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ARLINGTON, Va. — When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, he inherited a military demoralized by a protracted conflict in Vietnam and facing a hostile public at home.

“If you consider what we’d been through in the 1970s — the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Carter years — there was a general idea that America was becoming a second-rate power,” Lee Edwards, a Reagan historian at the Heritage Foundation, said Tuesday.

“People were not patriotic anymore,” said Larry Korb, Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and Logistics from 1981 through 1985. “They didn’t trust the government.”

A major recession and an ongoing hostage crisis in Iran further dampened the national spirit and military morale.

Servicemembers especially were frustrated by President Carter’s inability to secure the release of the 52 Americans.

“I was a kid and I didn’t pay a lot of attention to politics,” said Vince Martinez, of Dale City, Va., who joined the Marine Corps in 1972 and retired as a gunnery sergeant after 21 years. “But I knew that America, in general, looked weak in front of the rest of the world.”

On Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Reagan’s inauguration, the United States released Iranian assets, which Carter had frozen to apply pressure.

Almost immediately, the hostages were freed, after 444 days of captivity. Credit went to Reagan.

“When the hostages started to get freed … it was like, this is going to be a great era,” said Martinez, 51. “Americans and the military had so much pride because of the way he came in there, rolled up his sleeves and said ‘I’m here to kick butt, take names and start America all over again.’”

Retooling the forces

Building up the military was a theme of Reagan’s campaign speeches, Edwards said. “Not just with guns and weapons, but the morale and the spirit of the American armed forces. He saw that as part of his strategy to defeat the Soviet Union.”

Retired Army Gen. John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan from 1982 to 1985, saw the problems firsthand.

“Because of the Vietnam War, just about everything in the defense establishment was broken and needed fixing,” Vessey said Monday.

Among the wreckage was the military’s reputation as the natural home of patriots.

“The military was no longer seen as a noble occupation,” Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Tuesday.

Soured by Vietnam deployments and disheartened by their reception on America’s shores, many of the service’s most experienced noncommissioned officers had decamped, followed by many young officers — the Pentagon’s future leaders.

“All the services had major losses in senior NCOs and junior officers,” Vessey said.

Those losses, devastating in a military that regards such members as its core, came just as the military was occupied with a seminal struggle: the switch from a conscript force to the new all-volunteer service.

“The all-volunteer military was off to a terrible start,” Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said Tuesday.

Military salaries were so low, especially for entry-level enlisted personnel, that “there were real concerns about some enlisted [personnel] whose families were on food stamps,” Bandow, who was a special assistant to the president in the Reagan White House, said Tuesday.

By the time Reagan was running for president, things were going so poorly for the volunteer military that its survival was in question, Bandow said.

“There was serious debate about whether to bring back conscription.”

Reagan knew that the Pentagon would need to make major reforms in personnel and quality of life in order for the volunteer military to survive, Bandow said.

In his 1983 budget proposal to Congress, Reagan included a 14.3 percent pay raise for servicemembers, which had an immediate positive effect in the ranks.

“One of the biggest morale boosters was the pay raises,” Martinez said.

“The military hadn’t received good pay raises until [Reagan] came in.”

The 14.3 percent raise was not the result of an internal Reagan administration analysis, however, Korb said.

Instead, Reagan officials chose the number because “newspapers like [Stars and Stripes] and Army Times” had been running articles citing pro-military organizations who had compared military salaries to a civilian salary index and come up with a 14.3 percent “pay gap.”

In addition to salaries, “we really beefed up spending on things like military housing; we brought in more doctors for care; improved the bases,” Korb said.

When it came to personnel matters, Korb said, “I never got the impression that [Reagan] was willing to skimp.”

How servicemembers and the public perceived Reagan and his actions played as much of a role in Reagan’s turnaround of the military as did the president’s concrete actions, analysts and officials agreed.

“Part of it was the pay increases,” and other personnel improvements, Bandow said. “But there was also “a sense of appreciation there … it’s very clear Reagan really respected [military] people. If you were an older NCO who remembered Vietnam, that made a difference.”

Reagan “injected the new energy into most defense budgets and the Armed Forces in general, and we took a great turn,” Vessey said.

“We were embarked on a program to rebuild every facet of the American defense forces.

“They were remarkable times.”

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