Listen to the troops

Posted: Mar 13, 2001 12:00 AM
"Most people don't know how hard service members work, or how stressful military life is for families." -- William J. Clinton, 25 February, 1999 WASHINGTON, D.C. --This statement is certainly true. But try to imagine if you will, the reaction of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who heard those words broadcast over the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. Their draft-dodging, intern-hounding, impeached commander in chief was appearing with Janet Langhart Cohen, the media-maven wife of the then secretary of defense, on a show called "Special Assignment." In the midst of the exclusive interview, he bites his lip and bemoans how tough things are for those who serve in uniform because "they're making the world safe for genuine self-determination, for free commerce, for free exchange of ideas, in a way no generation has ever tried to do, or had to do before." It is all very moving. If you don't know better, if you forgot say, World War I, World War II, Korea or even Vietnam, you might believe him. And if you willfully suspended disbelief, you might almost think Clinton really cared -- that he felt their pain -- and all this hardship was someone else's fault. Unfortunately, the low morale, recruiting and retention shortfalls, and readiness deficits that are Clinton's legacy of loathing to our armed forces are going to be much more difficult to rectify than many people suspect. President George W. Bush, in asking Congress for $310.5 billion for defense in fiscal year 2002, a "reasonable" 4 percent increase over this year's allocation, has already acknowledged that it's going to take more than throwing money at the problems to repair eight years of neglect. But the "top down review" President Bush has ordered Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to conduct is only part of the answer. The force structure changes and acquisition improvements that devolve from such a review will take years to implement and will do little to staunch the hemorrhage of highly trained young non-commissioned officers and junior officers who are critical to the force. And while you could almost hear the cheering in the barracks when President Bush said, "I am requesting $5.7 billion in increased military pay and benefits and health care and housing," there are other things which must be done if we are to maintain an adequate defense while we transition from a Cold War defense structure to deal with the realities of a new world disorder. Over the first 50 days of the new administration, hundreds of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have called or e-mailed my radio show. Some were prompted by the death of seven members of the Army's 25th Infantry Division killed in a training accident in Hawaii last month. Others were provoked by last week's air crash that killed 21 soldiers and Virginia Guardsmen. And still others were motivated by Bush's inspiring words at the dedication of the USS Ronald Reagan at Newport News Shipyard on March 4. As one of my old Battalion Commanders once told me, "You can learn a lot when you listen to the troops." In every case, they are glad that Bush is "in charge." They know he's right when he says, "America's strength ultimately depends on the courage and spirit of the men and women who wear the uniform." But the sailors who heard him say last week -- "Nearly half our ships are at sea right now. One-third are forward deployed overseas ..." -- are quietly asking, "Why?" Those who have been in for a few years have seen our active forces slashed by 320,000, our reserves by 193,000 and the DOD civilian work force by 286,000 since 1993. They wonder why we still have 800 troops wearing U.N. uniforms and more than 15,000 U.S. military personnel deployed around the world as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's "Meals on Wheels" contingent. Service men and women returning for repeat assignments to Kosovo and Bosnia wonder why we continue to send troops into this "Balkan Aberration," where "all we do is protect ourselves against the Albanians we came to save." Soldiers ask, "What the hell is an Army of One?" Rangers, proud of their hard-won, distinguishing head gear, wonder why every cook and "Remington Raider" in the Pentagon will now be wearing a black beret made in -- of all places -- communist China. Air Force pilots remonstrate that they would get more "flight hours" in any U.S. commuter airline and their crew chiefs tell of having to scavenge spare parts from "hanger queens." The Marines, glad to get distinctive new camouflage utility uniforms, are worried that they may not get something they need even more, the V-22 Osprey. It's not likely that the generals and admirals are going to make these kinds of comments in their "top down review." But the young people saying these things aren't whiners, grumblers or malcontents. Most of them have put their lives on the line before, are willing to do so again -- and are willing to "tell it like it is." That's why Churchill, like Napoleon, kept a young soldier nearby to "tell the truth."