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Health Care, Military Housing Need Attention, Cohen Says

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 3, 1999 – Health care and housing are two areas DoD must address to keep military recruiting and retention high, said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

Cohen, speaking at a conference entitled Strategic Responsiveness here Nov. 2, also said DoD is starting to see positive results from the changes to pay and retirement that were part of the fiscal 2000 Defense Authorization Act.

"What we have seen is, as a result of the pay raise, as the result of pay table reform, as a result of going back to 50 percent retirement, that there is a change in retention," he said. "When I was out on the USS Constellation a week ago, I re- enlisted 12 sailors. I asked each what caused them to re-enlist and they said pay and retirement benefits. They said, 'We think you're listening to what we say we need, and you're responding.'"

Cohen said members' attitudes are important because "we can't possibly pay what the private sector can pay and will pay." The military directly competes with private industries and other public institutions for the same pool of young people, he noted.

Cohen said that since Congress passed the authorization act, more service members have opted to stay in the service. In the case of the Army, for example, increased re-enlistments made up for recruiting shortages and helped the service meet its fiscal 1999 end strength numbers.

"We've seen in the most recent weeks some change in the attitude and willingness to re-enlist," he said. "Whether this will be enough to sustain that remains another question."

Cohen said the loudest complaints he hears during his travels are about the military health care system. "This is something we have to come to grips with," he said. "We have to be more efficient, we have to eliminate the long lines. We have to address the lack of satisfaction that our people are experiencing."

Cohen said he still hears many complaints about TRICARE. "In fact, if we had to point to two other areas -- now that we've addressed pay -- you'd say housing and health care are of most concern to service members," he said.

He said DoD is trying to build housing for service members through an innovative program that leverages private sector participation -- for every dollar DoD invests, the private sector puts in six or seven. He said the program is starting to work.

Cohen also said he thinks DoD must change its recruiting message, that it needs to make a different appeal to recruits.

"The mere fact that we say we'll pay for your college education frankly is not a big seller today," he said. "There are so many programs available from universities and colleges that, again, we're competing again in a very tough environment. We need to have advertising appeal to young peoples' patriotism, to show them what military life can and should be."

Finally, Cohen addressed the need of the military to be more predictable. "We have to provide as much predictability as we can in the lives of our service members," he said. "We have to make changes to lower the operations tempo, the time [service members stay] away from home."

He spoke of the Air Force moving to the air expeditionary force concept and how this could make life a bit easier and more predictable for airmen. The Air Force plan assigns units to force packages that serve on standby according to a rotating schedule.

"What we need to do is reshape the way we militarily do business, so we can reduce the pressures on our young people and hopefully that will help."

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