Troops caught in middle of budget battle

  • Tom Philpott / Military Update
  • Saturday, May 5, 2001 9:00pm
  • Local News

On a breezy hilltop near the village of Mijak in southern Kosovo, Army 2nd Lt. David Hodges and his platoon from C Company, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, keep a watchful eye on nearby hills inside Macedonia. Ethnic Albanian guerrillas move through the area just beyond the border routinely to skirmish with Macedonian soldiers.

Hodges and his men, on a five-month rotation from Fort Bragg, N.C., watch from bunkers and run foot patrols to ensure that the fighting doesn’t bleed into Kosovo. At night, Macedonian soldiers fire on anything that moves, including "cows, dogs and trees," Hodges said.

A special visitor who appreciates the difference in force discipline is Army Gen. Henry "Hugh" Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shelton, 59, has made more than a dozen trips to the Balkans since becoming the nation’s top officer in 1997.

With 5,600 U.S. troops in Kosovo, 3,900 still in Bosnia and 500 in Macedonia, Shelton worries about the pace of operations and the impact long work-ups and frequent peacekeeping deployment have on active and reserve units. Soldier tax breaks, hostile fire pay, even tax-free re-enlistment bonuses ease the hardship. But the frequency of family separations is a big concern. "We’ve been going hard for a long time," Hodges told Shelton on April 30.

Later that day, the chairman visits a U.S. observation post at Dobrosin on Kosovo’s eastern border with Serbia. A company from 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment is preparing for Serb forces to reoccupy the last section of a five kilometer-wide safety zone set up when allied forces first entered Kosovo. The zone, part of Serbia, has become a haven for ethnic Albanian insurgents. When the Serb reoccupation occurs in several weeks, allied troops want to prevent any fighting from seeping into Kosovo.

Shelton’s last stop is the Polish/Ukrainian Brigade in Krivenik, another border town where mortar rounds from Macedonia March 29 killed two people, including a BBC reporter. A farmer who lost some barnyards animals in the attack tells Shelton he doesn’t know what faction fired the rounds, but the targets likely were the allied troops who now guard his village from harm.

En route to Bosnia for more troop visits, Shelton said the greatest challenge facing the U.S. military today is a lack of understanding among Americans that "we live in a very dangerous and unpredictable world." That lack of understanding is why defense budgets are 3 percent of gross national product, the smallest in 50 years, he said.

"If America is going to remain a global power and fulfill our global responsibilities, we have to have the force structure to do that, or we’re going to kill our people trying to maintain the operational tempo we have today," said Shelton.

As the Bush administration prepares to unveil its first defense budget, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has 17 different panels reviewing every aspect of national security. The Joint Chiefs are being consulted, but it’s a much different process than during the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review. Each panel this time works for the defense secretary who will use the results to reshape the strategy and propose changes to force structure and weapons programs.

Shelton said force quality must remain a top priority. He believes military pay is still 10 percent behind private-sector wage growth of recent years. That argues for a hefty increase soon rather than the gradual half-percent reduction in the pay gap, to occur each year, under current law.

Tricare must continue to improve, too, by improving patient access and the speed of claim processing. The health system also needs a more aggressive management structure to get costs under control, Shelton said. He agrees with surgeons general that too many dollars are being siphoned from the direct-care system to cover burgeoning Tricare support contracts.

The Defense Medical Oversight Council, run largely by the Joint Staff, has sent Rumsfeld recommendations on the issue, Shelton said, though he couldn’t discuss details. "You’ve got to get a responsibility established so you can put your finger in the chest of those who manage it and have them explain why they’ve got this (cost) growth," he said.

Asked about his high profile for a Joint Chiefs chairman in fighting for pay and benefit gains, Shelton said he would be proud if that’s part of his legacy. His advocacy was sparked soon after becoming chairman when he sat down with six Air Force enlisted, all highly regarded. Only two said they would stay for full careers. The others blamed a retirement plan passed in 1986 that made 20-year careers less attractive.

Shelton asked for a full briefing from his staff. He got one on the so-called Redux retirement plan, plus another on a widening military pay gap. He raised both issues in the "tank," where Joint Chiefs meet, using a briefing titled, "Houston, We Have a Problem." When one chief argued that spending extra billions on pay could kill off major weapons programs, Shelton said he countered that services needed force quality to operate those weapons. Besides, if a big weapons program were put in jeopardy, a powerful defense contractor still would lobby Congress to save it.

"Who’s going to lobby for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines?" Shelton remembered asking colleagues. "Look around the room gentlemen. We’re it."

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