By Jim Knotts, president and CEO, Operation Homefront
No one relishes being the bearer of bad news. I knew that when the Joint Chiefs testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee a week ago today, there wasn’t going to be a lot to like about what they had to say. After listening to their testimony, I am sure as I can be that they certainly didn’t want to have to say it.
Simply put, there isn’t enough money available to do what they must do, let alone what they would like to. So, the Joint Chiefs looked at the money that will be appropriated for FY 2015 and beyond, and had some choices to make. None of them good. As Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said, “None of us like where we find ourselves today.”
Our military cannot stop defending the nation, and the world continues to be a volatile place. It is easy to calculate what you can see. Not so much for what you can’t. The world can change in an instant. Our men and women in uniform must be ready to handle what comes, or lives are lost. Already as a result of sequestration, the services have made drastic cuts, cancelling critical training and delaying the modernization of equipment. Nearly 13 years of combat operations have worn down equipment. Some of our hardware is 50 years old. The Joint Chiefs were very clear that being in this state, if continued, will put lives at risk.
So what’s left to look at? The answer, it seems, is compensation and benefits. For those of us who’ve raised our hand and taken an oath to serve our great country – we’ve done so invariably with a sense of patriotism and pride – but at the same time to earn a living and provide for our family. And while no one will argue that those serving in uniform today are overpaid, there is the undeniable fact that compensation as a whole has consumed more and more of each service branch’s budget in recent years. As Gen. Amos testified for the Marine Corps, it’s .63 cents of every dollar. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno reiterated past testimony on compensation, where he stated: “If we continue along the way that we are going now, we believe by 2023, 80 percent of our budget is going to be on compensation.” For other branches, the percentages have remained steady at between 30-35 percent of their budgets, but the Chiefs noted that this percentage remained steady as they have reduced force strength.
The Chiefs advocated capping pay raises at 1 percent, reducing commissary funding, and streamlining Tricare. “We’re seeking $31 billion in savings in pay compensation and health care over the future-year defense program,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testified. “If we don’t get it, we’ll have to take $31 billion out of readiness, modernization and force structure over that same period.”  Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Welsh testified, “If we can’t make tough calls on compensation now, we won’t be ready today or viable against the threats of tomorrow.” Gen. Dempsey also stated, “Today’s readiness problem is tomorrow’s retention problem.”
Think about it. If your work environment deteriorates to such a degree that you are not given the tools to do your job, or that your life is put at risk unnecessarily, what will you do when the time comes to make a choice to continue or look for safer and more secure career options? The Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, testified, “Our sailors and families are not enthusiastic about compensation reform” [but] “are clear that quality of service –work environment — needs to improve.” He also relayed being told by his sailors that “these long deployments are killing us.” With respect to the Marines, Gen. Amos said, “We will not do with less with less, we will do the same with less.” So while no one is happy that pay and benefits will take the hit, the Chief’s testimony helped clarify why difficult choices are being made now.
There are some who agree with the Joint Chief’s assessments and recommendations, and others who don’t. I found that it was clear that they spent enormous amounts of time and energy looking for any available dollar, weighing and measuring their options, and listening to their people. Agree with their decision or not, I believe the Joint Chiefs are trying their hardest in a tough situation to be good stewards of their most valuable asset: the men and women who serve our country.
As always, Operation Homefront will do our best to help military families get through any tough times that may face them. We are grateful to the many supporters who help us fulfill our mission.
Download and read Tuesday’s testimony by the Joint Chiefs and MSOs/VSOs on the NDAA