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De Leon Talks Readiness, Quality of Life

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 11, 2000 – Rudy de Leon is no stranger to issues impacting service members' lives. The 27th deputy defense secretary has spent most of his 25-year federal career focused on national defense.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon responds to a reporter's question during a Pentagon press briefing. Photo by Helene C. Stikkel.
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

He knows the defense business. He knows the military.

The soft-spoken security affairs specialist understands what it takes to maintain a capable defense force. De Leon has dealt firsthand with appropriations, military readiness, force modernization, pay and compensation as well as quality of life initiatives.

In the past seven years alone, he has helped the Air Force develop the F-22 fighter and the C-17 airlifter. He was Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's principal architect, adviser and spokesman for the $42 billion pay and compensation package that gave service members a 4.8 percent pay raise, reformed pay tables and restored retirement benefits.

Prior to joining the Pentagon's senior defense team, de Leon worked in various legislative assistant positions in the Senate and House of Representatives. He left his position as staff director for the House Armed Services Committee in 1993 to serve as the special assistant to the late Defense Secretary Les Aspin.

De Leon became undersecretary of the Air Force in 1994, and undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness three years later. In the latter post, he was Cohen's senior policy adviser on recruitment, career development, readiness, pay and benefits for the military's 1.4 million active duty personnel, 1.3 million reserve component personnel and 680,000 DoD civilians.

When he was sworn in as deputy defense secretary on March 31, the scope of his duties expanded to include national missile defense, defense export controls, information security and a host of other national and international issues. In a recent interview with the American Forces Information Service, de Leon said DoD is currently conducting a Quadrennial Defense Review to ensure the military has the capabilities critical for dominating the battlefield.

"I think the first goal of the QDR has to be to make sure we're buying the right equipment for the future," he said. "Second, we have to make sure we're adequately compensating those that are serving today, that we have a solid pay and benefits package. Our plan is to leave to our successors a series of solid recommendations that will allow us to continue the positive movement that we're having on pay right now."

People are the department's top priority, de Leon stressed. That's where the new dollars and investment have gone and where more still need to go.

"People are really at the heart of our system because of the work they do," he said. "It's our job to make sure that we are working hard for them and that we're vigorous advocates on their part." In the remaining months of the current administration, current Pentagon leaders are determined to improve quality of life.

"The secretary and Mrs. Cohen have really focused on making sure this department works the people issues --pay, benefits, medical, DoD schools -- and that we're taking care of our young men and women and their families." Service members and spouses recently attended two Pentagon forums hosted by the Cohens to discuss critical quality of life issues.

"These were extremely valuable sessions in terms of making sure that we're hearing from the folks in the field, and in particular, that we're hearing from our enlisted rank because they're really the heart and soul as well as the backbone of our force," de Leon said.

Both forums emphasized the need to improve health care for active duty members and their families and for retirees over 65. This effort, along with improving housing, de Leon said, are the Pentagon's current quality of life priorities.

DoD officials are determined to fix TRICARE woes, he said. "Making it easier to get appointments, paying claims faster -- are absolute necessities." He noted that the vice chief of naval operations now chairs a joint committee to resolve these critical business issues.

Both the House and Senate appropriations bills have provisions that will expand the pharmacy benefit to over-65 retirees. "This is a significant change," de Leon said, "Right now, if you are a military retiree and you have the ability to drive to the local military clinic or hospital, you can get your prescriptions filled.

"With the new benefit, if you live an hour or more away from the base, there'll be a mail order process that will allow you to get 90-day supplies of any prescriptions that you need. And there will be a retail process that will allow you to get the kinds of prescriptions filled that are important if you get a cold or flu or something like that."

Defense leaders are also working to improve housing. The deputy said the first step is putting more dollars in service members' pockets by improving the formula for the basic allowance for housing. Adjustments will eliminate off-base residents' out-of- pocket expenses over five years, de Leon said.

Efforts by the services to build more housing with private developers are also under way, he noted. "The real thrust of this is to make new housing available to our military members as soon as possible," he said.

