For GIs, morale is more than money
FORT STEWART, GA.
Deep inside the sprawling maze of tank trails and platoon routes at Fort Stewart, Ga. - and far from the places President Bush saw yesterday when he came here to announce a big bonus for the military - is the room of Pfc. Ringo Hunt.Skip to next paragraph
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In his mini-dorm room, Private Hunt tidies keepsakes from his New Mexico home: a black cowboy hat, a dried cow jawbone hanging on the wall next to a Britney Spears poster, a picture of his girlfriend.
Hunt quit work on a cattle farm to do a two-year Army stint because "I wanted a better life for me and my girlfriend." Like many, he sees the Army as a ladder to better education, respect, and adventure.
He likes Mr. Bush's pay-raise plan - especially because he spends $125 of his $1,200 monthly pay on long-distance phone bills. But the extra dollars won't make up for the things he misses - or satisfy his dreams. "Money's always nice," Hunt says, "but they should deploy us more."
If one fact emerges during a day of conversations on this base, it's that improving the quality of life for the armed forces - Mr. Bush's stated goal - is far more complex than padding their paychecks. If Hunt broods over too few missions, others say their stints in Kosovo or Korea stretch on too long. Some talk of the strain put on spouses and children by the uncertain duration of deployment. There's talk, too, of soldiers' desire to feel they have been part of a successful mission - what the private sector would call "job satisfaction."
Now, as Bush and his top brass prepare to boost the US military's overall readiness, the attitude and commitment of its personnel may prove essential to achieving that goal.
The pay raise will add $1.4 billion to the $46 billion the military spends each year on salary for its 1.34 million active-duty troops. If the money is distributed evenly, that's $979 per person. But in fact, much of the money will flow to highly skilled troops such as computer technicians or fighter pilots - to keep them from leaving for higher-paying civilian jobs.
Bush also plans to invest $3.9 billion in improved healthcare for military personnel, and $400 million to upgrade base housing. The government's treatment of the armed forces lately has been "ungrateful, unwise, and unacceptable," Bush said here yesterday.
But even before this $5.7 billion package, the quality of life of less-skilled troops has been showing signs of improvement. Ten years ago, 19,400 military personnel were so bad off they used food stamps. By 1998, just 6,300 received food aid - less than one-half of 1 percent. (By contrast about 8 percent of Americans are on food stamps.)
Yet for all the focus on boosting salaries, "It's not really about pay," says Donald McClinton, a 1st sergeant with a wide smile and a fulsome Roman nose. "It's more about leaving home and not knowing when you're coming back."
Typically, a soldier is shipped out for about six months, but tours are often extended - a part of the job that is troubling to some. Sergeant McClinton, who's married and has a child, heads to Kosovo in Yugoslavia this summer and hopes to be home by Christmas. "It's the whole family concept thing," he says.
A matter of pride
If soldiers want predictability, they also, like most workers, want to take pride in the missions they've served.
"They thrive on having a mission and carrying it out," says Col. Kevin Bergner, who oversees training for soldiers headed for the Balkans. After he led a group to the Balkans, retention rates - the percentage of soldiers who reenlist when their tours of duty end - skyrocketed. "I had a 10- to 30-percent increase in retention after that mission."