Does the US want a 'welfare fleet?'

The financial plight of United States military families is a subject frequently discussed in public forums of late. Even President Carter has belatedly acknowledged the need to increase the compensation due servicemen and women. Unfortunately, present proposals to increase various allowances and per diem rates will benefit only some military personnel, primarily under special conditions such as during travel between duty stations.

The real need is to restore the damage wrought by inflation and to provide money for food, utilities, and other basic essentials.

Understandably, there are economic and political realities with which the President and Congress must deal, no matter what their personal feelings toward the condition of military families. Additionally, most Americans, including those in uniform, want to see genuine fiscal restraint on the part of the government as a counter to debilitating inflation.

There is a potential solution to this seeming dilemma. As with most human answers, it is not perfect, it is not even new.

I propose legislation exempting all active duty military pay from federal income tax. The long hours, disrupted personal lives, and grinding family separations are an already heavy tax on military personnel.

What benefits should come from such legislation? First, it could be done quickly, with no requirement for increased appropriations for military pay. It need not be retroactive and should not extend to military pensions. There need not be any exemption from state or local taxes or social security taxes. Only income from military compensation should be exempted; all other income should be taxes normally.

The increase in monthly salary from this proposal would not be large for very junior personnel, but all services are currently managing to recruit adequate numbers at existing pay scales. The increase would be significant for mid-career personnel, precisely the highly skilled group the services are losing by the thousands.

Undeniably, senior enlisted and officer grades would benefit substantially. Far from being a detractor, this factor would be a positive incentive toward longer careers, harder work, and increased competition for promotion (i.e. reduced training and retirement costs, higher productivity, and more competent individuals rising to the top).

An equally significant benefit for the military would be the strong boost in morale such a step would produce. Few military members or their families now have a firm conviction that their labors and uncommon sacrifices are recognized and appreciated by the people and government they serve.

What does the long-suffering US taxpayer derive from this solution? The immediate result would almost certainly be a marked decrease in the number of discharges and resignations by the skilled uniformed personnel the US obviously needs given recent trends in the international balance and use of blunt military force.

The overall federal expenditure for this action would be the smallest the government could make for the desired result. No additional pay appropriations would be needed. There would be no increase in downstream retirement costs.

There would be a loss of revenue to the US Treasury and realignments in the federal budget would be required. Increased compensation for the military will have a price; I am simply suggesting the lowest price.

Nobody should think that this would forever end all military pay and retention problems. It would help and would create a breathing space to permit detailed study of a wide range of compensation alternatives and provide the time for the legislative and fiscal give and take necessary to bring them into being.

The US Navy is currently short more than 20,000 key skilled personnel. An additional 20,000 individuals are serving on voluntary one-year extensions of their obligated service. Those on extensions include some reacting to the downturn in the economy and many others who are waiting in good faith for a much promised sign of understanding and commitment on the part of the Congress and the President.

Recently the crew of the ship on which I serve was briefed on procedures for applying for food stamps and for obtaining rent subsidies under local welfare programs. This was in preparation for our imminent return home after six months at sea.

If there is no rapid and significant response to the obvious disparity between unusual self-sacrifice and abysmal compensation, the months ahead may well bring more news of ships unable to sail for lack of crews. Those less-than-proud ships which do get underway would comprise our first "welfare fleet," hardly an instrument to effectively represent and defend US interests around the world.

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