The National Defense Authorization Act currently ricocheting between the House and Senate approaches a whopping $700 billion. It authorizes appropriations to the Department of Defense for categories including procurement, operations, maintenance, research and development. It also establishes policies regarding compensation and benefits for service members.
What often gets lost in the shuffle is the potential impact of the budget’s monetary policies on something we take for granted — the all-volunteer force in effect for more than 40 years that has established the U.S. as the world’s most powerful military force.
Included in this year’s debate over the bill are two items that bear special attention: a meager military pay raise and a reduction in benefits for service members married to one another.
The military pay raise has been indexed to a complex computation designed to keep pace with, but not necessarily equal, parity to civilian jobs. This year, the employment cost index would provide for a 2.4 percent pay raise, but the Senate version would cut that to 2.1 percent.
Congress needs to recognize the sacrifice of military families (both active and in the Guard and Reserve) by at least following its own guidance. Not doing so will only result in another widening of the pay gap.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, commanding general of the Army’s Recruiting Command, identified demographic challenges to maintaining an all-volunteer force in a November 2016 interview with the Arizona Republic. He said that only three in 10 of today’s youth meet the qualification requirements to join the military. That number gets to around 20 percent, when college-bound young people are taken out of the equation.
The challenge boils down to dwindling supply: There are approximately 20 million 17- to 21-year olds in America, the core military recruiting target. Of those, only 11.3 million meet academic requirements. Only about 4.4 million of those are even eligible to join. Assessing propensity to join, there are about 465,000 true potential recruits. From that pool, DoD needs 250,000 a year.
Adding to the problem: 52 percent of parents would not recommend military service for their children. Our nation is facing a basic — but significant — supply-and-demand dilemma that could impact national security.
The second initiative in the Senate’s version of the bill is the elimination of the housing allowance for one active duty member in a two-active-duty family unit. It might seem logical that both members share the benefit.
However, each military member faces the same requirement for deployments, extraordinary duty hours as every other member. Military physicians married to one another both receive professional incentive pay. Why should our troops be penalized because they choose to marry one another?
The defense bill’s elimination of this benefit is anathema to retention at exactly the time when we need experienced service members to continue active duty. In the current military operational tempo that requires frequent deployments, family separations and exposure to extreme risk, the Senate version would steer young men and women away from the military and heap hardship on those who now defend this country.
I urge Kentucky citizens to call on Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, as well as Rep. Andy Barr, to support our military members on these issues. Military members may not call themselves heroes, but you should. Your voice matters.
Tom Peters, retired Air Force colonel, is president of the Bluegrass Chapter of Military Officers Association of America.