"These two steps together should improve housing, not in 10 years or 15 or 20 years, but should materially improve housing in the next two to three years," he said.

Optempo -- operations tempo -- is another quality of life target high on the Pentagon's "to do" list, according to the deputy. "As the Cold War ended we became less forward deployed and more CONUS-based. That changed the way that we deployed," de Leon said. "There were more TDY deployments rather than a permanent change of station. Each of the services is still in the process of dealing with this."

The Army, for example, is moving toward 100 percent manning in its combat units. "If you have a full team on the field, that means the optempo for individuals is less because they're working as a group, working with synergy."

The Air Force set up expeditionary units to project air power at the same time giving airmen "predictability" in their lives. "The pattern is to give Air Force pilots as much predictability as the Navy gives to one of its carrier aviators, who has a clear sense of when he will be in training, when he will be deployed and when he will be in a re-training period."

In addition, de Leon continued, the Navy and Marine Corps are now tracking days service members spend away from home. This will give commanders a clear snapshot of the force and create incentives for them to make sure service members return to home station consistent with the rotation schedule.

These steps won't solve the overall optempo problem, but they move the military in the right direction, de Leon said. "It helps us better manage the operations tempo which gives people more predictability and a better chance for a quality of life with their family."

Recruiting and retention are of growing concern to Pentagon leaders. Based on a recent roundtable discussion with the military's top recruiters, de Leon said he's concluded there are three clear reasons why recruiting is now a vigorous and competitive job.

"One is the nature of the economy," he said. "This is the lowest unemployment in several generations and there is opportunity both in the military and in the commercial sector. So the military is really competing with commercial jobs. Second, each of the states now has programs that offer college opportunity to high school grads.

"The third piece is that today's generation is numerically smaller than previous generations," he continued. "In the 1980s there were 5 million more 18- to 22-year olds than there were in 1997. Now in this first decade of the 21st century, there are more young people coming into this demographic base. I think by 2003 and 2004, we'll have roughly climbed back to where we were during the Reagan buildup. That will improve the recruiting base."

DoD officials are looking to improve the entire recruiting effort. "We're really looking at how we work with recruiters. Do we have the right number of people in the field? Do we have the right advertising to support our recruiters? Do we work with governors and local school districts and mayors to make sure that our recruiters have a chance to talk to high school students?"

Recruiting ads are now focusing as much on the "intangibles of military service" as the specific benefits offered, he said. "Our recruiters advise us that many young people are really looking for the discipline, the camaraderie, the satisfaction that comes from working with success-oriented people their own age."

The Marine Corps, which consistently meets its recruiting goals, has traditionally focused its ads on these intangibles -- "the discipline, the role models, the sense of worth and value that each Marine has," he said. "Marines know they are part of a larger organization. They learn to work together, live together, train together and fight together. That it is an extremely cohesive organization."

Offering service members the right incentives to serve a full military career is key to retention, de Leon said. That involves giving them challenging jobs with great purpose and value to the country.

"There is no retention rate higher in the armed forces today than in the forces that are serving in Kosovo and Bosnia," he said. "The soldiers that are there know that this is a very important mission. They see the impact that they're having."

DoD is also enhancing its efforts to maintain a skilled civilian force. "We are trying to look five and 10 years out to make sure that we have capable civilians working alongside our military people," he said. "Each of our organizations is working hard to bring in new human capital. The Defense National Security Agency, for example, has a number of internship and fellowship programs that are bringing in young computer experts."

Reforming DoD's business practices is another continuing effort. "Without changes in the way we do our business management, we're going to have a 21st century military and procurement practices that are still stuck in the 1960s and 1970s," de Leon said.

And on a final note, he said, base closures remain a future necessity. "Secretary Cohen has made it clear that at some point we're going to have to have another round of base closures. It will be a painful process, but if we're going to reduce our overhead and put our dollars against people and against the equipment that gives our people all the capability they need on the battlefield, then we're going to have to make hard choices on infrastructure and base closing."

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