Taking Care of Our People: At Any Price?

By Lieutenant Jerry Burns, U.S. Navy

Now-retired General Carl E. Mundy, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, was among the first to express concern publicly over this issue. When he announced four years ago that the Corps would no longer accept married recruits and would require single Marines to seek counseling before marriage, the Clinton administration and senior members of Congress rebuked him. Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-CO), then a prominent member of the Armed Services Committee, publicly castigated General Mundy and accused him of being "anti-family."

Consider the "real life" case of 22-year-old Lance Corporal Mike Zills. When he deployed with his unit on 27 January 1996, he left behind his 15-year-old wife Cindy, who had dropped out of school at age 14 to get married.

Her parents had allowed the marriage specifically because of the social and financial safety nets offered by the military. (According to 1993 statistics, a married E-1 is paid about 17.5%, roughly $2,643, more annually for dependent support than an unmarried E-1 doing the same job. 1 ) When her husband was gone, though, Cindy was alone, with no education, no job skills, little money, no transportation, (she was too young to get a driver's license), and nothing to do but "watch television all day" and contemplate divorce. 2

Similar situations are becoming more commonplace in the military. As one Marine Corps lieutenant colonel recently lamented, "We have kids marrying kids, and kids having kids." But rather than consider any attempt to reduce the number of military families, and thereby reduce the cost of military dependency, advocates of a socially engineered volunteer force have continued to press for allocating even more of the defense budget to social support programs. Since the public condemnation of General Mundy, most other senior military leaders have steered clear of the issue.

In summer 1993, former Secretary of the Navy James Webb introduced what may soon be viewed as the critical leadership issue of the '90s: If a service chief has less money and fewer troops to meet essentially the same commitments, does he put his money into "troops and weapons" or into "dependents and day-care centers?" The unfortunate answer is clear: It is to be day-care centers.

Federal legislators, citing the cries of senior uniformed leaders to "take care of our people," fervently are engaged in foisting often pork-laden "family" programs on the postCold War military, whether it needs them or not. Recently, Congress approved a military construction appropriations bill, an $11.2 billion effort to make a dramatic improvement in "quality of life" by giving priority to construction of family housing and child-care projects. Once signed by President Bill Clinton, the bill provided for the construction of 30 family-housing units, eight more than requested by the Pentagon, and 14 child-care centers, five more than requested. 3

Over a period of six years (starting in 1994), $450 million per year will be allocated for family-housing and child-care centers, and approximately $7 billion will be removed from key weapons-procurement programs as a budget-balancing measure. Top uniformed leaders predict that continued reductions in defense spending might be as much as $30 billion per year by the next decade in order to balance the federal budget.

Two years ago, the Navy requested a payroll budget of $17 billion to include salaries, allotments for quarters, subsistence, dependent subsidies, housing allowances, and child care. In contrast, during that same year, the Navy spent only about $11 billion on ships, aircraft, weapons, munitions, and expendables—the materials needed to accomplish its mission.

Military family-support programs in the 1996 defense budget consumed more than $20 billion. In part to offset the cost of these projects, combat units were demobilized at a rate of some 1,500 troops per week. New weapons programs were truncated or eliminated entirely. For every new destroyer that put to sea, four new childcare centers were built. The Marine Corps allocated more funds to family housing than to ammunition—$156 million versus $132 million—and spent $32 million annually on family-service and child-development centers but only about $30 million on spare parts.

