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Secretary Cohen Troop Talk and Media Availability at Camp Pendleton

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S.Cohen
January 06, 2000 2:45 PM EDT

Thursday, January 06, 2000 - 2:44 p.m. EST

Troop Talk and Media Availability at Camp Pendleton Announcing New Initiative To Increase Housing Allowances

Secretary Cohen: General Knutson, thank you very much -- Mrs. Knutson, General Hanlon, Mrs. Hanlon.

I'd like my wife, Janet, to come up here just for a few moments. And if you could, I'd like to have you come a little bit closer. Could you break ranks and come closer to us?

Ms. Langhart: I know you want to hear from the secretary, but I want to say happy New Year. And I wanted to just personally thank you. I'm glad I had the chance to come out and personally thank you for all you do to keep us strong and free. I want to thank you for your uncommon valor, your commitment, your patriotism, your professionalism, your courage, and your sacrifice.

I'm also aware of the sacrifices of your families. I'm going to be meeting with some of your families while I'm here. That was the other reason I came on. I want them to share with me some of the challenges and some of the needs and some of the better ways that Bill and I can serve you.

Thank you for serving us. You make us proud. You make me proud to be an American. And you look so good! (Marine calls from audience, Ms. Langhart.)

(Chuckles.) Thank you. (Applause.)

Secretary Cohen: I wanted Janet to have a chance just to say a few words to you. She missed the Christmas tour that we just completed. She came down with a bad case of the flu just as we were getting ready to go over and entertain the troops in Europe. And it's something that she has helped me during the past three years to put on for of all those who were forward-deployed. We went to the USS Bataan in Naples, went up to Aviano and then up to Bosnia, Macedonia, and then Kosovo, and entertained the troops.

We had a number of figures, prominent figures with us at that time. Terry Bradshaw, you've probably heard of him -- a pretty good quarterback. We had Mike Singletary, former linebacker for the Chicago Bears. And each -- both Bradshaw and Singletary had a very important message that General Knutson really picked up on, and that was the team.

Bradshaw talked about when he was playing football. He was not just a quarterback; he had to have an entire team out there. The guys up front who were doing all the pushing so he could either make a pass or hand it off to one of those running backs; but it was always a team effort. And then when Mike Singletary got up on the podium, he became pretty emotional. He spent a couple of days just thinking about what he was going to say.

The final presentation he made, he looked out into all who were there in Kosovo and said, "I look at every one of you and I ask the question, Who will go? Who will serve? You. Each and every one of you are going and serving for me." And he became very poignant and passionate about it and how grateful he and everybody in that whole tour, from the movie stars and the models and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and everybody --

Everybody who was there, they said they were allowed to succeed because of you; everything that you do day in and day out.

I didn't come here today to blow a lot of smoke at you; I came to throw a few bouquets, to say, as Janet has said before me, thank you. We don't thank you enough for all that you do for the country. It has been our job and our inspiration and aspiration to help the American people really fully appreciate everything you do, because in a time of conflict they can see what you do, but day in and day out they've got their own lives to live and they're not aware fully of everything you go through, from the training, the sacrifice and that of your families, all that you do for this country.

And you probably know that -- you've read about the QDR, the Quadrennial Defense Review, something I had to contend with when I first took over, and it had to do with defining our strategy for our military and for our nation. It was summed up in three words: Shape, Respond, Prepare. That's the essence of our strategy.

You are part of all of that, the shaping part. You are the ones who are forward-deployed most of the time, and when you are forward-deployed and other countries see you, they take a look at you and they say, "Look how good they are. Look how educated they are. Look how dedicated they are. Look how patriotic they are. Look how professional and capable they are." And they look at you and they say, "There's a country whose side we want to be on." And the potential adversaries take a look at you, as well, and they say, "There's a country I don't want to mess with."

And so you help to shape world events in ways that are advantageous to the United States and to our allies. And that's part of your task: being out there on the front line shaping opinion. Certainly protecting, but shaping public opinion of all of those countries that depend upon us or who look to us.

The other part of the course is the flexibility of being able to respond. You have to be able to respond to a whole array of contingencies all the way from NEO operations to humanitarian missions, (inaudible), all the way up to war fighting. You've got to be that flexible. So that's part of the response, it can't be just one thing. And Marines, of all the services, certainly represent that flexibility.

The other part is preparing. How do we prepare for the future? And that's part of my job as well: How do we allocate the resources necessary to make sure that you have the best equipment, the best facilities to carry out your mission as the years unfold? But that's part of the preparation.

