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Defense Leaders Champion Troop Needs

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2000 – America's troops deserve better -- better pay and retirement, better housing and health care. It's that simple. To keep quality people, the military must meet their basic needs.

Faced with recruiting and retention challenges due to plentiful, lucrative job opportunities within the nation's flourishing economy, defense leaders here are striving to improve service members' lot. College money was once "the gold-standard of recruiting, but the market has changed," said Rudy de Leon, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

In light of stiff competition for the best and brightest, he said, the military is concentrating on enhancing quality of life for its forces. During a recent interview with the American Forces Press Service, de Leon highlighted DoD's recent success in this arena and talked about what comes next.

"We want to keep the people we've got," he said. "That's why we fixed retirement. That's why we're 'plussing' up pay and focusing on housing and medical. We want to make sure we're retaining the key people. We've made an investment in them, and we hope they'll see this new investment in them as a reason to stay."

So far, de Leon said, DoD efforts primarily focused on the five-year, $35 billion pay package recently approved by Congress and the president. The three-part package included a substantial across-the-board pay raise, pay table reform for mid-careerists and more generous retirement benefits.

This is now a done deal. January pay stubs will reflect the 4.8 percent pay raise approved by Congress. In July, mid- career ranks will see additional increases as high as 5 percent. The base retirement benefit has been restored to 50 percent.

Aiming to build on the pay package success, de Leon said, defense officials are turning their attention to housing and health care. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have pledged to make these two key quality of life issues top priorities in the coming year.

Just as they included pay reforms in the fiscal 2000 defense budget, Pentagon leaders now are working to include further quality of life improvements in the new budget proposal. Officials adjusted housing allowances effective Jan. 1, for example, that will more accurately reflect actual costs. Cohen announced Jan. 6, that DoD's fiscal 2001 budget request will include a plan to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, service members' out-of-pocket costs for off-base housing.

This new initiative would reduce service members out-of- pocket costs from an average of 18.8 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2001, with continued reductions each year thereafter, eliminating out-of-pocket costs entirely by 2005. DoD has realigned more than $3 billion into the housing allowance program over the next five years, beginning with $160 million in the fiscal 2001 budget.

DoD leaders want to ensure the January pay increases "don't quickly go out of pocket to pay for increases in rent," de Leon explained. The officials intend to help both military members who live on base and those who live off base, he said. Along with adjusting housing allowances to compensate for out-of-pocket expenses, he said, Pentagon officials are looking at whether DoD has the right amount invested in military construction and family housing.

Remedying housing problems is one DoD initiative, de Leon said. Responding to concerns about health care, is another. This is an area that has long been an issue for service members and their families, he noted. Cohen, Shelton and Sue Bailey, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, "are very much engaged on TRICARE and our military treatment facilities," de Leon said.

Generally, he said, surveys show that military men and women are satisfied with the health care they receive. "Their frustrations are on the business side -- how quickly and conveniently can they schedule appointments and, where they use the TRICARE system, how quickly can they get claims paid."

DoD officials are working now on ways to simplify the business side of health care, he said. They also are addressing some funding issues in the fiscal 2001 budget as well as longer-term issues. "Again," he stressed, "pay raises shouldn't go to paying for necessities of health care or housing."

Overall, DoD is directing a lot of effort at improving health care, de Leon said. Last spring, DoD chartered the Defense Medical Oversight Committee, comprised of the vice chiefs and the service undersecretaries, to involve all service branches in these policy issues and to ensure DoD has "a solvent healthcare foundation," he said. The committee is preparing recommendations for the secretary and the joint chiefs.

Another area of concern for the Pentagon top personnel manager and other military leaders is the fact that some 13,000 service members qualify for food stamps, he said. Factors that trigger food stamp eligibility include family size and whether a family lives in base housing or draws a housing allowance.

"We're spending a lot of time looking at why some of our very junior members are on food stamps. Putting more money into pay goes to the heart of that issue," de Leon said.

DoD officials also are evaluating other underlying issues. "We want to make sure that the most junior enlisted understand how to use and manage all the financial assets available to them," he said. "Pay raises can be quickly consumed by paying minimum balances on credit cards, for example."

DoD wants to ensure service members know how to use credit cards and how to maintain their financial well being. "Credit card offers come regularly and it's easy to get hooked on credit," de Leon remarked.

Pentagon officials, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also continue to look for ways to reduce the high operations tempo affecting service members' morale and retention. "Optempo," in this case, covers the gamut of the pace and number of operations and the time service members are training and deployed away from home station.

"It's an issue in each of the services, but it's a cultural issue for the Air Force and the Army, which are going from being forward-deployed forces to contingency-based forces," de Leon said. "The leadership is working very, very hard to be able to make quality of life transitions that have to go with that.

"The Air Force, for example, has made great strides in creating an air expeditionary force and looking at how to manage the work level," he said. The Army is relieving the pressure on active duty forces by deploying more Army Reserve and National Guard units to share the burden of long-term contingency operations.

"Let's look at the Bosnia mission, for example," de Leon said. "In '96 and '97 the Bosnia mission was falling most heavily on the U.S. Army in Europe. So, like a coach, the Army looked at its bench, and what you saw going into Bosnia in 1999 was the 1st Cavalry from Fort Hood, Texas, the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., and units of the Texas National Guard doing rotations."

DoD officials are also looking at using today's information technology to track individual service members' optempo. They are also considering ways to give people advance notice on deployments, de Leon said.

"We want to make sure that, whether you serve in the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps, you have a real sense of when you're going to be at home and when you're going to be away," he said. "Our military men and women have great capacity to respond to crisis on very, very short notice, but we want to give people more predictability and a little bit more control of their lives."

Contingency missions are not the only factors that escalate optempo, de Leon added. Military leaders also are evaluating training exercises and other things that have an impact. They want to ensure, for instance, that "training that takes a troop away from home really is readiness enhancing," he said.

Efforts are also under way to enhance living conditions by building up facilities in Bosnia and Kosovo and to ensure family members left behind are well cared for at their home stations. "Military leadership has come up with ways to make sure there are people at home base that are attuned to the families and their needs," de Leon said.

While contingency missions increase optempo, they've also had a positive effect, de Leon stressed: "While it was a very challenging recruiting year for the Army, they hit their numbers because their re-enlistment rates were exceptionally high." Troops in Bosnia and Kosovo posted the highest re-enlistment rates, he noted.

A soldier explained why that was when de Leon visited Kosovo in July, he said. "That was when it was early and the GIs couldn't go on the street without having a dozen kids shadow them everywhere. I had an NCO come up to me and say that this was the most satisfying mission he'd ever been involved in.

"The mission's real," de Leon said. Service members "see the impact that they're having and they know that it makes a difference."

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Related Sites:
Housing Rates Set, Rate Protection in Place
DoD "Managing Your Finances" web site

Click photo for screen-resolution imageRudy de Leon, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, responds to reporters' questions during a Pentagon press conference. DoD Photo by Helene C. Stikkel  
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