Housing and child care, however, consume only a fraction of the cost of a military enamored with public assistance. Schools, youth activity centers, commissaries, and family-service centers are just a few examples of the massive infrastructure needed to support military families, and all add significant expense to the operation of military installations. To these costs add an additional $9 billion for overseas dependent health-care clinics, $850 million for dependent overseas schools, and $3 million for adoption expenses. The Center On Family In America, a Rockford, Illinois,-based think tank, estimates that maintaining the military dependent support structure alone consumes roughly 10% of the entire defense budget, almost $25 billion for 1996. 4

Another costly side-effect of the military's embrace of social engineering is its tendency to force more junior personnel into dysfunctional situations. When Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton established a "family-friendly" policy aimed at increasing pregnancy benefits for servicewomen, the new policy made no provision for an unmarried pregnant servicewoman to identify or obtain financial support from the legal father, essentially subsidizing single parenthood for female service members. Further, this policy demands that pregnant service members, regardless of rank, be allowed to move out of unaccompanied enlisted quarters and receive military housing, or housing allowances, usually provided only to married personnel. This practice significantly reduces the number of military housing units available for conventional two-parent families and thereby increases housing costs overall. 5

These policies entice junior personnel to enter into marriage, as in the case of Mike and Cindy Zills, or into parenthood for precisely the wrong reasons. According to a recent University of Colorado study, 18- and 19-year-old service members are about 79% more likely to get married than their civilian counterparts, and 64% more likely to get divorced by age 24. According to Professor Jeffrey Zax, author of the study:

The government is telling them to get married. As soon as you have a pay policy (that gives more money to married members), you create incentives for people to get married. These marriages might never have happened without the incentives and they are fundamentally bad marriages. 6

These "excess marriages" cost as much as $56 million annually in extra pay and allowances. A more important and devastating result, however, is the creation of dysfunctional families. As operational commitments increase while personnel and resources decrease, dysfunctional behavior and a corresponding rise in attendant social support programs are on the rise.

Raising a child or building a successful marriage is difficult under the best circumstances. If you are 18 years old and separated from your spouse or child 70% of the time, it is virtually impossible.

Since 1989, end strength in the Department of Defense has decreased by 28%, while joint exercises, service-unique training, and overseas commitments all have increased. Five years ago, when the Marine Corps had more than 200,000 deployable troops, about 24,000 would be deployed at any one time. Today, at a strength of 174,000, about 27,000 are deployed. On any given day, about half of the Navy's ships are at sea.

Increased operational tempos have had a predictable affect on "quality of life" for the most junior personnel. Despite an explosion of advocacy programs within the DoD, disruptions to family life, family anxieties, financial difficulties, assignment and promotion problems, and general stress are all increasing, while morale, esprit de corps, and overall readiness are suffering. Those advocacy programs are expected to correct the inevitable: family abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, financial irresponsibility, suicide, etc. And unit commanders, already overextended by trying to "do more with less" and maintain some semblance of combat readiness, have been forced to buy into the idea that any personnel problem can be solved through counseling and advocacy. In the military of the '90s, the solution to this costly and inefficient bureaucratic nightmare seems to be more costly and inefficient bureaucracy.

The U.S. Navy was not established to influence the attitudes and actions of U.S. citizens. And it most assuredly was never conceived as an avenue through which the federal government should redistribute wealth, in the form of goods and services, among society. Unfortunately, we are seeing the transformation of the Navy into that very entity.

Some recent efforts to use military precedent to influence societal attitudes have been very positive—namely, the ongoing attacks against racial and gender discrimination, and the "zero-tolerance" policies that have virtually eliminated drug abuse in the Navy. The people must recognize, however, the negative impact of unqualified advocacy of social engineering. We are becoming less and less an instrument for protecting U.S. national interests abroad, and more and more a tool for implementing social change from within our own borders. We are migrating away from being a force used only to defend our national interests, and instead becoming a principal outlet for the dispensation of public assistance in our society.

As a result, the armed services' ability to carry out their primary mission, defense of the nation, is being stifled. The results may prove disastrous for both the Navy and the private citizenry. To the detriment of warfighting capability, we are transforming our armed services into little more than armed welfare bureaus.

"Quality of life" issues are continually stressed as essential to maintaining the personnel readiness of the all-volunteer force. Consequently, social spending now takes a disproportionate slice out of a DoD budgetary pie that is currently smaller than it has been in the last 60 years. But "taking care of our people" should mean more than ensuring that our Sailors and Marines have the best daycare centers and commissaries that money can buy. "Quality of life" issues should include the ability to survive on the next battlefield, with the best equipment, weapons, and training available.

