Delegates discuss quality-of-life issues
March 15, 2008
GARMISCH, Germany — Some teachers stink — how can we tell their bosses?
Civilians should be able to fill empty seats on space-available flights, shouldn’t they?
And don’t even get people started on the red-tape required to get a broken arm fixed.
The annual gnashing of issues known as the U.S. European Command Quality of Life Conference ended Thursday with 10 ideas racked and stacked for military deciders. Another 40 or so suggestions born of the four-day process were tucked away.
Next up: Deciding which ideas are doable, dumb or downright difficult to pull off. The good news is that the conferences have typically produced a few good ideas that actually ended up benefiting the everyday Joes.
“I was frustrated (Wednesday) at the timeline of it,” Air Force Maj. Judy Mayrand, the facilitator-leader of the entitlements focus group, said Thursday. “We’re asked to accomplish so much in so little time.
“I feel much better today after seeing the product and hearing the responses.”
The responses, in part, came from the honchos seated in the front row of Thursday’s out-briefing at a conference room at the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort. Among them: Vice Adm. Richard K. Gallagher, deputy commander of U.S. European Command; Lt. Gen. Gary Speer, deputy commander of U.S. Army Europe; and Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy.
Sixty-two delegates were plucked from around Europe, broken into five focus groups and ordered to brainstorm. Nearly as many subject experts and other organizers were also on board.
The delegates — a spectrum of troops, spouses, civilians and others — cranked out at least 10 ideas per group. Each group voted on its two best ideas, which were heard Thursday by the brass.
Some ideas were quickly lauded, such as allowing teenagers to form teen-only action committees at installations. The young people could address boredom and peer pressure, binge drinking, drug use, fighting and unsafe sex, and make suggestions to base leaders.
“That’s an easy one to me,” Gallagher said.
Other delegates were told to be careful what they wished for.
A proposed survey of troops downrange might reveal they really don’t need that $3.50 a day in per diem, delegates were told. The delegates were pushing for it to be increased to $7.50.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” replied Lt. Gen. Gary Speer, USAREUR deputy commander. “It ($3.50 per day) might go down if it is reviewed. Does one spend $105 a month,” on incidentals such as soap, toothpaste and razor blades?
The deciders in many cases don’t have the final decision.
One idea that made the final cut but would take work is to create “adjustment-time leave” — for example, 12 days of adjustment time after a 12-month tour — to troops returning from war zones.
Their earned leave, typically 30 days, gets eaten up in a hurry, one delegate noted, especially when much is used simply to get households and lives back in order.
Carr, the Pentagon personnel policy chief, said the proposed readjustment leave would have to be weighed against another issue — those troops on the opposite end who are piling up unused leave.
Some ideas — dozens of them — were written and rewritten, as were their solutions, only to not make the final cut.
One called for a higher allowance for military members who are moved overseas, which Mayrand said results in more out-of-pocket expenses than moving from base to base in the States.
Another, offered by 15-year-old Taylor Hinson, suggested that families not be required to change duty stations if the family’s soldier was going to immediately deploy.
But the leftover ideas didn’t simply bleed down the drain.
“We will take them back to our shop,” said Paul Jerome, readiness chief at EUCOM’s personnel directorate. “Not for action, but to see if there are any themes out there emerging that we’ll want to spend some energy on as the year progresses.”
The ideas and any results that emerge, Gallagher said, are not simply to make life more comfortable for uniformed troops and those around them.
“Quality of life is a combat-readiness issue,” he said. “It starts and ends there.”
The Top Ten
Dozens of ideas were offered at this week’s U.S. European Command Quality of Life Conference. Under the rules, only 10 made the final cut that would be formally proposed to military leaders:
¶ Centralize approval/funding of medical travel: Beneficiaries needing medical care can walk, hitch or be driven or flown to a hospital. Procedures vary from unit to unit, from service to service.
Recommendation: Make TRICARE the sole approving agent; fund medical travel through Defense Health Program.
¶ Standardize readjustment time after deployment: The clock starts ticking on 30-days’ leave almost as soon as troops return from war zones. That includes time for simple needs such as getting a car out of mothballs, and serious ones such as assessing emotional and mental needs and possible treatment.
Recommendation: Troops earn one day of “readjustment time” for every month deployed. This would not be charged against earned leave.
¶ Modify postal service: Many post offices are open for limited hours and only Monday through Friday. Often they are in different locations – the post office is located here, the community mail room there. Some, especially households operating with one parent because of deployment, find these inadequate.
Recommendation: Extend hours to include evenings and Saturdays; increase staffing if needed; consolidate postal facilities.
¶ Establish at-risk awareness programs for teens: U.S. bases in Europe typically have a bowling alley and theater. Households are stressed when a parent is deployed. The off-base drinking age in Europe is 16. You do the math.
Recommendation: Establish local Teen Action Committee at each installation to empower teens to implement solutions to reduce at-risk behaviors. Teens would offer ideas to base leaders that could reduce bad behavior.
¶ Increase combat-zone per diem: Troops’ per diem for incidental expenses is currently $3.50 per day and has not been increased in more than 25 years.
Recommendation: Increase the incidental per diem rate to $7.50; review rate every three years to ensure it is sufficient.
¶ Improve education on health/dental services: Many are frustrated when trying to figure out how and where to get care and how to pay for it. Even though the services exist, navigating the bureaucracy can be onerous.
Recommendation: Use multimedia to teach people how to use the system — TV and radio, movie trailers, podcasts, text messaging and other technologies.
¶ Authorize space-available travel for Defense Department civilian employees who are on a transportation agreement: Civilian employees in Europe and their families can’t take low-cost, space-available flights.
Recommendation: Include eligible civilian employees and their families in current Category 6, or create a new category for them.
¶ Expand feedback on teachers at Department of Defense Dependent Schools: Parents and students have no formal input toward the evaluation of teachers. Annual evaluations are internal, performed by the local principal and only provide a one-dimensional perspective.
Recommendation: Allow student and parent surveys, installation feedback methods such as ICE, and other external sources to provide feedback between internal evaluations.
¶ Expand spouse-education programs: Employment and education outside the U.S. are limited for military spouses. Careers are affected, including areas such as obtaining professional licenses, certifications and credentials as well as achieving financial, professional and personal growth.
Recommendation: Expand Military Spouse Career Advancement Initiative to include those outside the United States; expand the career fields under this program; expand program eligibility to all ranks; increase degree programs offered.
¶ Matching Thrift Savings Plan contributions for deployed troops: Current incentives are restricted to addressing short-term financial benefits, such as bonuses. Lack of long-term incentives during deployments affects morale.
Recommendation: Implement matching TSP contributions up to 5 percent of servicemember’s base pay while deployed to combat zone exclusion area.