We cut back on our procurement back at the end of the Cold War. We cut it almost two-thirds. We went way down in procuring the kinds of equipment that you need to be able to carry out your mission. We're changing now. This year we'll get back up to where the goal has been, of coming from down in the low 40s all the way up to $60 billion a year on our procurement budget. So we're going to prepare for the future.

What I came to talk to you about today is a couple of things about quality of life. I've said this many times before, I'll repeat it today: we can never pay you what you're really worth to this country. We can pay you more than we have been paying. And that's the reason why we have pushed so hard to get that pay raise through. We will now have the largest pay raise in a generation. It has passed Congress and will go into effect -- has gone into effect. It became the largest pay raise since the early '80s.

In addition, this last year we had something called pay table reform. And that is, we're going to target not only the bonuses and the specialty pay, we're going to target those additional bonuses to those who are in their mid-career levels. And that's up to as much as 5 percent on top of the pay raise. And then in addition to that, of course, we changed the retirement benefits so that now it goes from 40 percent back up to 50 percent, all in an effort to say to you that we can do more and we have to do more in order to hold the best fighting force in the history of this world.

We have to retain you. Recruit you, yes, but retain you, as well. And that's where the pay and the compensation and the retirement comes into play.

There are a couple of other issues that have been very important to me, I know they're important to you: housing and health care. This past year we passed the modifications on the housing issue, a basic housing allowance to make it more realistic in terms of what you actually have to pay if you're living off base; and also increasing the amount that goes to junior enlisted; also, protecting you when you go to high-cost areas. That's been done.

What I am proposing to the president of the United States and what I will propose to the Congress in the next couple of weeks is that we also change and increase the basic housing allowance. As you know, when you're living off base, under the law you're required to pay as much as a minimum of 15 percent of your housing cost. The fact is, you've been paying anywhere from 18 to 18.8 to almost 19 percent out of your pocket if you're off base or your families are off base. We're going to change that. We're going to change that by saying next year we're going to go down to the 15 percent, and within five years, we're going to eliminate any differential. So that those who have to live or choose to live off base will have the same rate as those who live on.

That will be, I think, of immense benefit to all of you. If we're talking about an E-6, married, that will mean about $175 a month in your pocket, and that's tax free, this housing allowance. For an E-4, it's $111 a month. This is going to be real money going into your pocket to be able to allow you to have the quality of life for you and your families that you really need.

It's a major issue. We're going to allocate some $3 billion over the five-year period in order to accomplish it. But it's one area that I think we have to make his effort. I'll be talking in a couple of weeks about health care. I know that for those of you with families, you're concerned about the quality of health care that they're able to achieve. We want to correct some of the deficiencies that currently exist in the TriCare system. It's one of the basic complaints that I hear, time after time, that the TriCare system is not working as well as we had intended. We will make some changes there, as well.

But I really wanted just to come out to say thank you for what you do for the country, to tell you how impressed the world is with you. Wherever I go, and I travel the world -- I've totaled it up all up. I think I've traveled almost 570,000 miles during the past three years, and that's just on the international level. And so I travel the world over, and wherever I go, people look to me and they say, "How can we be more like you? How can we have a military that looks like your military, that can carry out the missions that your military does?"

So you are the inspiration. You are the role model for all of the other militaries who look to us to be able to carry out the kind of missions that you're required. And that takes a lot of hard work on your part, sacrifice, the readiness training that you indulge and go through every day, the kind of leadership skills that you're developing, the leadership that you have here at the base, at Camp Pendleton.

I just want to say thank you for everything you do, General Hanlon, you've got some wonderful young Americans here who are defending us. And your leadership is important in developing their skills and their capabilities.

But let me just conclude. This is not supposed to be a long speech to you. I wanted to let you know about the housing change. It's something that I will fight very hard to get through the Congress, because there's no reason in the world why you should have a mandated 15 percent out of your pocket if you happen to be living off base because you don't have adequate housing on base. So we're going to change that. That's just one of the things to make sure that we talk about making certain that the quality of life that we offer you is adequate to keep you. We want to recruit you, we want to keep you, because we can't have the best military in the world unless we keep the quality of people that you represent.

So I'm here on behalf of the entire Defense Department. I'm here to say that the American people are deeply indebted to everything you do for us, that you do for people the world over, be it in Bosnia or Kosovo, be it in Okinawa where you're serving, be it South Korea, wherever you go, people are truly indebted to you because you are helping to keep them free, secure and at peace. And for that, we are extremely grateful.

So thank you very much. I hope to have a few moments to spend with you, to perhaps have a chance to chat with you individually.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Media Availability at Camp Pendleton, CA

(NOTE: DoD was unable to provide clear audio from their remote site. The questions are not miked. Secretary Cohen's remarks are barely audible.)

Staff: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. The secretary has a few minutes to answer a few of your questions about quality of life issues, as well as housing and anything else that you would like to talk to him about. It's my pleasure to introduce the Honorable Mr. Cohen.

Secretary Cohen: (Off mike) -- to entertain your questions. I think you all had an opportunity to hear the remarks concerning the military housing allowance. So why don't we just open it to questions?

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: Well, first of all, there never has been a situation where any of our pilots have deliberately attacked a civilian train. I was familiar with that particular piece of video. I saw it. Almost all of our video (for intelligence research ?) -- (inaudible) -- in terms of the acceleration of the time factor. But there never has been an attack on a civilian target knowingly by our pilots. That was a train that happened to be going by that particular spot at that time that -- (inaudible).

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: I would expect that this would resonate very well with the troops; that they understand that this is an important issue. In addition to the pay and retirement issues we've seen over the last couple of years, the two most constant issues that are raised to me and to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs had to do with housing and health care. So I think this will bode very well for the troops and their families, the recognition that we need to do more to help them, those that are living in the economy and required to come up with 18.8 percent, on average, out of their own pockets -- (inaudible). Next year we're going to get it down to zero. But the proposal has been -- (inaudible).

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: Well, as a matter of fact, as a result of increasing the Basic Housing Allowance, that may take some of the pressure off those seeking base housing. They can go into the economy and know that they are going to, in a period of five years, be able to be in the same position if they had base housing; namely it would not come out of their pocket, that their housing would be covered. And that should relieve some of the pressure.

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: I saw that report. And thankfully, it is the first I have seen of that. But I know that SOUTHCOM now is investigating that to see whether there was any impropriety or exactly what took place. I don't have the facts at this point, but I know that SOUTHCOM is now actively investigating the allegation and they will file a formal report -- (off mike).

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: I don't have that information reported back here at this time, but certainly we have made great strides in the military in overcoming racism. And I believe that we serve as a model for how you can take people of diverse backgrounds and integrate them into a total force. And so any evidence of racial discrimination is simply not tolerable. We have a zero-tolerance issue here, and it will not be tolerated. So when I get the report back, find out what has taken place, I'll make that available (inaudible).

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: Well, we have the one that was adopted at 4.8, and we will now have approximately a (inaudible) pay raise for the future -- (inaudible), but it would be in excess of the (inaudible) inflation rate. So this would be above what the private sector -- (off mike). And we're trying to calculate out as best we can what that would be. But right now it would be higher than the given inflation rate -- (off mike). There's that, in addition to the special pay -- (off mike).

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: I don't know what he's going to mention in the State of the Union, but we have been working certainly with the OMB, Office of Management and Budget, to let them know what our budget -- (inaudible). But I am confident that he will be very supportive of anything we do to deal with quality of life issues. He takes a great deal of his time to go out and visit with the troops, and I know that he is as concerned as I am that we need to maintain the same quality that we have, and to keep that for our fighting force. So I'm sure we'll have strong support from the White House.

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: Well, actually last year the president endorsed the recommendation that I had made to him to increase the Defense budget by $112 billion over the next five years. And so that has been adopted and is backed by the president -- was adopted, delivered to the Congress. And it was what we felt was the basic minimum we needed to increase, based upon the testimony of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They indicated we needed as much as $148 billion over the next -- (off mike). And we worked with OMB and said at a minimum, we need $112 billion. The president endorsed that. So this is not something that's political. I suspect that Congress may decide to do even more. And this is something we felt at a minimum we had to have if we're going to maintain the quality force that we have, if we're going to get those numbers that I talked about, plus this -- (inaudible) billion in procurement, as well as maintaining our readiness -- (off mike).

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: If you'll wait about two weeks, I will try to make a public announcement at that time. But obviously we're looking at the issue of complaints -- long waits, doctors who complain about reimbursement rates. The contracts that have been negotiated in the past have not been really as professionally done as we would hope. So a number of changes have to be made to try to shorten waiting lines and to get the kind of treatment that people need and deserve. So I have a couple of recommendations that I'll be making.

Okay, anything else? No? Okay, thanks very much.

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