Enlisted leaders tell Congress budget uncertainties hurt morale

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey awaits the start of a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations' Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Capitol Hill, Feb. 25, 2015. Behind him are, from left, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody, Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Ronald Green and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stephens.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 25, 2015

Note: This article has been corrected.

WASHINGTON — Top enlisted military leaders said Wednesday that servicemembers and their families are stressed and worried about looming changes to compensation, benefits and support services.

That anxiety is threatening overall morale, and appears well-founded: Tight budgets for the coming year call for slashing such spending and will mean forcing out quality troops who in the past could have served a full 20-year career, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force leaders testified to House lawmakers.

The testimony is part of a budget drama playing out on Capitol Hill, in which Congress is scrambling to find a solution to budget caps it passed in prior sessions. A defense spending cap due to kick in this fall has triggered dire warnings from the Pentagon and many lawmakers, who say anemic funding is damaging the military’s ability to defend the country and fight wars.

Soldiers “see the future. They see it on the news every day, and they see uncertainty and it bothers them,” Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey told a House Appropriations subcommittee. “What I really need is them focused on the mission and saving their fellow soldiers’ lives.”

The services have said they are still reeling from an initial round of budget caps in 2013. After Congress struck an agreement to put off the caps for two years, the spending limits are set to resume and hold the Department of Defense base budget at $523 billion, allowing for a modest $1.7-billion increase.

The Army is already facing reduced training, facilities in disrepair, decreased access to services and fewer opportunities for advancement due to a shrinking force, Dailey said.

Lawmakers are now considering major overhauls of the military retirement and health insurance systems as well as cuts to benefits such as commissaries to keep up with the spending limit for the coming year. A congressionally appointee panel has recommended replacing the current 20-year retirement with a 401(k)-style contribution system and abolishing Tricare health insurance in favor of a privatized marketplace.

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael Stevens said sailors are most concerned about changes to the health insurance system. But changes on compensation and base support programs such as fleet and family services and family readiness also loom large.

The ongoing discussion in Congress have created an air of uncertainty and anxiety — “just the wondering of what is going to be the future,” Stevens told lawmakers.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody echoed the concerns, saying the changes could come on top of an extremely stressful year for airmen, and personnel reductions that have left the service at its smallest size since its creation in 1947.

Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., said a community meeting about the issues Monday at her state’s Fort Rucker drew 1,600 people, and underscores the interest among troops.

“Our military families are not immune to the 24-hour news cycle,” which has closely followed the debate over defense spending, Roby said.

“This is not the right way to go about supporting our military families,” she said. “I just want to make my position clear: We’ve got to fix this.”

Many other members of Congress have said the same thing, but a legislative solution has remained elusive. Democrats and Republicans are at odds over how to offset any increase in defense spending.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., whose district borders Fort Bragg, called the budget caps irrational and destructive, and said lawmakers must seek at least another short-term agreement to put them off again.

Such a legislative deal would be “nothing to write home about” but would protect the U.S. military for a while longer, Price said.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly identified Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey.

Senior enlisted leaders testify before a a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations' Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Capitol Hill, Feb. 25, 2015.