The Pentagon's seven top enlisted leaders sent a rare joint letter to Congress criticizing the controversial proposal to limit dual-military couples to a single housing allowance payment.
The proposal from the Republican-controlled Senate would amount to a significant pay cut for troops married to other troops by eliminating the Basic Allowance for Housing payment for the lower-ranking member.
First floated in June, the proposal has fueled anxiety across the force, especially among the roughly 40,000 dual-military couples.
"Soldiers are aware of it, and obviously they're concerned, as they are concerned about all of their benefits," Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey told Military Times in an interview. "It's their livelihood, it's their future."
The enlisted leaders believe the measure would unfairly penalize a small group of service members and runs counter to the Defense Department's traditional preference to make any cuts to pay and benefits apply broadly and equally to all service members, according to the July 21 letter.
"We ask each service member to make untold sacrifices in the name of our national security; each should be compensated accordingly," they wrote.
The letter was signed by Dailey along with the top enlisted advisers of the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Guard Bureau and the Coast Guard.
The enlisted leaders also noted that targeting married troops will disproportionately impact female service members.
"When faced with such a significant penalty for marrying another military member, the unintended consequence would be one of those service members would most likely leave the service," they wrote. "At a time when we are working to recruit more women and open more options for women to serve, this provision unnecessarily challenges our efforts to accomplish this goal."
About 20 percent of active-duty women are in dual-military marriages, compared with only 3.7 percent of active-duty men, according to Defense Department data. The enlisted leaders cited the example of an E-5 with six years of experience who, on average, receives $16,248 in annual BAH.
The proposal also would reduce BAH payments for many unmarried troops who share homes or apartments with other service members. Those in paygrades E-4 and above would see their normal BAH rate cut by 25 percent.
The Senate included the controversial provision in its version of the 2016 defense authorization bill. It does not appear in the House version of the bill. That means a House-Senate conference committee will decide whether to to include it in the final version of the bill that will go to the White House for President Obama's signature.
Obama has said he opposes the change.
The housing allowance has become a target for cutbacks as the Pentagon faces budget caps and the automatic enforcement mechanism known as sequestration.
Last year, DoD officially urged Congress to reduce BAH rates so that they cover only 95 percent of estimated housing costs, rather than the full 100 percent. Congress gave idea a cool reception and approved a reduction in average BAH rates of only one percentage point, to 99 percent.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.