The Marines are Looking For ...
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
KANEOHE BAY, Hawaii, Nov. 3, 1998 The Marines here know what they want, and they weren't bashful about telling it to Defense Secretary William Cohen.
Cohen visited Kaneohe Bay Oct. 30 during a scheduled seven-day trip to Asia. Renewed tensions in Iraq forced him to cut short the trip that would have taken him to Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. En route to Hong Kong Oct. 31, he elected during a refueling stop at Wake Island to return to Washington, arriving back to attend emergency meetings with the National Security Council Nov. 1.
But given the chance to meet with Cohen, the Marines here didn't hold back. They told him they need new aircraft, specifically the tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey, to replace the 30-year-old CH-53D helicopters they fly now. They need spare parts and equipment. They need Band-Aids.
Yes, Band-Aids, said a sergeant, to take care of his Marines when they get scraped and bruised during the near-constant training they conduct in the rugged hills and coarse, sandy beaches of this secluded outpost on Oahu's east shore.
And they need technology training. Oh, they appreciate the technological gizmos and gadgets the Pentagon has sent their way so they'll have better command and control of the battleground, come war. "Trouble is," said another sergeant, "we don't have enough time in our training schedules to learn how to use this equipment. That's why a lot of my Marines are getting out, sir. They're frustrated."
"Getting out" leaves a bad taste in the mouth of another mid- level Marine concerned about the reduced retirement annuity known as Redux. "I have mine [at least 50 percent of base pay upon retirement under the old system vs. 40 percent currently offered 20-year veterans], but a lot of these troops out here don't," he told Cohen. "The Marine Corps depends on these young people being around to replace the leaders of today. I'm worried about the future of the Corps, sir."
Cohen promised hard work back in Washington to resolve their concerns. "We're listening to you," he told a group assembled in a helicopter squadron hangar. "We have to compete for you, recruit you, retain you. How do we keep you in our services?"
One way the secretary thinks he can handle the growing retention problem across the services is through better pay and retirement benefits. He pledged to work with Congress for targeted pay increases to keep "the backbone" of the services -- mid-level noncommissioned officers and officers -- in uniform. And he promised a retirement reform proposal in two months.
"We need Capitol Hill to support this [retirement changes] and they will," Cohen said. "We will have that worked out by December and presented to the [Office of Management and Budget] through Congress by January."
The aviation squadron here probably will get the Osprey. "It's been programmed into the budget," said Maj. Kevin Conroy, the squadron operations officer. "The Marine Corps is committed to it because it will give us the benefits of a fixed-wing aircraft -- speed and distance -- with the maneuverability of a helicopter."
Concerns about spare parts and equipment shortages come at every stop, from Mississippi to the Middle East, Cohen said. "These shortages affect readiness and morale," he told the Marines. He said DoD increased funding for parts and equipment in the fiscal 1999 defense budget. "You should see that money begin to flow through in the next several months," he said.
Cohen told the Marine concerned about technological training he'd tackle that problem, too. But he also underscored the need for Marines -- indeed, all service members -- to master fundamental skills, "so when technology fails, you can still function."
One Marine braved a more esoteric question about U.S. relations with China, a major player in this part of the world. Cohen responded with his recurrent theme about the necessity of U.S. military forces in the region to maintain peace and stability. He pledged ongoing military-to-military exchanges, ship visits and possible future joint humanitarian and rescue operations with Asia's most populous nation.
China benefits more than anyone from the U.S. military presence, he said. That U.S. presence precludes a potential arms race by other Asian nations fearful of their huge neighbor if the United States pulls out.
En route to Wake Island Oct. 31 after departing Honolulu, Cohen conferred by telephone with National Security Adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre and others. He decided to return to Washington to join in the administration's latest confrontation with Saddam Hussein.
Cohen had already left Washington when Saddam ordered an end to U.N. arms inspections in Iraq. "What he's doing is certainly inconsistent with the obligations that he committed himself to with [U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan," Cohen told reporters traveling with him during the Wake Island stop. "All options are still on the table. We'll go back, consult with all of our allies, and certainly with the Security Council members, and then see what action should be forthcoming."
The secretary didn't rule out unilateral military action by the United States, but said the battle should remain between the United Nations and Iraq. Arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Nov. 1, Cohen and his senior aides were whisked back to the Pentagon and then to the White House, where he joined a second day of deliberations by the National Security Council.
The latest confrontation with Iraq provoked cancellation of the 30th annual security consultative meeting in Korea that Cohen and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Henry Shelton were both scheduled to attend. Cohen said the meeting and his other Asia visits would be rescheduled as soon as possible.