For GIs, morale is more than money

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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.

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.

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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."

But military planners also find that too many missions sap soldiers. "It's the cumulative effect that becomes the challenge," says Colonel Bergner.

Bush said during the presidential campaign that he wanted to scale back the US presence in the Balkans. He hasn't yet done so, but if he does, the military may need to consider the impact of that decision on troop morale.

Even if rank-and-file military life can seem like an endless series of family goodbyes, it's also a stable profession - largely free of layoffs. When it comes to recruitment and retention, that's something the brass can use as a selling point.

"I didn't stay for the pay," states Sgt. Maj. 1st Class Kenneth Freeman, who's crouched in his driveway in a subdivision-like row of houses. "I stayed for the security."

This 18-1/2-year veteran tank commander is changing the brakes on his blue minivan with the help of son Kenny. After 20 years, Sergeant Freeman can retire and get $1,300 a month - half his current salary - and full health benefits for life.

Until then, the military pays for his three-bedroom house. And while two-thirds of military housing is designated as "substandard" - meaning it would be too shabby for a civilian landlord to rent out - Freeman says his house is "just fine."

Indeed, in one of the many paradoxes of military life, many men and women who make careers out of risking their lives seem intently focused on the low-risk stability of their jobs.

"You get a guaranteed check and guaranteed benefits, why would you walk away?" asks Freeman, as Kenny places a wrench in his grease-smeared hand.

"I'm a farm boy from North Carolina," he continues, recalling his younger days of up-before-dawn tobacco farming. Compared with that life, "I feel like I've been on a break for 18 years."

Some younger soldiers see the benefit of stability, too. Private Jillian Newman is a new recruit and an MP, part of the Military Police. "Your life is really organized," she says, eating a dinner of spaghetti in the mess hall. "You don't have to worry about where to eat. You don't have to worry about a roof over your head. And they train you to do the job you're supposed to do." Plus, she adds, "if you decide to have a kid, it's basically free."

The job helps make the man

If Private Newman is thinking about children, Private Hunt, back in his room, is thinking of his girlfriend and New Mexico. "It's 1,861 miles," he says. "I can drive it in two days."

As much as he pines for home, he does like military life. It shows in flashes of confidence. This is a man who won't look strangers in the eye when he shakes their hands - but snaps to attention with a piercing stare.

When not in uniform, he walks with a slow gait, dragging his cowboy boots in the dust. But he pumps his hands high with pride as he describes the truck he drives - a 12-foot-high, 12-foot-wide rig that carries M1 tanks. He hopes to get to drive that truck in Kosovo or Korea - or anywhere overseas. And he wants to start taking classes to pick up where his high-school diploma left off.

He had hoped to see America's new president, but didn't. Never mind, though. He's thinking ahead to Valentine's Day.

"I gotta call the flower shop at home," he says. "They know me by my first name, and the address - and they know what I want it to say."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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