U.S. Military Highly Rated but Strains Begin to Show

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By all accounts, Col. David H. Petraeus is a soldier's soldier.

Now a brigade commander in the Army's famed 82nd Airborne Division, he has been a rifle company commander, operations officer for an infantry brigade and top staff officer for the U.S. mission in Haiti. He has also published two books and numerous articles, and he has a doctorate from Princeton University in public administration.

Army Spc. 4 Brett Gehring, a military policeman with the 82nd Airborne, has two bachelor's degrees from Pennsylvania State University, in administrative justice and environmental resource management.

Petraeus and Gehring may not be exactly typical of today's soldiers, sailors and airmen. But neither are they rarities. The nation's 1.5 million active-duty military personnel include some 2,868 Ph.D.s, another 90,427 with master's degrees and 159,755 more with bachelor's degrees. Only about 70,000 have not completed four years of high school.

By almost any measure, the United States now has the finest military force in its history. As recent deployments to Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina have shown, today's all-volunteer force is highly disciplined. Yet American troops can also think for themselves. They're problem-solvers. They work hard. The level of responsibility now being given sergeants and petty officers in the U.S. military is higher than in almost any other nation's armed forces.

The force is far more diversified than in previous years, drawing recruits from a wide variety of ethnic groups and backgrounds. And despite some recent headlines about hate groups in the military, experts say race relations in the armed forces, while decidedly not perfect, still are visibly better than those in the civilian world.

"The U.S. military today is probably more capable than it's ever been--capable of meeting any military threat which we now can imagine," Defense Secretary William J. Perry told the National Youth Leadership Forum on Defense, Intelligence and Diplomacy last month.

But some strains are beginning to show. As in the civilian world, the downsizing of the armed forces is taking a toll on morale. Pay is not keeping up with inflation. Peacekeeping missions are forcing long, unwelcome tours overseas.

Downsizing ranks high on any list of negatives. The growing likelihood that the force will shrink further over the next decade has left many in the military uncertain about their long-term job security. Although top policymakers insist that the "drawdown," as it is known, has ended, many of those still in the service are skeptical.

"Despite what you hear, I think there's still more to go," said Marine Capt. Frank Donovan, a 29-year-old infantry officer. "Eventually, the government is going to look at the Marine Corps and say it's redundant."

With fewer leaders needed, promotions are harder to come by and competition is fierce in the senior officer ranks and, for enlisted personnel, in selected occupational fields.

Marine Capt. Eugene L. Summers, a 30-year-old supply officer, said he will decide on his career plans next year, after he sees whether he is promoted. "If they make me major, I'll stay," he said. But he's not betting the family jewels: "They still have way too many officers in the corps."

Despite built-in safeguards against discrimination, promotions for black senior officers are going more slowly than for whites.

As the defense budget shrinks, pay scales are not keeping pace with inflation or with wage rates in the private sector. Defense Department figures show that military pay now trails slightly behind what it should have been after taking inflation into account.

Including such fringe benefits as housing, military compensation is roughly equivalent to that of similar jobs in the civilian sector. But much on-base housing is dilapidated, and in many areas the off-base housing allowance is not enough to pay for a decent apartment.

Pay aside, working conditions are growing worse for much of the military. With U.S. troops increasingly involved in global peacekeeping, some in key specialties--including Marine expeditionary units, AWACS radar plane crews, military police companies and Patriot missile battalions--are being deployed for unusually long periods, straining their family lives.

In 1994, for example, AWACS crews found themselves away from their home bases for up to 160 days--some 40 more than usual--while military police, Patriot missile crews, combat engineers, special operations forces and A-10 fighter-bomber crews also struggled through deployment schedules far longer than usual.

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Raymond Ifill, a 35-year-old father of two, said he has been away from home for 355 days during the past two years--six months in Okinawa, three months in Haiti, a month in Bridgeport, Calif., and two months in Norway for cold-weather training. "And that's not counting field training," he said.

Earlier his month, Ifill and other members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., left for a six-month stint as part of a Navy amphibious ready group to be deployed off the coast of Bosnia. "We do it, but it's definitely a strain on families," Ifill said.

Marine Sgt. Maj. Randy L. Ramsey, 44, said the increased op tempo, as the military calls its deployment pace, has significantly affected troop morale. "You used to be able to tell people, 'Hey, if you do two deployments, then we can give you a break,' " Ramsey said, "but you no longer can do that. Units are in such rapid rotation that they don't have time to catch their breath."

Both the longer deployments and the inadequate pay have hit hardest at lower-ranking enlisted personnel, a number of them 18-year-olds who marry during their first tour of duty. A few have even had to apply for food stamps to keep their families fed.

