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HOW WE DID IT
From Jan. 6 to Jan. 30, Military Times conducted a voluntary and confidential online survey of subscribers. Respondents included active-duty, reserve-component and retired service members, as well as military family members and defense contractors. Of the more than 50,000 people who received invitations to participate, almost 3,500 responded.
Unless specified otherwise, the results discussed here are based on the answers of 792 respondents who said they were active-duty military (733) or reservists currently mobilized for federal active duty (59).
These respondents do not effectively represent the demographics of the military as a whole. Few junior enlisted members responded, and officers and career-oriented troops are overrepresented in our results. White service members, American Indians/Alaska Natives and men were overrepresented in the responses, while black troops were severely underrepresented when compared with Defense Department demographic data from fiscal 2010.
However, given that the demographics represented in this survey have held relatively steady for the past several years, we believe the trends in our data can serve as a bellwether for changing attitudes and experiences among military personnel as a whole. It may also be possible to gauge the sentiments among senior and career-oriented service members who are responsible for carrying out policy changes from these results.
With the economy still in a funk and politicians and defense officials panicking about Pentagon cutbacks, the morale of the force is hardly sky-high — but it is better than last year, according to the 2012 Military Times Poll.
Forty-two percent of the 792 active-duty respondents to this year's poll, for example, said they are very or somewhat worried about their personal finances; just last year, that number peaked at 51 percent. The percentage of those reporting no worries rose from 17 percent in 2011 to 21 percent in 2012. Before the recession, in 2006, 37 percent were very or somewhat worried about their finances, and one-fourth said they had no concerns.
The Wileys were among the military families hit by the recent economic hurricane, which devastated the value of two homes they had to sell when Army Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Wiley was transferred, first to Pennsylvania, then Texas, then Oklahoma and finally Hawaii over the past four years.
As he and his wife, Cynthia, try to rebuild their savings, they've taken to burning candles at night to save on electricity. Their son, who heads to college next year, will rely on Anthony Wiley's GI Bill education benefits, since there's little left for a college fund.
Wiley, who has served more than 20 years and now specializes in maintaining Patriot missiles, said he'll probably stay in the military until he and his wife can afford to weather several months of potential unemployment in the civilian world while he searches for a new job as a government contractor.
"Given the cost of living in Hawaii, it could take until the second coming of Christ," he said.
Still, it could be — and recently has been — worse for the couple.
The Wileys couldn't find a renter after Anthony Wiley was transferred to Texas, and spent two years paying the mortgage on their unoccupied Pittsburgh home, which cost them $70,000. The bank finally accepted a short sale, but only if the Wileys paid a $5,000 fee.
The military's Housing Assistance Program allowed them to recoup $18,000, but by then their credit scores had dropped by about 100 points each.
Their savings were wiped out. In a way, they said, being broke but stable is an improvement.
Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Robert Craig-Gray said he also was hit hard by the housing crisis, losing $200,000 on the short sale of his home in the Washington, D.C., suburbs after being transferred to Texas, though the military's mortgage assistance program helped offset some of the cost.
At the same time, his wife had to leave her job as a human resources manager at Georgetown University in Washington. The only work she could find in Texas was as a part-time cashier at Home Depot.
For now, Craig-Gray said, he plans to stay in the Air Force, largely because the military offers stability and a certain future. But he's worried that the next move, or the ones after that, could be too much for his family, including his two kids.
"I don't want to have it such that my wife has to sacrifice her career and sacrifice her home on an ongoing basis because of my job," he said. "That's not fair."
Ups and downs in morale
The Obama administration has placed great emphasis on support for military families, particularly in job training for spouses. That effort may be reflected in a slight decline in the percentage of poll respondents this year who said that frequent military-related moves hurt their spouse's career or kept them from getting job training.
Roughly the same percentage this year as last year said their spouse is currently employed either part time or full time.
Other measures of morale are a mixed bag. For example, the percentage of respondents who said they were satisfied with their marriage was a seemingly robust 85 percent this year — but that's down 9 points from last year's 94 percent.
But in most other areas, respondents this year said they were happier with their quality of life, though only slightly.
Service members who called military housing "good" or "excellent" rose 6 percentage points, and those who described overall military quality of life as better than average increased 3 points.
The percentage of respondents who said they are dissatisfied with military pay, health care, officers and enlisted leaders dropped 2 percentage points across the board. The same percentage of respondents as last year said they're satisfied with their jobs, but slightly more of those people said they are "completely satisfied" rather than "somewhat satisfied."
Iraq, Afghanistan pessimism
Even as troops' personal morale and financial security creeps upward at home, poll respondents are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the futures of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last summer, several months before the last U.S. combat troops pulled out of Iraq, more than 70 percent of active-duty troops who responded to the poll said they approved of the plan to pull out. About 70 percent also said they believed the mission had been successful.
With sectarian violence on the upswing in Iraq, less than 60 percent of respondents to the 2012 poll said they thought pulling out U.S. troops was the right move. Similarly, the percentage of respondents who said the war was a success dropped more than 10 points.
At the same time, optimism about Afghanistan, low to begin with in previous polls, ebbed further in this year's poll.
The percentage of respondents who felt the Afghan military would be ready to stand on its own in 10 years or less shrank from 62 percent last year to 57 percent this year. Nearly three-fourths of respondents said al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's death last May was significant but had no tangible impact on the situation in the region.
Lt. Frances Keller, a Navy nurse who has deployed to Afghanistan, said she fears that the sacrifices made by U.S. troops in that nation may come to naught.
"When we leave … [the Afghans] will go back to the Taliban because ‘Insha'Allah, it's God's will' — so we're dying for nothing," she said. "Some of the guys that come back are furious because they're the medics that are out there and they've lost their Marines. ... That's a big issue for a lot of these young kids."