Obviously, we need both state-of-the-art technology and well-trained operators of that technology. Only the two working together will enable us to exploit enemy mistakes and produce the dramatic sort of results that we saw in Operation Desert Storm. Unfortunately, Secretary of Defense William Cohen has stated that the current procurement budget is suffering from a shortfall of $16 billion below what is considered the minimum necessary to meet our future commitments as outlined in the Quadrennial Defense Review. 7 That puts us between the proverbial "rock and hard place." We cannot afford to put off procurement of advanced weapons; we cannot continue to train with weapons that are becoming out-dated; and we cannot afford to cut training, because our forces are currently overextended. Frequent and/or prolonged deployments for peacekeeping commitments already detract from combat training opportunities, sap morale, adversely affect re-enlistments, and ultimately drive down operational readiness.

So, in an era when federal legislators are unwilling to increase the defense budget or disestablish military infrastructure to free the needed procurement and training dollars, it is incumbent upon the military leadership to set priorities for the funds available. Ultimately, we cannot afford procurement of advanced technology, the training to be proficient with that technology, and still continue to allocate $25 billion annually to military public assistance and support programs. We must make hard decisions now. Sound leadership dictates that we adopt personal responsibility and accountability as essential elements of military readiness. We should emphasize teaching and practicing these tenets in boot camp, in the training of reserve officers, and at the Naval Academy. And we should demand adherence to them throughout our naval careers.

Additionally, we should revamp the system of military pay and benefits in a manner that would make it more equitable for all of our Sailors and Marines, eliminating policies that reward troops for immature or aberrant behavior. To this end, we should strive toward paying our people a decent, living salary. Then, we should require that they live within their means, taking care of themselves and their families.

We also must recognize the need to reduce our operational tempo, to provide time for our service members to spend with their families. No amount of incentive pay ever will compensate our people for being away from their wives, husbands, and children for eight months out of the year. No bonus ever will encourage our best people to continue their military careers when they are experiencing a 70% deployment rate. Most important, no counseling or advocacy program ever will be capable of eradicating personnel problems associated with excessive separations. We must work to provide individual unit commanders the time and the latitude to practice personal involvement in the welfare of their subordinates, and we should stop paying "Big Brother" $25 billion each year to take care of our troops and their families. We should do it ourselves, and use the savings to help offset our $16 billion weapons procurement and training deficit.

Finally, we should revisit General Mundy's initiative requiring that our most junior people be single, and we should expand it to require them to remain childless during their first tour of duty. We should require our troops to demonstrate a level of maturity that will enable them to adapt successfully to a military lifestyle, before we encourage them to take on the awesome—and more important—responsibilities of marriage or parenthood. Ultimately, this means that we need to refocus on our mission: to be prepared to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea in support of the national interest. Only then will we truly be "taking care of our people."

1 Neff Hudson, "What's Love Got To Do with It? Nothing," Army Times, October 1995.

2 Statement of Admiral Stanley R. Arthur, U.S. Navy, then-Vice Chief of Naval Operations, before the Personnel Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Quality of Life, 5 April 1995.

3 Rick Maze, "$11.2 Billion OK'd for Housing, Child Care Projects," Navy Times, 2 October 1995.

4 David Evans, "More Families, Fewer Fighters: The Pentagon's New Welfare State," The San Diego Union Tribune, 5 March 1995.

5 Otto Kreisher, "Navy Secretary Boosts Benefits for Pregnancies," The San Diego Union Tribune, 8 February 1995.

6 Hudson, op. cit.

7 Jeff Erlich, "Cohen: Procurement Spending Is at Risk," Defense News, 15-21 September 1997, p. 1.

Lieutenant Burns is a training officer in Fighter Squadron Two, Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia.


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