Cohen Meets, Listens to Drum Soldiers
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
FORT DRUM, N.Y., Sept. 8, 1998 Defense Secretary William S. Cohen saw a combat-ready division during a Sept. 2 visit here -- and heard an earful of soldier concerns about pay, health care, retention, personnel tempo, Bosnia, housing and, especially, military retirement.
Cohen, joined by new Army Secretary Louis Caldera and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Robert E. Hall, visited the men and women of the 10th Mountain Division to get a feel for soldiers' concerns. He made a similar trip to Moody Air Force Base, Ga., in August.
"I was not surprised by anything the soldiers said, but I was impressed with the way they are performing their mission," Cohen said. He visited division soldiers in the field as 6,500 of them participated in Exercise Mountain Peak.
Visiting soldiers just finishing an all-night combat-in-the-city exercise, Cohen spoke first and then took troop questions. He also spoke with artillerymen and support personnel. He ended the trip speaking with family members and community members.
Retirement and the erosion of that military benefit came up consistently. Soldiers said they feel changes must be made, because the current system drives out dedicated people.
"They see what they get, and it's not enough to support a family," one soldier said. "They opt to get out of the Army and go to the private sector."
Cohen said DoD is looking at military retirement and will make recommendations to Congress to change it. "It's ironic that the 1986 changes made to military retirement were meant to make it attractive enough to keep people in past 20 years," he said. "It's having the opposite effect." He agreed military retirement is a problem and told soldiers he and Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre had just met to look at military retirement options.
Pay was another concern. A retired military officer, now an Army Community Services volunteer on post, told Cohen he was "embarrassed" that so many military families he helps qualify for food stamps and the WIC program. He told Cohen this was not limited to junior enlisted members. "We have an E-7 with 11 years in [the service] who qualifies," he told the secretary.
Cohen said roughly 14,000 service members receive food stamps and said their condition stems from lagging military pay. He estimated a 14 percent to 15 percent gap exists between military and private sector pay.
"This year the pay raise is 3.6 percent," said Hall. "It's a move in the right direction. This starts to close the gap. I've heard reports of a 4.4 percent raise next year. That, too, would help. The point is we are not going to close the gap in one year. We're going to have to do it bit by bit."
Cohen agreed and said the military will never truly match the private sector. "First, the economy is booming and private firms can pay what they need to, to attract and keep personnel," he said. "But really, the men and women who join the military aren't doing it for the money. Patriotism, a desire to better themselves, education, all these play into the decision to join the military."
The 10th Mountain Division will deploy to Bosnia in July 1999, and soldiers asked Cohen when U.S. involvement would end. "I can't give you a definite end date but the numbers [of troops] are gradually coming down," he said. He said U.S. presence in Bosnia will be at 6,900 by the end of September and he anticipated further reductions when conditions in the country merit them.
Soldiers also expressed concern about personnel tempo and predictability in deployments. "We need to give some form of predictability so you and your families can have some security," Cohen said. "I've tasked the services to come up with a plan to do this, but it is a complicated matter and will take time." Division Commander Maj. Gen. Lawson W. Magruder told Cohen the division soldiers were pleased the Army gave the division a year to plan its deployment to Bosnia. Cohen said he would like that kind of notification for all deployments, but "sometimes world events dictate deployments."
Soldiers told Cohen they were dissatisfied with TRICARE, the DoD health maintenance plan. They said they had problems getting appointments, seeing specialists, and even just getting the TRICARE providers on the phone.
Mid-level NCOs told Cohen they were concerned about retention. In the midst of a driving rainstorm, one artillery NCO told the secretary about two men he was losing. "These are good soldiers," the NCO said. "We need to keep people like them."
Cohen agreed: "The bottom line is we've got to attract the best people to military service, but that's not enough. We have to keep those people and that includes paying attention and money to all quality of life aspects.