Administration seen as tone deaf on some 'people' issues
With President Bush signing the first-ever $400 billion defense bill, including another military pay raise and housing allowance increase, it would seem hard to argue that this administration has lost touch with troops.
Yet there are currents of worry and disappointment inside the military. U.S. military operations are at their highest sustained level in decades.
Many service people are concerned, mostly over the length and frequency of deployments.
Others are wary that a presidential election next year will shake administration resolve. A premature exit could dishonor the sacrifices so far, particularly of those who have died or been wounded.
Defense officials led by Donald Rumsfeld seem unconcerned about angering large segments of the military community.
Key provisions of the defense bill Bush signed will benefit active duty personnel, reserve and Guard members and disabled retirees in ways the administration opposed. One will extend through December 2004 wartime increases in danger pay and family separation allowance that Congress first approved last April. The administration wanted them rolled back.
Another initiative the Bush team fought will open TRICARE to non-mobilized reservists who lack employer-provided health insurance.
A third will phase out, over 10 years, the ban on “concurrent receipt’’ of both military retired pay and disability compensation for retirees with disabilities rated 50 percent or higher. A fourth will expand Combat-Related Special Compensation to any retiree with combat or combat-training injuries, not just to those with Purple Hearts or disabilities rated at least 60 percent.
Another initiative gives reservists and families immediate and unlimited access to commissaries, which are military grocery stores.
None of these gains would have been in the 2004 Defense Authorization Act had Congress followed White House budget guidance.
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld and his top aides are sending fresh signals they want future budgets squeezed on prized military perks including commissaries and dependent schools.
Joyce Wessel Raezer, director of government relations for National Military Family Association, said, “Why is it so important right now to nickel and dime the commissary benefit? It’s just raising stress. And it is small potatoes compared to some of the other items in the defense budget.’’
Raezer, wife of a retired Army officer, said, “Volunteers on the front line of family support are wearing out’’ as they counsel families stressed by finances, childcare challenges and the constant danger to loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Raezer said the robust reenlistment rates cited by leaders of deployed units likely have more to do with tax breaks than with unit morale. Soldiers know that reenlistment bonus contracts signed in a war zone are tax free.
“I worry about when that person gets home, what the spouse will say,’’ said Raezer. “Traditionally, reenlistment is a decision made around the kitchen table. Not now. It’s being made away from home.’’
Military families “support what the service member is doing,’’ she said. “But when that member gets home it is going to be harder to send them off again. That’s where we’re going to get the problems.’’
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: