By C. Todd Lopez
Army News Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2012 – The senior enlisted advisors for the four military services met on Capitol Hill yesterday to discuss with lawmakers the top issues on service members’ minds.
It turns out that for many, it's the same as what’s on lawmakers’ minds: the budget.
"I was asked questions, beginning in April, all the way to September -- 'What do you mean the Army can't pay me?'" said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, relaying the words of soldiers who had been concerned about the "continuing resolution" last year. Without an approved Defense Appropriations Act, some soldiers mistakenly believed that they might not get paid.
Chandler joined Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick D. West, Sgt. Maj. Of the Marine Corps Micheal P. Barrett and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs and related agencies.
Budget concerns still weigh on service members’ minds as lawmakers try to find a way to balance the federal budget. Lawmakers who were part of the "super committee" last year were looking to find $1.2 trillion in savings within the budget, and were unable to reach a compromise. Now, as much as half of that amount could automatically be cut from the Defense Department through "sequestration," and service members are concerned what that will mean for them.
"It's a very eye-opening experience," Chandler said. "I think the concerns raised in media about the impact of the election year and whether or not there will be an appropriations and authorization bill signed, is on people's minds. The last thing we want to have is for some soldier, sailor, airman or Marine deployed in harm's way, being concerned about whether or not they are going to be paid. That's something we don't need these young people to be concerned about."
Barrett said that when he had talked to Marines about the effects of a continuing resolution, some of those Marines had considered visiting "the snakes" to make ends meet -- a term Barrett said they use to refer to the "predatory loan industry" prominent outside military installations. "They are still finding a way to put 400 percent on top of a loan for you to pay it back," he said.
Service members also are concerned about their retirements, with rumors of changes being considered as part of budget-trimming efforts. The senior enlisted advisors said retirement is not something that should be on the minds of a young people in uniform.
"It is a distractor," Roy said. "We have young airmen focused on retirement. I don't need young airmen focused on retirement. I need young airmen focused on upgrade training. I need young airmen focused on mission. I don't need them to be worried on their retirement and compensation.
“That is the No. 1 thing I hear from airmen and from families,” he added. “There is uncertainty out there and we are trying to keep focus on the mission."
Across the world's oceans, America's sailors are worried about their futures in the military as well, West said.
"They're talking about the retirements. They are talking about the future of the force, with the budget cuts, with all the personnel,” he said. “We've had to make some tough choices. With our folks, it's no different. The budget cuts as of late -- some folks will tell you, personnel didn't join the Navy for the retirement. Maybe they didn't initially. But once they get in and see the contributions they make to the nation, they start thinking about some of that."
Impact on Retention
Service members who want to stay in uniform also are going to find it harder to do so. The Army and the Marine Corps, for instance, are cutting personnel. That means, for both services, fewer fresh faces coming in the front door, older service members possibly retiring before they expected to retire, and service members in the middle of their careers finding it tougher to meet the standards to re-enlist.
"They want to know who we are going to go fight next," said Barrett. "They want to know about advancements in full-spectrum battle equipment, [and] they want to know what they need to do to stay in the corps."
The senior enlisted advisor told lawmakers what Marines ask him about most when he visits them. To the last question, he answers, "You'd better bring your ‘A game’ every single day."
Retention, the sergeant major said, is going well -- the service is meeting its goals. But, he said now "the best get to stay. We get to be choosey -- very choosey."
The Marine Corps is operating on a "tiered rating" system, he explained, with tier I through tier IV.
"We're only keeping tier I and tier II," and that, he said, means having the best fitness scores, performing well in the martial arts program, having education in order, and shooting well on the range.
Inside the larger of the two ground forces, the Army, "the privilege to serve will become more difficult," Chandler noted. Standards will increase, he said. And to draw down the force, the Army will use multiple tools -- including fewer new recruits, tougher retentions standards and early retirements.
For those who will leave, he said, the Army will "have an orderly transition plan starting a year before they leave the service." That, the sergeant major said, will make sure both soldiers and their families are ready, and are able to leave the Army "with dignity and respect."
What a service member will do after military life is also a concern. Chandler said there are "tremendous concerns" among soldiers leaving the service given the state of the economy and the job market. The Army and its sister services are working to make the transition smooth for service members.
"That is a major focus for me personally and the rest of the Army this year is to really refine our transition assistance program with the help of [the Veterans Affairs and Labor departments], and to put our kids in the best place we can to make sure they have a dignified transition out of the service and back into the rest of American society," Chandler said.
The Marine Corps is developing a program where Marines, from the moment they enter the corps, are prepared for an eventual return to civilian life -- as either college students, vocational students, entrepreneurs or an employee at a job.
"You're going to be kind of taught along the way, well, which path do you want to take when it comes time for you to leave," Barrett said. "So from the second you join to the time you want to leave, you're being educated on what pathway that you want to take, so when it comes time to leave you are better prepared."