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Chu Says Benefits Are Good, But Improvements Can Be Made

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2002 – Military benefits programs are good, but important areas need improvement, such as compensation, spousal employment and children's education, the Defense Department's top personnel official said recently.

In April, the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, issued preliminary findings on an ongoing study of military benefits. The GAO concluded that the military benefits package is close to what most private companies have for benefits packages for their employees. The full report is expected this summer.

Meanwhile, David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said, "Compensation between military and civilian pay isn't as good as we'd like to see it in the mid-career years. That's why we've consistently, both last year and this year, asked for increases for those years of service beyond the across the board pay increases."

DoD's initiative is part of President Bush's fiscal 2003 Defense Budget Request. Chu said senators and representatives have indicated support in the past for such initiatives. "With luck, we'll get the additional target money we've asked for," he added.

Surveys show that more than half of today's service members in grades E-5 and above have some college education and more than 20 percent of grades E-8 and above have college degrees. However, private sector pay for individuals with comparable education is higher than military pay scales.

In an effort to close the gap, DoD's budget request sets aside about $301 million for targeting NCOs, warrant officers and mid-grade officers in the upcoming fiscal 2003 pay raise. The money will allow DoD to provide pay raises of between 5 and 6.5 percent for selected pay grades. This includes the 4.1 percent across-the-board pay raise proposal.

Other quality of life programs impact retention and readiness.

Spouse employment is one of these quality of life concerns. Military family readiness is essential to total force readiness, according to DoD officials. Chu said most spouses want to work and a large number of them do.

"But one of our most serious problems is (that) spouses feel they're either unemployed because of the sponsor's military career or they're underemployed," he said. "They're not doing the kind of thing for which they're trained. This is an issue that the member can't buy his or her way out of. We have to set up structures and respond to them."

Children's education is another hot button issue, the undersecretary noted. "This is a matter of concern to all parents," he continued. "Overseas, we provide the benefit and we do a terrific job. Based on our standardized scores, if our overseas school system was a state, we'd be in the top five. Our people are doing a great job -- the teachers, parents, the school system as a whole and the kids themselves.

"Our DoD schools in the U.S. also do a terrific job and their test score results show it," he said.

But there is a problem with some civilian school systems near major military bases stateside. "Some of the schools are not as strong as we'd like to see them," Chu noted. "We have to figure out how to work with those communities to bring those schools up to the standards that an individual should expect."

Reducing out-of-pocket housing expenses for military personnel is another issue Chu is concerned about. Currently, service members pay on average 11.3 percent over their basic allowance for housing. If the fiscal 2003 budget is passed, that percentage will drop to 7.5 percent on a path to elimination by fiscal 2005. "I think we've got this problem under excellent control," he said.

The Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance program, which offers an alternative to food stamps for service members, is successful, Chu said. "What is surprising is that we have fewer people signing up than we thought would sign up for this program," he noted. "There's a little bit of stigma attached to this and there shouldn't be. This is available to anybody who has a family situation that requires it. We'll ensure that anyone who is eligible takes advantage of the program. The funding is available. But I think we've overestimated the need somewhat."

The supplemental food allowance was implemented in May 2001. However, the number of service members on food stamps has decreased from 19,400 in 1991 to an estimated 4,200 in 2001. Officials predict that number will drop to about 2,100 this year because of the large fiscal 2002 pay raise and more members choosing to take the allowance instead of food stamps.

Chu said service members involved in operations in Afghanistan, Kyrgykzstan, Jordan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and those serving in parts of Turkey in direct support of operations in Afghanistan receive combat zone tax benefits. They also receive $150 per month in imminent danger pay. Additionally, they qualify for hardship duty pay at a rate of $50 to $100 per month. And, if they're in a temporary duty status, they retain their full basic allowance for subsistence.

Service members aboard ships in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and portions of the Arabian Sea also receive the combat zone tax exemption and imminent danger pay benefits.

Several weaknesses were discovered in DoD's death benefits package after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that have since been corrected, Chu pointed out. "I'm delighted at the support of Congress. There was a potential inequity in the way pay for a surviving family worked," he noted. "If you were not eligible to retire, our death benefit was not adequate. We sought from Congress an alternative death benefit for those who die on active duty, but are not retirement-eligible."

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