Wake Up America, the Force Needs You
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 15, 2000 Over the past three years, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, have come to truly admire and appreciate the nation's military. They now want the nation to do the same.
"Our men and women in uniform need more than support from Washington, they need the support of their countrymen," the secretary said. The couple has launched a personal campaign to "reconnect" America with the military men and women, active and reserve, who are the core of our nation's safety and security.
The all-volunteer total force deserves recognition and must have the public's understanding and support if America is to meet its security objectives, according to the Cohens. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen need to know the public, as well as their military leaders, cares about them and their families.
"We have to constantly make sure that the American people are mindful of the role the military is playing in our lives," Cohen said in a recent interview with the American Forces Press Service. "I can't tell you how important it is to remind them how grateful we are."
While her husband has focused on service members a lot, Janet, who asks to be called by her first name, has tuned in to the nation's military families. She's met those living in foreign lands, often while their spouses are forward-deployed on peacekeeping missions. She's visited schools, family centers and medical facilities. She's talked with spouses and children from Germany to Japan.
Military people "aren't in it for the money," but service members and their families do deserve a decent quality of life, the Cohens said. This means having enough people to do the job and providing them the right training and equipment. It also means ensuring service members have decent pay, quality housing and health care, and a good education for their children.
Health care, Cohen noted, is certainly the most emotional issue for service members. "If they're deployed and they call their family back home, they want to know they're getting good care."
Recent efforts to improve service members' quality of life have included the largest pay increase in nearly two decades, pay table reform and a return to the 50 percent retirement benefit. Efforts are under way to improve health care and housing. A recent initiative aims to reduce service members' out-of-pocket housing costs.
"When we have men and women who live off base, they are required by law to pick up 15 percent out of pocket," Cohens said. "It sounds unfair. It is unfair. And it's not only 15 percent. National surveys show it's closer to 19 percent. This year we are going to bring that down from 19 percent to 15 percent, and then with the support of Congress we're going down to zero over the next five years."
Many in America today are unfamiliar with the military and its role, Cohen said. "Because we've got a smaller force in more concentrated areas, fewer people have a chance to see our military in action on a day-to-day basis. They have less of a chance to interact with them and to see how good they are. We've got to remind the American people how good our military is and if we're going to keep it that way, we've got to do more."
An increasing number of local or national officials have never served in the armed forces. The same holds true for teachers, businessmen, reporters and many others. DoD officials say less than 6 percent of the American public under age 60 have served in the armed forces. Therefore, most Americans have no understanding of what service men and women accomplish every day.
In their travels within the United States and to 40 countries around the globe, the Cohens have had a chance to see and hear firsthand what it takes to serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. During a recent trip to Africa, for instance, Cohen told reporters of the time he lost six pounds in cold sweat during a 55- minute dogfight in an F-18 Hornet fighter. He declared the jet fighter's night landing aboard an aircraft carrier one of the most stressful events he's ever experienced.
The Cohens have also met guardsmen and reservists who've left jobs and families time and again to travel to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They've talked with those who fly the skies over Iraq and as well as those who patrol the villages of Bosnia and Kosovo.
They've visited men and women from hometowns in Alabama to Wyoming who know that the bullets, grenades, mines and missiles are real in the world's hot spots. For these service members, danger is a daily reality and their lives are on the line with each step they take. The Cohens want the nation to acknowledge that these service members are securing the peace that is vital to our nation's prosperity.
"The most rewarding experience for me always is to go out and visit our troops," Cohen recently told about 250 Chamber of Commerce members in San Antonio, Texas. "It is the most exhilarating, the most inspiring experience that one can have. If you go out there and you see how good they are, then you understand why we're No. 1 and why people always look to us as the country they want to call upon in times of peace and in times of emergency."
America's armed forces have earned international respect and admiration because they are well disciplined, well-led and well-educated, Cohen said. They also deter potential adversaries. "When they see what they're up against," he said, "they decide they don't want to challenge the United States military."
While Cohen has highlighted the military's prowess and professionalism to state legislatures and other public venues, Janet, a broadcast journalist, has steered the couple's reconnection efforts toward the media. Her enthusiasm sparked the Pentagon Pops, an annual musical tribute to the nation's war heroes.
"When I discovered we had these wonderful musicians in our military, I thought what better way to reconnect than with music," Janet explained during an interview with American Forces Press Service. "We couldn't take the public to where our troops are and let them see what fine men and women we have in uniform, but they could see the spirit of our military through our music."
The first Pentagon Pops in February 1999 drew about 30 Medal of Honor recipients. These courageous veterans "epitomize what a hero is," Janet said. "When they walked out, we had every war in this century represented, and America just stood up in that room. The applause lasted at least five minutes. You looked around the room and there was pride, there was awe, there were tears."
The show's success led to Pentagon Pops 2000. "My husband came up with the idea of celebrating the American GI as the hero of the century," Janet said. "We also wanted to remember the families of the men and women in uniform, past, present, and even into the future."
More than 60 Medal of Honor recipients attended the Feb. 21 show, which featured performances by military singers and musicians as well as celebrity acts. NBC "Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw and NBC "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert took part, as did author-historian Stephen Ambrose, country music star Shane Minor and rhythm and blues singer Ruth Pointer.
The evening's entertainment kicked off DoD's joint public outreach effort to highlight the military.
Cohen has directed DoD and the services to increase outreach efforts to the American public. Those who choose to wear the fatigues and flight suits play an important role in influencing how the public views the military, according to the Cohens. Therefore, it's important for service members, past and present, to understand that what they do is important to America.
The couple is recruiting celebrities to help spread the word. Football Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Mike Singletary, super model Christie Brinkley, Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken and singers Mary Chapin Carpenter and Ruth Pointer joined the Cohens' holiday tour to Italy and the Balkans in December. Cohen said troops are still talking about the show.
The Cohens have met with the producers of Fox NFL Sunday, who have indicated they would be willing to do a Christmas broadcast from an aircraft carrier. "There you'll have not only about 5,000 sailors and Marines aboard the ship, but you'll also have an audience of millions," the secretary said.
Janet said the troops are grateful to anyone who will come out to see them. "Most of us, whether we're the CEO of a corporation or an Army paratrooper, just want somebody to pat us on the back once in awhile and say, 'Thank you. Job well done.' If you can have people of prominence express their gratitude -- just say 'Hey, you're doing a great job for us. Thank you.' That means a lot."
Some columnists and journalists have criticized the Cohens' effort, saying using Hollywood celebrities is not the way to go. The Cohens, however, say sports and entertainment stars pack a lot of influence with today's young people.
"Initially," Janet said, "when we proposed to go out and talk to some of the people in show business and the arts, there were a couple of articles written that questioned what we were doing. But when people saw who we were asking and who had said yes, other big name stars called and said they want to be part of it."
Studies have shown that along with teachers, coaches and other figures, music, art, film and television have a powerful influence on young people, Janet said. "If they see someone like Tom Cruise saying, 'I can do what I do because you're doing what you're doing,' the kids that we are recruiting will say, 'Gee, he thinks that's a great job. I want to be part of that.'"
Cohen agrees with Janet's appraisal of star power. "If you can have a Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Robert DeNiro or Danny DeVito just simply say thank you, that means a great deal to the military people who are out there," he said. "It says to them people are listening, they know what they're doing, they're showing their appreciation."
The Cohens' campaign to reconnect America with the military will not end when the secretary leaves office, Janet said. "Once you're military, you're always military. It's life- altering. When we leave this job, we won't stop serving our country, or the men and women who serve our country.
"There's lots of things we can do," she volunteered, turning to her husband. "There's the veterans organizations, the USO, the American Red Cross. And then we can practice what we preach. When I see a service member on the street, I can say, thank you. I know firsthand what you do."