Top NCOs Call for Pay, QOL Reforms
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 26, 2000 It’s a major step when service members are promoted to NCO ranks. That's when they become responsible for the welfare, training, and safety of junior service members.
Right now, that step earns them about $20 more pay per week. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jesse G. Laye told top Pentagon officials here, that is not enough.
Laye, U.S. Southern Command's senior enlisted advisor, was one of nearly 85 top NCOs, and about 60 spouses, to attend the first annual Senior Enlisted Advisors' Forum. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, hosted the June 22 conference at the Pentagon to hear what the senior NCOs had to say about issues affecting readiness and quality of life.
Through the day, Pentagon officials briefed the forum attendees who then broke into groups to discuss pay, compensation, child and medical care, retention, recruiting, schools and education. At a press conference following the meeting, Laye, along with three other senior NCOs and a spouse, talked about the group's concerns and recommendations.
Laye said he told Cohen and other top brass that further pay table reform is needed. He asked Pentagon officials to take a look at the pay table for promotion from E-4 to E-5 and to look at pay for the top three enlisted ranks. He said NCOs in the top three ranks have far more education today than they did in the past.
"When I first came in the Army 29 years ago, it was very common to see an NCO with anywhere from a seventh to ninth- grade education," Laye said. "Today most NCOs have some college or have a college education."
DoD needs to look at the pay gap between the officer corps and the enlisted corps, he said. "NCOs in a downsized military bring a lot more to the table today, and many are working at upper-level staff positions."
During the forum, Laye said, Cohen agreed with the NCOs assessment. The secretary reported that the Quadrennial Defense Review due out this fall includes a further look at pay table reform for the enlisted ranks.
Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Donald K. Shaft, Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 57, North Island, San Diego, California, asked the secretary to look into extending the hours at child development centers. Not all service members work an eight-to-five day, he said. Many work long hours, and some shifts work from 4 p.m. to midnight.
"We need to extend those hours in the development centers so our children are taken care of while we're at work so we can have peace of mind," he said.
Shaft called on Pentagon leaders to look at the competitiveness of child care providers' pay. In some cases, he said, staffing is the issue rather than the number of spaces available.
DoD also needs to make more programs available for pre- teens and teenagers, he said. During summer school breaks, they need to have access to fitness centers, computer labs and other facilities. If they aren't available on base, he said, then the military should provide transportation to off-base programs.
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Renee Chapman, a finance chief with the Air National Guard, talked about the top NCOs' views on TRICARE. She said service members and their families need more education on the program. "One of the biggest problems we found was that family members do not know what TRICARE is supposed to do for them or how to get service when it's needed," she said.
Transferring benefits from one region to another is a common problem, Chapman said. TRICARE officials "don't talk to each other" so service members and their families "get lost in the shuffle," she said. "You could start a claim in one place, end up somewhere else and you can't talk to anybody about your claim anymore."
The NCOs said they'd like to see personnel officials and the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System get more involved with enrollment processing. They'd also like to see claims get processed in a more timely manner so doctors get paid. Chapman said they'd welcome more health care providers in the system.
"We have this big book of providers," she said, "but when you try to get assigned to one of them, they are not taking patients anymore. A lot of them only take one or two or 10 patients so they can say they are participating in the program, but it's not really getting us the care that we need."
When a military family needs care in an emergency, she stressed it should be given right away. "They shouldn't have somebody sitting on the phone behind a desk somewhere saying, 'Well, we have up to 30 days to get you that service.'”
Reserve component personnel seem to have been overlooked when TRICARE was developed, Chapman said. Problems have arisen when reservists or National Guard have been injured in the line of duty. She called on defense officials to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place for the reserve component.
Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Patricia Orsino, an administrative chief in the Manpower and Reserve Affairs Department, Quantico Marine Corps Base, Va., presented the senior enlisted members view's on recruiting and retention. She said DoD needs to present the military to the American public as more than just a job with educational benefits. It should be seen as an honorable profession.
The military is not about pay and benefits, she said. It's about commitment and patriotism. "We must appeal to the young people to be part of something bigger and better than themselves," she said. More than just benefits, the military offers a "transformation."
Once recruits join the military, she said, they must be challenged at their first duty stations just as they have been in basic training and advanced skill training.
"In many situations," Orsino said, "they don't have the tools that they need to perform the job they were just trained in. There is a concern that we lose that edge. … We've trained this person and they are demoralized because, in some situations, they can't be utilized immediately."
The military needs to ensure these service members are employed "optimally," and to provide more resources for equipment and further training, Orsino said. Training in values and professional military education should continue throughout their careers, she added. This would "continue to inspire them and they would have an incentive to stay."
Laura Ball, whose husband is a chief master sergeant stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., presented the spouses' views on educational benefits and DoD schools.
The senior enlisted advisors asked DoD officials to reevaluate the $3,500 cap on tuition assistance. This cap forces active duty and reserve personnel to either go to schools of lesser quality or pay significant amounts out of their own pockets, Ball said.
"We also asked them to explore providing tuition assistance to the spouses," she said. Military families would like to see DoD publicize grants and tuition assistance offered through the service aid societies and enlisted associations, she added.
As for schools, the senior enlisted told DoD officials that in some areas where service members are assigned, test scores for local public schools are “well below the national average.” Ball said military parents are forced to home school their children or suffer financial burdens by sending their children to private school.
"We've asked them to explore providing financial vouchers to offset home school, private schooling or to even supplement public schools in the local area," she said.