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With President Bush signing the first-ever $400 billion defense bill, including another military pay raise and housing allowance increase that will more than match growth in wages and rents nationwide, it would seem hard to argue that this administration has lost touch with troops.

Yet beneath the surface image captured by an amiable signing ceremony at the Pentagon on Nov. 24 are currents of worry and disappointment inside the military over actions of the Bush administration.

No president since the all-volunteer force began 30 years ago has used the military as aggressively. Bush, after all, elected to invade Iraq and to remove whatever threat Saddam Hussein and his elusive weapons of mass destruction posed. The war and occupation of Iraq, and also efforts in Afghanistan, have left U.S. military operations at their highest sustained level in decades.

They also have left many servicemembers concerned, mostly over the length and frequency of deployments given the enormity of Bush’s promise to establish a democracy in Iraq, for a people more used to tyranny and more inclined by culture and geography toward Muslim fundamentalism.

Other service people are wary that a presidential election next year will shake administration resolve. A premature exit could dishonor the sacrifices so far, particularly of those who have died or been wounded.

Despite that sensitive backdrop, defense officials led by Donald Rumsfeld seem unconcerned about angering large segments of the military community. For every initiative to please military folks, such as contracting with movers to reimburse families the full replacement value of goods damaged in household moves, two seem to float by aimed at tightening people programs.

Key provisions of the defense bill Bush signed will benefit active-duty personnel, Reserve and Guard members and disabled retirees in ways the administration opposed. One will extend through December 2004 wartime increases in danger pay and family separation allowance that Congress first approved last April.

The administration wanted them rolled back. By late summer, it argued these increases should be replaced by higher hazardous duty pay but only to persons assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another initiative the Bush team fought will open Tricare to nonmobilized reservists who lack employer-provided health insurance.

A third will phase out, over 10 years, the ban on “concurrent receipt” of both military retired pay and disability compensation for retirees with disabilities rated 50 percent or higher.

A fourth will expand Combat-Related Special Compensation to any retiree with combat or combat-training injuries, not just to those with Purple Hearts or disabilities rated at least 60 percent.

Another initiative gives reservists and families immediate and unlimited access to commissaries, which are military grocery stores.

None of these gains would have been in the 2004 Defense Authorization Act had Congress followed White House budget guidance.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld and his top aides are sending fresh signals they want future budgets squeezed on prized military perks including commissaries and dependent schools. Defense officials said in mid-October memo that they plan close to 19 smaller commissaries, most of them overseas, and have their eye on 19 more. They also plan to close Defense-run schools on up to 14 military bases, stateside and overseas.

Gen. B.B. Bell, commander of U.S. Army Europe, in a Nov. 15 memo, described as nearly “unconscionable” the proposal by DOD officials to close four small commissaries in Germany “at a time when military sponsors are deployed to hostile-fire environments.”

Joyce Wessel Raezer, director of government relations for National Military Family Association, said it’s time to stop raising anxiety levels among military families with “business-case” attacks on military support systems such as schools and the $1 billion-a-year commissary subsidy.

“Why is it so important right now to nickel and dime the commissary benefit?” she asked. “It’s just raising stress. And it is small potatoes compared to some of the other items in the defense budget.”

Raezer, the wife of a retired Army officer, said the strain on families from the uncertainty of current deployments is unlike anything she has seen in her long association with service life.

“Volunteers on the front line of family support are wearing out,” she said, as they counsel families stressed by finances, child-care challenges and the constant danger to loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Deployments not only are longer than planned but families know that loved ones who return safely still could return to Iraq or Afghanistan in another year or two. It’s a worry reinforced, Raezer said, “with every announcement by leadership that we’re going to be in this for a long time.”

Raezer said the robust re-enlistment rates cited by leaders of deployed units likely have more to do with tax breaks than with unit morale. Soldiers know that re-enlistment bonus contracts signed in a war zone are tax-free.

“I worry about when that person gets home, what the spouse will say,” said Raezer. “Traditionally, re-enlistment is a decision made around the kitchen table. Not now. It’s being made away from home. … A family facing another round of deployments is going to say, ‘Hey, look, I’m still exhausted from that last one. I can’t handle it.’ That’s a real issue.”

Military families “support what the servicemember is doing,” she said. “But when that member gets home it is going to be harder to send them off again. That’s where we’re going to get the problems.”

— Comments are welcomed. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or visit Web site at: www.militaryupdate.com

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