No, Mr. Secretary, Everything's Not Fine
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
UDAIRI RANGE, Kuwait, Oct. 14, 1998 At first, the troops were hesitant. No one in the group dared to raise a hand.
"It's your chance to ask me anything you want," Defense Secretary William Cohen told the military men and women gathered to greet him. "This chance doesn't come often."
Still, no one stepped forward.
"So you want me to go back to Washington and report everything's fine?" Cohen asked.
This caused a rumble among the crowd. Finally, someone raised a hand. "Sir, I'd like to ask about our retirement."
After this troop made the opening leap, others began firing questions at the nation's defense leader.
"Is the military really committed to raising our pay to match our civilian counterparts?" one asked.
"Will there be more money for training?" asked another.
"What about spare parts?"
"Will women be allowed to serve in the infantry?"
"How are we going to deal with Kosovo? With Iraq?"
Throughout his October trip to the Persian Gulf, Cohen talked with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines about their concerns. At this remote site, about 80 miles from Iraq, and other locations throughout the region, Cohen told troops the nation is grateful for the sacrifice they are making to keep America strong.
"Everybody back home respects what you're doing," he said. "The military is the most admired institution in our country." He told the forward-deployed troops that the president, Congress and service chiefs are determined to improve military quality of life and readiness.
"The service chiefs and I are determined to make sure the American people know what you're doing and that you get the tools, training and technology, pay and benefits, to remain the best fighting force in the history of the world," Cohen said.
During stops aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Gulf, at Army Central Command Qatar, with Navy and Air Force personnel in Muscat, Oman, and elsewhere, Cohen addressed hundreds of service members and responded to their questions:
"Everywhere I go, people talk to me about the retirement plan," he said. "If you stay longer, our country benefits. If there's rapid turnover, it's very costly and we lose your professionalism."
Congress changed the retirement plan in 1986 to give people incentives to stay longer in the military. The change was passed for the right reasons, Cohen said, but it's had the opposite effect. "People are leaving because of it. We're going to address this issue."
He said military leaders are now looking at changes that will restore service members' incentives to stay in the military.
The president, Congress and senior military leaders recognize that the military has made sacrifices and downsized as a result of the spending caps imposed by the balanced budget, Cohen said.
"Now we've reached the point where we've downsized about as low as we can go and still do our mission. What we have to do is start investing in quality of life for you and in readiness.
Cohen said a 14 percent difference in pay exists between service members in grades E-5 and above and equivalent private-sector workers. The military is committed to narrowing that disparity, he said, but the economy today is the strongest it has been in 30 years, so the private sector can offer a lot more than the military can.
"I don't think the military is ever going to be in a position to be able to pay completely equal to what you can earn in the private sector," the secretary admitted. "But there have to be other compensatory things, which make the military more attractive to you.
"Most of the men and women who join our forces do it for a variety of reasons," Cohen said. "Pay is one issue, but that's not the only issue. We're going to narrow that gap as much as we can, but still recognize it will probably never be exactly equal."
"We still are the most ready, capable force in the world, but we have to deal with some of the issues like pay, the growing gap between what's available in the private sector and what you're earning as soldiers."
Housing and Health Care
"When I go down through the list of issues I have to contend with, pay is No. 1, retirement is No. 2, operational tempo is next, then housing and then health care," Cohen said.
"We have not been able to adequately address our housing needs," the secretary said. "Right now, we've got a very long period of time before we could ever hope to refurbish much of the housing stock that we have.
"We've tried to leverage what limited money we have to get the private sector involved to produce more housing. It's not where it needs to be, but that is an issue we're trying to address in next year's budget."
Regarding health care, Cohen said the new TRICARE system is being implemented now. "There's been a lot of criticism, but hopefully, we'll be able to work out both the funding and a lot of the snags we've hit with it."
"Training is one of the most important factors contributing to high morale and a sense of readiness," Cohen said. Joint training budget cutbacks of about 25 percent have impacted readiness, he said. "We intend to put some more money into the training budget."
"I added a billion dollars this past year just for spare parts, because I started to see a shortage of spare parts was causing a morale problem," Cohen said. "People have equipment they can't work on because they have to wait for orders to come through, or cannibalize something else. That starts to affect morale. When we see that, we say, OK, we've got to plus that up."
"We're going to make sure we don't overuse you, that we don't overburden you with more and more deployments and longer and longer times away from home and families. Because if your families aren't happy, you won't be happy and you won't stay in."
"Are We the World's Policemen?"
"The answer is no," Cohen said. "We can never afford to become a prisoner of world events.
There are some areas of the world where U.S. engagement is compelling, either to protect U.S. interests or to contribute humanitarian aid, he said.
"We try to be very selective on where we become engaged because of the pressure it puts upon a smaller force," he said. "We are conscious of the fact that we are demanding more and more of fewer people. It's having the impact of driving people out [of the military]. We try to exercise as much caution and prudence as we can. We try to be selective. We can't be everywhere."
The United States is also asking allies to share the burdens of these missions, Cohen said. "I've tried to make it very clear that if we're providing most of the air force going in to Kosovo, we ought to call on the Europeans to pick up most of the load if ground troops are required to oversee a peace agreement."
"The fires in Kosovo have started to burn and should they go unchecked it could spread to other countries throughout the region, even into such NATO countries as Greece and Turkey. It's important for our interests not to have that happen.
"What has happened? He [Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic] has driven some 300,000 to 400,000 people away from their homes. He has killed hundreds. He now has between 50,000 to 75,000 people living up in the hills and mountains without adequate food, clothing or shelter. They run the risk of starving or freezing to death [as winter descends]. That is not a tolerable situation for anyone concerned about humankind."
The United States and NATO have made it clear to Milosevic that NATO is prepared to use military force to resolve the crisis, Cohen said. NATO signed an activation order Oct. 13 authorizing military action and gave Milosevic a 96-hour stay to comply with U.N. demands on Kosovo. If NATO air strikes begin, however, the United States will contribute about 260 of the 430 allied aircraft to be used.
"There is a very substantial force being organized to take action if it becomes necessary," Cohen said. "We're hoping it won't be necessary, that we won't have to deploy any American troops, that we won't have to put our pilots [at risk]."
Saddam Hussein has played cat-and-mouse with U.N. weapons inspectors for nearly eight years. The United Nations insists Hussein comply with Security Council resolutions. Cohen stressed the ongoing dispute is between Iraq and the United Nations, which must enforce its demands on the Iraqis or risk its credibility.
"We've maintained a force of roughly 20,000 men and women throughout the gulf region. We can increase that force level by up to 40,000 within a 96-hour period. We have also doubled the number of cruise missiles we have on hand. We have a very formidable force that can take action quickly if it becomes necessary."