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Likely new personnel chief supports lower raise

Benefits cuts may also be needed, Wright says

Sep. 19, 2013 - 04:24PM   |  
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The Pentagon is likely to get a new chief of its sprawling personnel and readiness directorate, a top official who will oversee major decisions on pay, benefits and other fundamental changes to the way the military manages its people.

Jessica Wright, a retired Army National Guard major general, outlined her views on many personnel matters Sept. 19 when she testified on Capitol Hill in her confirmation hearing to become the next under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

She signaled her support for the Defense Department’s effort to limit the military pay raise next year to 1 percent, which would be the lowest annual bump in decades and for the first time since the late 1990s would fall below average growth in private-sector wages, 1.8 percent.

Wright also said involuntary separations for some troops, including combat veterans, may be unavoidable as the military services try to save money by reducing their size, according to her written responses to questions from lawmakers.

She said cuts to medical benefits — such as limiting access to Tricare health insurance for some working-age retirees — also may be necessary as part of the sweeping cost-cutting measures on the horizon.

Tough times, troubled office

Wright would take over one of the Pentagon’s most powerful posts at a time when the Defense Department is struggling to deal with the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. Among the top targets for newfound savings are personnel accounts, which will involve reducing the size of the force as well as scaling back the growth of pay and benefits.

Among her first major tasks will be to submit a formal recommendation about potentially reforming the military’s overall compensation and retirement system. That is due in November for submission to a congressionally created task force that will complete its review by February.

The personnel and readiness directorate has suffered from high turnover and internal squabbles in recent years. In 2011, former undersecretary Clifford Stanley resigned amid a allegations of misconduct and incompetence, according to those familiar with the investigation. The Defense Department Inspector General looked into the matter and ultimately found no wrongdoing.

Stanley’s successor, Erin Conaton, resigned in 2012 after just six months in office, citing medical issues.

Wright has been serving as acting undersecretary since January and is expected to be confirmed to fill the job permanently this fall.

She’ll play a key role in overseeing the internal tug-of-war between the active and reserve components over which one will bear the brunt of the Defense Department’s personnel cuts measures. On that issue, reserve advocates view Wright as a potential ally, pointing to her past service as an officer in the National Guard and as an assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.

Leave for gay troops

At her confirmation hearing, lawmakers asked Wright about the Pentagon’s controversial recent decision to grant an extra 10 days of leave for some gay troops who want to get married in a state that allows same-sex unions.

Wright defended the new policy that is intended to ensure gay troops have time to travel if their current duty station is more than 100 miles from a state that allows same-sex marriage. The new rule was criticized for offering a special benefit to gay troops that is not available to heterosexual troops.

In some rare cases, commanders also may grant similar leave to heterosexual couples, Wright said. For example, heterosexual couples might be unable to get married locally because their state imposes age requirements or waiting periods that might conflict with deployment schedules.

Nevertheless, Wright acknowledged that those instances when a commander would approve special marriage leave for heterosexual couples are “few and far between.”

Future pay raises

While she supports a smaller pay raise for troops next year, Wright said future pay raises remain unclear as the Pentagon currently “does not have sufficient data” to determine the long-term impact on retention and recruiting.

When lawmakers asked her about how military pay compares to the civilian sector, Wright pointed to internal Pentagon studies that show current compensation for officers is higher than about 90 percent of civilians with comparable education and experience, and for enlisted troops it is higher than about 82 percent of civilians with similar education and experience.

She pointed to another internal study that suggested the military could continue to recruit and retain high-quality people as long as compensation stayed above the 70th percentile of comparably educated and experienced civilians.■

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