Military Benefits

Enlisted chiefs tell Congress pay fears are hurting morale

The military services' top enlisted leaders pointed out retirement confusion, housing deterioration and slow growth in overall compensation among top quality-of-life concerns for troops and families at a congressional hearing Friday, where a California Democrat on the panel of lawmakers described his own expected $60,000 federal retirement as "not a lot" and said it's "unfair for people to say" military compensation is "just not enough."

"When you put it in context, I can't believe the private sector can really lure away [military] people. You've got a lot of benefits," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., during a hearing of the House Appropriations panel on military construction and veterans affairs. He said the private sector doesn't offer benefits comparable to the military's child care, free access to clinics for military members, Tricare for spouses and children, morale, welfare and recreation programs and discounts.

"I'm totally for you, but it's unfair for people to say it's just not enough," Farr told the enlisted leaders. "Congress members have not had a COLA in 10 years. Talk about the morale here. And the retirement. ... I'll retire here after 26 years of federal service, and the retirement is $60,000," he said. "It's not a lot."

"I think we ought to put this into context. If a soldier comes to me and says 'you guys are shortchanging us' ... you're not going to get a better benefit going to work for IBM," Farr said.

The senior enlisted advisers told lawmakers they're concerned about budget cuts' effects on the morale of troops and families.

"When someone decides to join the military, they know what benefits are available, and they know what they are committing to," said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody. "Let's have a real conversation and not try to arbitrarily correlate their service, what they do for their nation, compared to what anybody else does for their nation."

Left to right: Chief Master Sgt. James A. Cody, Sgt. Major of the Marine Corps Ronald L. Green, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens, and Sgt. Major of the Army Dan Dailey. Enlisted leaders from each of the four services discuss the fiscal 2017 budget request and quality of life issues for their service members before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations .at Rayburn House office building in Washington, DC, on Friday, February 26, 2016. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
Left to right: Chief Master Sgt. James A. Cody, Sgt. Major of the Marine Corps Ronald L. Green, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens, and Sgt. Major of the Army Dan Dailey. Enlisted leaders from each of the four services discuss the fiscal 2017 budget request and quality of life issues for their service members before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations .at Rayburn House office building in Washington, DC, on Friday, February 26, 2016. (Alan Lessig/Staff)

"It's hard to explain program and compensation cuts to a young soldier and his or her family," Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey said.

Photo Credit: Alan Lessig/Staff

Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel Dailey said he's visited dozens of installations in his first year in his position and spoken with thousands of troops and families.

"Fiscal conservation is our duty as leaders in the public sector. But it's hard to explain program and compensation cuts to a young soldier and his or her family," Dailey said. "Whether actual or perceived, these things affect how they view our decisions. ... We have to ask ourselves, is the value of these cuts worth the potential impact on our soldiers and their families? They're still deploying and still separating from their families."

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens said pay and benefits are one of the top concerns he hears in the fleet. Because of the budget discussions that have been going on at senior levels, he said, sailors and families "feel it's a matter of time before it actually occurs. There's the perceived and the actual. It creates a level of anxiety that's not healthy for the force."

Left to right: Chief Master Sgt. James A. Cody, Sgt. Major of the Marine Corps Ronald L. Green, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens, and Sgt. Major of the Army Dan Dailey. Enlisted leaders from each of the four services discuss the fiscal 2017 budget request and quality of life issues for their service members before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations .at Rayburn House office building in Washington, DC, on Friday, February 26, 2016. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
Left to right: Chief Master Sgt. James A. Cody, Sgt. Major of the Marine Corps Ronald L. Green, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens, and Sgt. Major of the Army Dan Dailey. Enlisted leaders from each of the four services discuss the fiscal 2017 budget request and quality of life issues for their service members before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations .at Rayburn House office building in Washington, DC, on Friday, February 26, 2016. (Alan Lessig/Staff)

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens says troops and their families fear that compensation cuts are "a matter of time."

Photo Credit: Alan Lessig/Staff

He noted that the lawmakers on the committee were among those who helped make significant improvements in benefits, "resulting in quality of life that's commensurate with their service."

Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green said that service also has had to deal with funding decreases that "continue to eat away at our readiness." The Marine Corps "shouldn't have to make decisions between quality of work and quality of life," he said.

Farr and Cody agreed a national discussion is needed on troops' compensation.

Asked what their top quality-of-life concerns are for their troops, here's what the leaders said:

Air Force's Cody: Troops are worried about the slowing of growth in compensation and their lost buying power. They worry about the impact of budget problems on readiness and whether there will be the resources to accomplish the mission. He listed other issues such as child care.

Left to right: Chief Master Sgt. James A. Cody, Sgt. Major of the Marine Corps Ronald L. Green, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens, and Sgt. Major of the Army Dan Dailey. Enlisted leaders from each of the four services discuss the fiscal 2017 budget request and quality of life issues for their service members before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations .at Rayburn House office building in Washington, DC, on Friday, February 26, 2016. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
Left to right: Chief Master Sgt. James A. Cody, Sgt. Major of the Marine Corps Ronald L. Green, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens, and Sgt. Major of the Army Dan Dailey. Enlisted leaders from each of the four services discuss the fiscal 2017 budget request and quality of life issues for their service members before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations .at Rayburn House office building in Washington, DC, on Friday, February 26, 2016. (Alan Lessig/Staff)

Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green says Marines need more information about the new blended retirement system. Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Cody also spoke.

Photo Credit: Alan Lessig/Staff

Marine Corps' Green: Marines don't understand the new blended retirement system, and most current Marines will have choices to make. The Marine Corps is trying to get information out as it is available, and it's important that this process is done right.

Barracks and other buildings on base are also a concern, he said. "The budget we've been handed doesn't support everything in the backpack," he said, and the commandant will have some challenges with quality of life.

Navy's Stevens: In addition to the concerns about actual and potential cuts in pay and compensation, there is concern about having enough resources to get the work done: "We call it quality of work," he said. There's also concern about the deteriorating condition of buildings such as single sailors' housing and work facilities. "Shore infrastructure is not in the spotlight and doesn't get a lot of attention, but one of these days we're going to wake up and realize we've got a disaster out there," he said.

Army's Dailey: Readiness — resources to make sure soldiers are prepared to do the mission; ensuring the force of the future has consistent and reliable resources to stay well above the pace of adversaries; and maintaining resources that families need.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.

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