Pentagon trying to keep military families together

April 16, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

NORFOLK, Va. -- When the nuclear attack submarine USS Boise slips into its berth here this week, Mary Kline will be waiting excitedly with her three children, ages 9, 5 and 4.

It will be the first time this year she has seen her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Kenneth A. Kline Jr., a machinist mate on the Boise. Last year, Mrs. Kline says, he was home for just 91 days.

Her worry now: How long will he be in port this time?

With fewer personnel to serve on longer and more frequent missions, service members are spending more time overseas. That trend, along with other pressures on life in the services, is threatening morale and combat readiness, according to defense analysts.

As a result, Pentagon managers are moving to protect and strengthen one of the most powerful weapons in their war-fighting arsenal: the military family.

Petty Officer Kline, 35, has been at sea for six months with 4,200 other sailors and Marines with the amphibious battle group led by the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which docked in Norfolk on Friday.

"If they are going to decrease the amount of subs or anything else, how can [time away from home] not go up?" Mrs. Kline, 32, said. "The boats [submarines] will still have to go out.

"Another wife called me last week. She was scared. She has not seen her husband for six months and wondered what it would be like to have him home again."

Such stress is the new reality for many of the nation's 1.5 million service personnel and their 2.2 million dependents. Domestic tension is being piled atop the career insecurity fostered by the continuing defense downsizing, with its base closings and job losses.

Family life in the military, never easy, is becoming more difficult than ever.

The results: some highly trained service members and their spouses, unwilling to accept such pressure, are deciding against re-enlistment.

"It is not unfair to say there are many young wives who have told their husbands: 'When your enlistment is up, you are getting out of the Marine Corps. I am not doing this any more,' " said Brig. Gen. Michael J. Williams, the commanding general of the much-deployed U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Force Service Support Group in Camp Lejeune, N.C. "Is that increasing? I suspect it is starting to."

According to the Military Alliance, a group of 27 military and veterans organizations, "an unfortunate confluence of circumstances" -- long deployments, downsizing, low pay and poor military housing -- now threatens military stability and readiness.

"There is an iron logic that relates the quality of life to the readiness of the forces," said John Marsh, a former secretary of the Army who heads a Pentagon task force that will make recommendations on how to improve military life to Defense Secretary William J. Perry later this year.

"The first mission of our forces is to fight and win the nation's wars, and this quality of life is an element in achieving that goal," Mr. Marsh said.

Despite the pressures, Mrs. Kline believes her husband is so committed to the Navy that he would not think of quitting. But she believes such dedication should be reflected in his pay.

"All anybody wants is to be treated fairly, given a raise that keeps us up with the cost of living," she said, echoing the most frequent gripe of those in uniform.

Cmdr. Connie A. Wilson, director of the family service center at Norfolk Naval Base, said, "I think that is where folks become discouraged about the effort they are putting in for a really high [combat] readiness, without any more pay. That is a morale factor."

Civilian jobs pay more

The $35,000 that Sgt. Kirk Welch, an expert in heavy cargo handling, earns with the Army's 159th Crane Detachment at Fort Story, Va., pales in comparison with the $60,000 he says he could earn as a longshoreman supervisor on the civilian docks. But he is two years from retirement, satisfied with Army life and not inclined to quit.

The same cannot be said for eight of the 46 soldiers in Sgt. Jeffrey West's Army transportation platoon at Fort Story. They -- have decided to leave the service this year. Four of them, Sergeant West said, have been offered jobs paying more than they earn in the Army.

"It is a combination," said Sergeant West, whose personnel have been deployed to Panama, the Persian Gulf and Haiti in recent years. "They are tired of being deployed, separated from their families. Most of them have at least one kid, and many have two."

Worried that such feelings are spreading among the ranks, Defense Secretary Perry told members of Congress recently: "Our people in uniform are walking investments. If we lose them, we've lost a valuable asset and hurt readiness in a very fundamental way.

"The main factor in retention is quality of life -- not only for troops, but also for their families."

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