San Diego Union Tribune


13-Feb-2001 Tuesday 

Bush vows $1.4 billion pay raise for military
Armed forces also in line for housing, health-care boosts 


FORT STEWART, Ga. -- President Bush pledged yesterday to seek a military pay raise to bolster the morale of the U.S. armed forces as he reviewed the troops for the first time since taking office.

"While you're serving us well, America is not serving you well enough," Bush declared in a pep talk at the home of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. "Many in our military have been overdeployed and underpaid. Many live in aging houses and work in aging buildings."

In an effort to fulfill a campaign pledge to improve military pay and living conditions, Bush told the troops that he would ask Congress for a $1.4 billion pay raise for the armed services next year. He also will ask Congress for $3.9 billion for military health benefits and $400 million for
military housing, he said.

The proposals were applauded by veterans groups yesterday but were seen as small steps toward tackling chronic problems affecting military families.

"Certainly $400 million isn't going to put much of a dent in the housing problems," said Bruce Harder, director of national security and foreign affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Pentagon officials say two-thirds of the military's 300,000 family housing units are substandard and must be replaced. That would cost at least $20 billion and take 30 years at current rates of investment, according to a Pentagon spokesman.

More than 5,100 military families are on food stamps, according to White House officials. The officials also cite a 13 percent pay gap between the military and the private sector, adding that there are thousands of inadequate housing units on U.S. military bases worldwide.

In addition, Pentagon officials say that in recent years a substantial increase in operational deployments has led to increased family separations and hardships.

"These problems, from low pay to poor housing, reach across our military, and the result is predictable," Bush said. "Frustration is up; morale, in some places, is difficult to sustain. Recruitment is harder. This is not the way a great nation should reward courage and idealism. It's ungrateful.  It's unwise, and it is unacceptable."

Bush's visit to Fort Stewart -- the largest Army facility east of the Mississippi River, located near Savannah, Ga. -- launched a week that will focus on reversing what he has said were years of neglect of the military under the Clinton administration.

Whether intended or not, the visit contrasted sharply with President Clinton's rocky start with the military, including his initial awkwardness saluting and his immediate plunge into the divisive issue of gays in the military.

Unlike Clinton's early efforts, Bush's trip to Fort Stewart -- his maiden journey on Air Force One -- went smoothly.

On a chilly, overcast day, a military band greeted Bush with "Hail to the Chief." It was the first time the tune has officially been played for Bush since his inauguration on Jan. 20.

He then received a 21-gun salute, reviewed a massed formation of 3rd Infantry troops, and paid tribute to the division's self-described "dog-faced soldiers" by greeting them with their trademark grunt, "Hooah."

As he outlined his proposals to improve their pay and housing, the troops assembled on the parade ground and in the stands offered their own appreciative "Hooahs."

Afterward, Bush toured barracks and received a standing ovation in the mess hall as he joined troops for a lunch of lasagna, mashed potatoes and strawberry cake.

He said two-thirds of the barracks on the base need renovation, and many of the work areas are located in buildings meant to last only a decade but that were constructed in 1941.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters on Air Force One that Bush would propose a Pentagon budget of $310 billion for next year.

Despite Bush's harsh condemnations during the campaign of past neglect of the military, Fleischer said the president's proposal would represent a spending increase of only about $14 billion over Clinton's proposal for the coming year. Of Bush's beefed-up request, he said, only the $5.7 billion
package announced yesterday represents new spending; the balance, he said, is designed to cover inflation.

Bush is expected later this month to formally send Congress his complete budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.