Commentary

An open letter to the sergeant major of the Army

Throughout my time in the U.S. Army, I’ve always considered myself an advocate for the soldiers in my care.

I’ve had the great fortune of serving in garrison and combat with some of the most extraordinary people our great nation has ever produced during my nearly 20-year career. Like you, I take my responsibility as a senior NCO very seriously and will do whatever I can to make the lives of each soldier within my sphere of influence better. Recently, you’ve helped to spearhead many social changes and initiatives across our great organization to include a change in Army Regulation 670-1. I believe that these initiatives are a great thing, and while some might disagree, I feel that they will help make our Army better.

It is this reason I would like to submit this open letter to you. I understand the power of social media as a tool to affect positive change; it has been used numerous times before. So today, I would like to recommend three policy/regulation changes that can only benefit the Army’s Total Force.

1. Basic Allowance for Sustenance (BAS) being 100 percent voluntary for single soldiers

Currently, on Fort Stewart, Georgia, there are only two fully operational dining facilities. One of which is on the 2ABCT compound, which is essentially a completely different base. The other, which is on Fort Stewart proper, does not have the capacity to feed every ‘single’ soldier on the installation. On average, that particular DFAC sees about 100-150 soldiers during each meal. Without COVID restrictions, it could potentially service up to 800 soldiers; however, it can only support about half of those numbers if operating with a full staff in our current COVID environment. A typical artillery battalion in an ABCT might have 600 soldiers on the books. I would conservatively guess that a third receive meal deductions. That means the DFAC on FSGA services less than a battalion’s worth of single soldiers on average. I would be willing to guess that this is likely the same (or close) for every major installation in the Army. Even if a particular installation has enough DFACs to support every soldier, the numbers likely do not reflect it doing so. Furthermore, the location of the DFACs are not conducive to facilitating meals for these single soldiers. The DFAC previously mentioned is about a mile from the barracks that most soldiers reside in. There is a closer DFAC; however, it has not been operational in years and likely will not be for at least another year.

Granted, the use of food trucks and kiosks to help subsidize the lack of capability to feed our troops is a good thing; however, those resources have historically not been consistent or provided enough food to make up the difference for our soldiers. My recommendation is that each soldier should first be counseled on the pros and cons of electing to receive BAS. Then, that soldier should be able to freely choose if he/she wants to opt-out of meal deductions.

Leaders who disagree with me may point to two things. First, they might suggest that single soldiers should be forced to eat in the DFAC to help provide them with healthier food. My rebuttal is that the numbers already do not support that the single soldiers are doing so. Most soldiers will, unfortunately, choose a fast food place like Burger King or other commercial restaurants normally on the installation due to them being in closer proximity than any DFAC and providing food much more efficiently. Secondly, some might suggest that the BAS taken from soldiers in the barracks is used to help subsidize the DFACs facility and/or operations. To which, I would be appalled. I do not believe that any soldier’s monetary entitlement should be used to fund an entire MOS’s existence. If this hurts our culinary arts specialists, perhaps we need less of that particular MOS. Or, even better, the Army could budget the resources to reflect the requirements based on the ground truth at each installation. We should give each soldier BAS and if that individual would like to eat at the DFAC, he/she could pay for the meal like any married soldier. A simple debit card scanner could be used to pay for each meal.

2. Cancelling Basic Allowance for Sustenance (BAS) recoupment during field training exercises under 30 days

The annual budget for the U.S. Army for 2021, according to AUSA, is around $178 billion. That is a significant amount of money that has probably been earmarked for priorities such as modernization, training, maintenance, and other operations. Still, with those vast amounts of resources, we still require that soldiers pay for their own meals while conducting field training exercises.

