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For the last eight years, lawmakers have loaded annual defense authorization bills with new pay and benefit initiatives to support troops and their families and to show the nation’s appreciation.

This year’s defense bills – both the version passed by the House, and the Senate bill to be debated on the floor after the July 4th recess – call for a 3.4 percent military pay raise in January, continuing a string of increases that have surpassed private sector wage growth every year since 2000.

Otherwise, the fiscal 2010 defense bill is lighter than usual on significant personnel initiatives. There are many possible reasons for this.

First, much has been done already to raise wartime pay, benefits and support programs. Indeed these gains, along with a dismal civilian job market, have the services meeting recruiting and retention targets despite 200,000 U.S. troops continuing to rotate through Iraq and Afghanistan.

Second, proposals that boost significantly the overall cost of defense, including military personnel accounts, are eyed today against a backdrop of soaring budget deficits, aggravated by a $700 billion economic stimulus plan and billions more to bail out banks, car companies and insurance firms.

Third, President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress have focused much legislative attention on a vigorous domestic agenda, to address the U.S. financial and housing crises, global warming and energy need, and a campaign promise to provide a universal health care program.

Fourth, with many senior defense appointees still to be named, including an undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, there isn’t a team in place to push a new legislative agenda for personnel this year.

Fifth, the new administration’s defense budget request reached Capitol Hill three months later than usual, leaving the armed services committees less time to hold hearings or weigh new initiatives. Given that delay, some substantive personnel initiatives, such as a retroactive $500-a-month payment for members kept on active duty under stop-loss orders, have been attached to other bills, in this case a wartime supplemental appropriation.

Finally, there’s growing recognition that costly personnel initiatives haven’t relieved the greatest source of strain today on servicemembers and their families – the tremendous pace of operations. This was emotionally described in early June by spouses called to testify before the Senate armed services subcommittee on military personnel.

The spouses’ collective message was that what military families need more than anything is more time together. In that regard, perhaps the most critical initiative in the defense bill are permanent increases in end strength for ground forces, and authority to raise active Army strength by another 30,000 by 2012 if the Obama administration decides to budget for it.

Sheila L. Casey, wife of Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, told senators that families are so stressed “everything is becoming an issue.” Couples who have seen their marriages deteriorate “don’t have time to get divorced,” she said. “I am … seeing signs of a force under immense strain, and this concerns me greatly,” Casey said. “These signs, these indicators, include cases of domestic violence, child neglect as well as increases in suicides, alcohol abuse and cases of posttraumatic stress.”

The strain is especially acute on “our young, newly married Army families because, with repeated deployments bearing down on them, these young families don’t have enough time together to build a strong bond. So they are particularly vulnerable to be stressed by the war.”

But what keeps her awake at night, Casey said, are the cumulative effects on children of repeated deployments by parent soldiers. She recalled one soldier’s wife at Fort Drum, N.Y., “through her sobs,” sharing her fear that her two children were growing up without knowing or even attaching emotionally to their father because he was away so often.

The “cumulative effects of nearly eight years of war” will not be easy to reverse, Casey warned. “My concern is that we are going to see these things appear again later when families have the time to really reintegrate.”

Despite extraordinary support programs, better than any provided to past generations, she said, “Army families are sacrificing too much.”

Apart from the pace of operations, the three complaints Casey said she hears most often from families are lack of access to quality health care, lack of quality education for young children, and lack of spouse employment opportunities.

The House and Senate versions of the defense bill propose a variety of modest initiatives to address such concerns and to strengthen support to service families, particularly wounded warriors. But money for “big ticket” items such as a better retirement plan for reservists or to end a reduction in Survivor Benefit Plan payments for widows who also receive VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation couldn’t be found, at least not yet.

The Senate bill is silent on an initiative from President Obama to phase in eligibility for Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay for 103,000 “Chapter 61” retirees forced to retire because of service-related disability.

Advocates for Obama’s plan still hope senators like Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who have fought to end the ban on concurrent receipt for other military retirees, will find money for the Chapter 61 initiative and add the program as an amendment to the defense bill during floor debate.

The House too had trouble finding mandatory spending “offsets” to pay for concurrent receipt for Chapter 61 retirees. It finally did find money to cover only the first year of Obama’s plan, which would target Chapter 61 retirees with fewer than 20 years and disability ratings of 90 or 100 percent.

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