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Troops serving overseas reacted with heat, exasperation and occasional laissez-faire to the news that bureaucrats back home want to roll back their 2004 pay raises.

“I feel that capping pay raises at 2 percent would be a step back from the progress we’ve made,” said Tech Sgt. Michael Pena, who works in a clinic laboratory at Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany.

Pena said he believes that during the last three or four years, troops have made progress bridging the pay gap with civilians. “Lawmakers should realize the sacrifices we make, and taking care of military members should be a priority.”

The director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., recently asked the Defense Department to lower the 2004 pay raise from its expected 3.7 percent to 2 percent. Daniels also wants future raises tied to inflation, rather than basing boosts on what civilians doing comparable jobs in the private sector might make. Confidentially, military sources say they believe the idea will die on the vine. But they also admit it would save the military billions, particularly with the possibility of troop call-ups prior to a war on Iraq.

In the end, if the military fights the Daniels idea, President Bush may have to settle the brouhaha himself.

In the meantime, those serving at bases abroad reacted icily to the suggestion that saving even billions should trump making staying in uniform more attractive.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Damon Baggs, 26, an aviation electrician’s mate stationed in Naples, Italy, said the military makes sacrifices and deserves the bigger paycheck. He had to leave his wife and children in Norfolk, Va., for a six-month deployment to Italy.

“I put in minimum 10-hour days, not including extra duties and collateral duties and watch-stand duties, not to mention spending time away from loved ones.”

Baggs said Daniels’ proposal is upsetting, taking into consideration that “people on Capitol Hill give themselves raises. The government should try to save money, but don’t take it away from the people who’re doing the work.”

The federal deficit for fiscal 2002 topped out at $159 billion. A mere year earlier, the government instead banked a surplus of some $127 billion.

“It’s a crock,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Levi Robinson, a Naples, Italy, public works mechanic. “If it was 6 percent raise [an adjustment] could be a little more understandable.”

Robinson, with six years in the Navy, makes about $25,000 a year. “Mechanics in the States start out at up to $20 an hour” — about $40,000 a year.

Robinson believes the perks he receives to compensate for getting paid less than civilians make little difference.

“Like free medical coverage,” he said. “I only go to the doctor a couple of times a year. … We don’t use a lot of the perks we get.”

Another sailor said the change isn’t merely a juggle of a balance sheet, but will mean real damage to troops’ income.

“It’ll hurt us,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Wells, also in Naples. “We’ve had a lot of cutbacks already that are making us feel unappreciated.”

An airman in Northern Italy believed military pay is the wrong spreadsheet column to fight the national debt.

“I think there are a million ways you can trim the deficit,” said Sr. Airman Robert Reed, stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy. “As active as the military is right now, I don’t think that makes sense.”

Another believed the initial raise won’t even keep up with prices. “I don’t think [a 2 percent raise] keeps up with the Consumer Price Index,” said Senior Master Sgt. Stan Nowacki, stationed at Ghedi Air Base, Italy. “I definitely like it to keep up with that at least.”

Despite the widespread discontent, one Air Force man wasn’t fazed by the budget news.

“I haven’t really read anything about it yet,” said Airman 1st Class Daniel Little, assigned to Aviano Air Base, Italy. “Either way, it’s OK with me. … I get along well enough, I guess.”

Soldiers deployed to Kosovo had mixed feelings about the chance their annual pay increases would be cut.

“Either way, I’d do my job,” said Army Sgt. Heather Leetsch, a driver for high-ranking officers and visitors to Kosovo.

Last year, members of the Armed Services got a nice raise, she said, and she believed that they are well-paid nonetheless.

Army Spc. Anthony Thomas, however, said he was disappointed his pay raise would be reduced.

“This is a hard job and the pay is part of what makes it easier to do,” said Thomas, 24. “But at least we’re getting a raise. Still it should be more.”

Staff Sgt. Gary Rice, a National Guardsman from New Hampshire, said servicemembers, especially those deployed in perilous places, are already paid well, thanks to benefits such as danger pay.

He notes that in Kosovo, you pay no income taxes, get danger pay and receive extra money to pay for your housing costs back in the states.

“Anyone who said we are underpaid is wrong.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Ray Conway, Kent Harris, Kendra Helmer, David Josar and Ward Sanderson contributed to this report.


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