The current regulation, AR 600-38, suggest that BAS is utilized to offset the cost of food for soldiers. And I understand that it is not meant to account for family members’ sustenance; however, we would be lying to ourselves if we didn’t believe the contrary was the norm. Why wouldn’t funding for troop feeding during training come direct from unit/Army funding? Again, a soldier shouldn’t be required to subsidize their own food when they are conducting routine training operations in a field environment while away from their family. If over a certain time period (say 30 days), that same soldier would receive Family Separation Allowance, my recommendation is that we change AR 600-38 to reflect that soldiers will not be required to forego or recoup BAS for any training under that 30-day threshold. Not only will this almost completely take away the potential financial hardship that this regulation applies to individual soldiers and their families, it will also reduce the administrative burden of our personnel staff, first sergeants/commanders, and finance offices. I might even suggest that recoupment be based on rank (i.e. officers/senior NCOs -E7 and above- pay the recoupment; whereas all junior soldiers do not). If we can change AR 670-1, one of the most widely known regulations in the Army, surely we can make changes to a regulation that has the potential of financially burdening a young soldier and/or their family.

3. On-post housing costs should be based on the value of the house, NOT on the rank of the soldier living in it

In 2019, the Army was hit with a massive housing standards crisis. The reaction was swift and felt throughout the ranks. Town-hall meetings, congressional visits, and a 24-hour cycle of bad press became routine.

Soldiers and their families were tired of living in substandard conditions. They felt as though their voices were not being heard and they were frustrated with leaderships lack of ability to affect change. Visits from senior leadership helped enforce that we actually do care about the standard of living for our Army families. However, once the news cycle moved to another salacious topic, not much changed from our troops’ perspectives.

One thing that didn’t change is the fact that a soldier living in on-post housing could potentially pay way more than what the house they were living in warranted. An example, if a married specialist with four children lived on base at FSGA, he/she would pay about $1,400 a month for a four-bedroom home. That same soldier, who might have only one child, would pay the exact same costs for a two bedroom home. This doesn’t even take into account the condition of the home. Anyone living on FSGA will tell you that many of the homes they live in are quite literally falling apart.

About 30 percent of the active force lives on a base, according to Army Materiel Command. That’s a significant number of people who are dealing with this Army-wide issue. While there is a plan underway to modernize housing, can’t we start by not paying these housing companies based on rank as opposed by the product offered? Sure, there are contracts to look at; however, they have to uphold their ends as well. If privatized housing firms like Balfour Beatty or Corvice Management aren’t providing a product that is worth the millions of dollars they receive from soldiers, I would suggest that individual families do exactly what they would do if they rented from a company off the installation: file suit. The only area that seems to concern these private housing companies, based on the perception of many soldiers, are those companies’ wallets.

Therefore, my recommendation is that soldiers should pay housing rates on-post based on the home itself. I think this is perfectly reasonable and makes more sense. Our obligation is to our soldiers, not some private company who only cares about their bottom line. I understand that these issues are likely more nuanced and complex than I might know. I still feel as though these concerns are valid, reasonable, and that my recommendations are feasible.

I love the “People First” initiative and what it inspires to do. Having a culture in the U.S. Army that is grounded in taking care of our most precious resource, our soldiers and their families, is paramount to our ability to do what we are designed to do: deploy, fight, endure, and win. If we can take small measures to show that we genuinely care about their welfare, particularly their financial welfare in regards to this letter, we will have bred a foundation of trust and confidence in our leadership. If a soldier truly believes their leaders will go to bat for them, there is no limit to what that soldier can accomplish while being a member of a team like the United States Army. Thank you for your time and I hope that with the influence of someone in your position, we can address these concerns for our troops.

1st Sgt. Jason Renaud is a native of Pensacola, Florida. He entered the Army on Jan. 23, 2002, and graduated from One Station Unit Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a 13B cannon crewmember. He has held every leadership position in the field artillery community up to HHB 1SG. 1SG Renaud has four combat deployments to Iraq and one rotation to the Republic of Korea. He is a member of the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club, the Honorable Order of Saint Barbara, and holds an associates degree in general studies from the American Military University. Currently, 1SG Renaud is the HHC 1SG for U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Stewart/HAAF. He resides in Hinesville, GA with his wife a kids.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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