'We Hear You,' Cohen Tells Troops
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
CAMP DOHA, Kuwait, Dec. 28, 1998 Defense Secretary William S. Cohen brought gifts. He brought congressmen, entertainers and media. But what really caused troops in the Persian Gulf to whoop, whistle and holler was the promise of more pay.
"I listened to you very carefully when we talked last time, and I asked you what issues were on your mind," the secretary reminded soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines at this desert base outside Kuwait City. "You mentioned two things -- pay and retirement."
The mass of troops released an acknowledging "hooah," and from the midst of the crowd, someone yelled, "Show us the money."
Cohen quickly replied: "We're going to show you the money. We're going to have the largest pay raise since 1981. We're going to have a 4.4 percent increase starting next year. We're going to change that redux [retirement] program from 40 to 50 percent."
Cohen had announced at the Pentagon a day earlier that the military is seeking a 4.4 percent pay raise for fiscal 2000 and a 3.9 percent hike for each of the five following years. The proposed retirement package calls for a return to a 50 percent of base pay retirement after 20 years of military service. The redux retirement package -- effective for service members who came in after Aug. 1, 1986 -- gives service members 40 percent after serving 20 years.
At each stop in the Gulf, military men and women applauded, cheered, stomped and whistled when the secretary announced the new pay and benefits proposal. Many hailed the raise as long-overdue and a step in the right direction.
The secretary elected to personally carry the news to service members on the front lines of the recent showdown with Iraq. So, he invited 60 or so staff and guests on a 60-hour, 13,240 mile trip to remote sites on the Arabian Peninsula and to the USS Enterprise in the Persian Gulf.
Enroute to the Gulf aboard a National Airborne Operations Center 747 out of Offut AFB, Neb., Cohen explained why the trip was important. "We need to get out there and remind the troops how indebted we are as a nation to what they're going through," the secretary said.
"They don't get overtime," Cohen continued. "They don't get double time. They have to leave their families at a moment's notice. It's a tremendously stressful life they're engaged in."
Despite the hardships, however, service members are committed to the military, Cohen said. "We have the finest force in the world and that's because of the quality of the people. We have to keep that quality up and that means we have to be competitive with a robust economy. We can't quite match it, but we may be able to compensate in other ways. If there are things we can do to lessen the burden, we want to do them."
Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha accompanied Cohen on the whirlwind pre-Christmas trip, as did Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C, Zinni, commander U.S. Central Command, and the services' senior enlisted members. At each stop, the military leaders and congressmen thanked service members for taking on Saddam Hussein and voiced support for the proposed compensation package.
Inouye, who earned the Distinguished Service Cross and lost an arm during World War II, told the troops, "I'm an old infantryman myself. Let me assure you, the Congress of the United States will swiftly approve the pay raise and the retirement program."
Murtha, a former Marine, later teased service members aboard the USS Enterprise assembled under clear blue skies with temperatures in the mid-70s. "Twenty-six hours ago, when I left Pennsylvania," he said, "it was 26 degrees and snowing -- so you should be happy to be here."
At Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, Murtha spoke of the nation's gratitude for the sacrifice military members make serving the nation. "The country is dedicated to the troops that are serving all over the world. But this is not only one of the most difficult, it is absolutely the most important national security deployment in the entire world today."
Zinni, Desert Fox commander, told the troops they'd performed magnificently. On the way to the Gulf, he recalled what a tense time it was during the operation, waiting each night for the safe return of all the strike aircraft. "I can't think of anything better than to be out there with the people who made it happen," he said.
Facing America's military men and women from the stage at Camp Doha, Zinni said proudly: "I've been asked over the past several days why Saddam Hussein didn't put up more resistance, why he didn't move South. When I look out and see you, there's no doubt in my mind why the sucker wouldn't fight."
At Prince Sultan Air Base, a remote, high-security site where about 4,000 service members enforce Iraq's southern no-fly zone, Cohen told airmen he took what he learned from service members to the president and to the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The pay raise proposal shows defense leaders are aware of the sacrifices and stresses service members face, Cohen said. "We want to make sure we give you the best quality of life we can. We want to stay as competitive as we can with the private sector. We want to make sure we can keep you in the military."
Aboard the USS Enterprise, things were relatively quiet until Cohen and his party showed up. It was four days after Desert Fox strikes ended, and the more than 5,000 sailors, Marines and guests aboard were enjoying a no-fly day. For a few hours, Cohen changed all that. The secretary and his wife, Janet Langhart, came aboard bearing gifts and music.
Along with news of the pay raise, Cohen announced that ATT had donated about 34,000 $10 Global prepaid calling cards for troops in the Gulf, and at bases in Bosnia, Croatia and Hungary. Service members at other bases in the Gulf could call home at half price rates using AT&T's Global Military Saver Plus calling plan.
Then Langhart introduced a few friends -- singer- songwriters Mary Chapin Carpenter, winner of four country- music Grammy awards, Carole King, whose songwriting career spans four decades and includes the best selling female solo album, Tapestry, and David Ball, one of country music's newest stars.
"They could be on tour," Langhart said. "They could be in the studio writing music or with their families. Instead they chose to be here with you."