative and the information we were able to put back out was also good," Ryan said. "I do definitely think it needs to be a two- or three-day type of an evolution next time."
One senior enlisted advisor asked Deputy Defense Secretary Rudy de Leon if there would be a second Senior Enlisted Advisors Forum. De Leon said Cohen hopes he has set a precedent for three events that will continue into future administrations.
First, the Pentagon Pops concert which honors the nation's Medal of Honor recipients and other veterans. Second, the Military Family Forum designed to foster communication between service members, family members and Pentagon officials. Third, the Senior Enlisted Advisors Forum. Cohen plans to recommend that the next defense secretary keep these programs going, de Leon said.
Throughout his tenure, de Leon added, the secretary has "invested in people" by championing the 4.8 percent pay raise, pay table reform, housing allowance adjustment, retirement change, pharmacy benefit and other health care changes.
"To keep that going means you have to have the right input coming in," de Leon said. "The chain of command won't necessarily tell you what's on people's minds. The chiefs in the field will. So that's why these have to continue."
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who hosted a luncheon for the group, called the insights gained during the forum outbrief and during conversations throughout the day "absolutely invaluable."
"As Gen. Creighton Abrams used to say, 'People are not in our armed forces, people are our armed forces,'" Myers said.
DoD must ensure its people have the best equipment, training and leadership in the world, he said. "We've also got to make sure they've got the tangible thanks of a grateful nation, not just our grateful words. I mean -- decent salaries, housing, health care and enduring retirement benefits. We're working hard to make all of that come true."