By Tom Philpott
Military leaders lead. Politicians can lead too, of course, but usually not before sticking a wet finger in the wind to learn how political winds blow.
The contrast was evident last Wednesday as top enlisted leaders delivered a kind of suck-it-up-and-punch-us message to a group of nervous senators.
The armed services personnel subcommittee wanted to know how military quality of life would be impacted if Congress votes to cap the annual pay raise again, and also to dampen housing allowance increases, allow commissary prices to jump and raise medical fees for families and retirees.
As background to this discussion, recall how Congress lacked the will to compromise on a grand plan to address the nation’s debt crisis in 2011. Instead it adopted an automatic budget cutting mechanism — sequestration — that in 2013 began to make deep, indiscriminate cuts in defense spending, putting force readiness into a tailspin.
The message this day from the enlisted leader panel, and from an earlier panel of the services’ three-star personnel chiefs, was this:
If lawmakers won’t take the harder path to repeal sequestration cuts, particularly those scheduled for 2016 and beyond, they should at least ensure cuts are applied in a balanced way to protect training and readiness. Regrettably, that means taking the unpopular course military leaders lay out in the fiscal 2015 budget of slowing growth in compensation programs.
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal P. Barrett told the subcommittee Marines are ready to take the hits. But, for gosh sakes, get on with it so there’s no doubt they stay trained and ready for the next fight.
Marines aren’t focused on “compensation, benefits or retirement modernization,” Barrett said. They have a “bias for action” and measure quality of life by number of deployments and the rigor of training.
“They want to know into whose neck do we put a boot next. They want to know about what new equipment are we getting. Are we going to modernize? Just because the budget sucks, does that mean we’re not going to get any more gear? Are we going to stay ahead of our competitors?”
All of that could be at risk, in the current budget environment, if pay raises and health benefit costs aren’t kept in check, Barrett testified.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: