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Panel prepares to launch pay and benefits survey

May. 13, 2014 - 10:32AM   |  
Air Force Col. Mike Hayden (Ret.)
Air Force Col. Mike Hayden (Ret.) (MOAA)
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Top military leaders routinely say that rank-and-file troops won’t mind too much if their pay and benefits are cut.

The most stunning example came when the Marine Corps’ senior enlisted leader recently testified before Congress that troops actually might welcome reduced compensation.

“They don’t want an easy life,” Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett Barrett told lawmakers at an April 9 hearing. “They want to be tougher people.”

Speculation about what troops really want or think about pay and benefits may end soon as experts mount a first-of-its-kind, forcewide survey gauging service members’ views about their compensation.

By the end of May, hundreds of thousands of active-duty troops, reservists and retirees will receive email invitations to take a survey launched by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which Congress convened last year to tackle the thorny issues involved in the Pentagon’s efforts to reduce its personnel costs.

Military leaders are looking for ways to do that without harming recruitment and retention. The top brass say personnel costs are growing at an unsustainable rate after years of generous pay raises and other perks that Congress bestowed on the force while it was fighting two long wars.

In March, the Pentagon proposed cost-saving measures that included capping troops’ pay raises, scaling back housing allowances, launching new Tricare fees and eliminating commissary subsidies at most domestic installations, which would raise prices in the stores.

The survey aims to identify which pays and benefits are most valued by service members. It may also identify benefits that are inefficient because their cost to the government exceeds their perceived value by troops.

“To truly understand the service members’ preferences and priorities with regard to compensation will allow us to make decisions that will protect the quality of life of the service members,” said Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the commission.

“As a result of this survey, we will be able to understand not simply whether or not service members want more pay, but how the various elements of the compensation package relate to each other, which ones are valued more, which ones are valued less,” Graybeal said.

The survey will be completed and the results released publicly later this year. By February, the commission will submit to Congress a slate of formal recommendations for overhauling military compensation, which may be a catalyst for lawmakers to take action on the politically sensitive matter.

Congress is eager to see what troops think. In fact, House lawmakers recently added a provision to their draft version of the 2015 defense authorization bill that would require the Defense Department to conduct a similar survey.

But some advocates are skeptical of the idea and fear it will lay the groundwork for controversial cuts.

“It could create what would be considered low-hanging fruit for the budget cutters to go after,” said retired Air Force Col. Mike Hayden, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.

Hayden also suggested demographics can skew the survey’s results.

“The junior troops are going to say one thing — that they don’t value the retirement package. And you’re going to have senior troops who are going to say they do value it. Those with families are going to value the commissary more than those without,” Hayden said.

In preparing the new survey, the commission’s staff is taking care to ensure it has no flaws statistically or methodologically, since its results are likely to be highly controversial.

“When our survey comes out, we expect the results to generate a conversation,” Graybeal said. “We want that conversation to be about the policies surrounding the issue and not the methodology of the survey, so it’s in our best interests to make sure it’s done in a very appropriate way.”

A key aspect of that effort is to “ensure that we hear from the enlisted population,” Graybeal said.

A similar survey was conducted on a small scale in 2012 by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based think tank. The findings suggested that service members prefer cash up front over in-kind benefits promised later in life, such as retirement-age health care benefits.

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