In some cases, "American military forces are approaching burnout," Robert W. Gaskin, a former Pentagon planner, asserted.

There are also growing complaints among some military personnel that they are expected to meet a "zero-defects" standard: flawless performance, with no room for failure.

"You're always being looked at under a microscope," lamented a Marine officer who asked not to be identified. "You can't make a mistake."

Meanwhile, the force is encountering increasing strains from social changes, notably the opening of more combat jobs to women and the turmoil over whether homosexuals belong in the military. President Clinton at first sought to end the ban on homosexuals but later accepted a "compromise" that critics say kept the restriction basically intact. The dispute now is being battled out in the courts.

And while many women in the military say conditions have improved markedly since authorities began cracking down on cases involving sexual harassment, critics say the services still are a long way from having eliminated the problem, particularly in traditionally macho units such as combat infantry.

Finally, the smaller, all-volunteer force means fewer Americans ever have direct contact with the military. As a consequence, analysts say, the services are becoming increasingly isolated from the civilian world. That situation, they warn, could eventually spark tensions between the two and erode public support.

Illustrating this possibility, 21-year-old Marine Cpl. John P. O'Keeffe expressed in particularly strident tones his opinion of civilian society. Asked for his views of civilians, O'Keeffe replied: "Thieves, bureaucrats, no self-esteem, no self-reliance, no integrity. If the civilians were Marines, they'd be classified as substandard."

As Frederick F.Y. Pang, assistant secretary of defense for force management, pointed out, none of these concerns has reached crisis proportions, and policymakers have begun moving to alleviate some of them.

Perry last year pushed through a package of spending proposals designed to boost the quality of military life by increasing cost-of-living allowances and fixing up substandard base housing.

The service chiefs meanwhile began taking steps to ease the pressure from increasingly long deployments by increasing the size of high-tempo units, rotating them more frequently, expanding the pool of units available for such assignments and using reservists to relieve active-duty crews.

At the same time, the military has succeeded in improving the quality of its troops.

Defense Department figures show that some 96% of today's recruits are high school graduates, compared with 93% a decade ago and 65% in 1975. More than 71% have scored in the top half of the armed forces qualification test--which serves as an entry exam--compared with 62% in both 1985 and 1975.

"We're a higher-tech force and we need people who score in these categories," Pang said.

The once-prevalent judicial practice of offering a juvenile delinquent the option of joining the military instead of serving a stint in reform school has all but disappeared. Nowadays the services won't accept a youth whose record includes an offense more serious than a parking ticket.

Nevertheless, officials say the services are still experiencing shortages in high-tech skills such as electronics, aircraft maintenance and nuclear power, where military personnel are being lured away by higher-paying civilian jobs at a time when unemployment in the civilian sector is particularly low.

Overall retention rates remain high, but Lt. Gen. George R. Christmas, the Marine Corps' deputy chief of staff for manpower, warned that the corps is "concerned that the drawdown has changed the mind-set of Marines to think harder about reenlisting."

Although Perry and the service chiefs have insisted that the drawdown is essentially over, many in the military expect it to continue--particularly as Congress tries to balance the federal budget.

"Everyone is worried about it," said Navy Lt. Sung Baker, a 28-year-old communications officer stationed at the National Security Agency in Ft. Meade, Md.

The Marines largely escaped major cutbacks during the latest round of downsizing, but few here seem sanguine that the corps will be able to avoid them in future years. "The rumors are that they're cutting the Marine Corps out completely," Lance Cpl. Clinton C. Read, 21, worried.

David R. Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist who specializes in military issues, said one of the most urgent needs for policymakers and commanders these days is to articulate for troops what the military's mission is going to be over the next decade and to begin preparing them better.

"They're very trainable and adaptable," Segal said of the troops, "but they really don't know what they're supposed to train for and adapt to."

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The New Military

Sunday: The lack of a widely accepted mission is hurting current preparedness and depriving the military of a chance to reshape itself for the next century.

Today: The men and women of the U.S. armed forces, widely regarded as the most capable in the nation's history, face an uncertain future.

Tuesday: Revolutionary changes in weapons will force the military to revamp both its basic strategy and its traditional structure.

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Higher Standards

Today's recruits are smarter and better-educated than those of previous years. Here's how they stack up with their counterparts of 10 and 20 years ago:

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% of recruits % of recruits scoring in the top are high school half of the armed Year grads forces entry test 1995 96% 71% 1985 93% 62% 1975 65% 62%

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Source: Department of Defense

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