Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Michael Barrett, who won medals for valor in the Gulf War and Iraq, is taking heavy fire from a different source. This time it’s from active and retired Marines and their family members who objected to his Senate testimony Wednesday in favor of Defense Department proposals to slow the growth of pay and benefits in the fiscal 2015 defense spending bill and beyond.
Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee Chairman Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) had asked Barrett and his counterparts in the Army, Navy and Air Force what they believed would be the effect of multiple changes that include: limiting to 1 percent the pay raise for most service personnel (compared with this year’s 1.8 percent), a slight reduction in growth of housing allowances and a phased reduction of $400 billion in subsidies to commissaries, as well as changes in health-care enrollment fees and pharmacy co-pays.
The entire package is projected to save $2.1 billion a year, money that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has told Congress would be reallocated to readiness and weapons modernization.
Barrett said, “Marines don’t run around” with “compensation benefits” on their minds.
“They want to know into whose neck that we put a boot next,” Barrett said. “They want to know about what new equipment are we getting . . . and the other thing they always ask about is they want to know about training.”
He went on to talk about a Marine Corps “bias for action” and “keeping us out there forward-deployed.”
He conceded that “promotion and retention and money” do come up as subjects Marines talk about, but they are not in the top three priorities. “It’s normally four, five, six or seven,”he said.
But he added, as others have said, that the military has to “get a hold of slowing the growth,” it has to “pay a little bit more attention to the health care that we so generously have received,” which he called “wonderful.”
“In my 33 years, I have never seen this level of quality of life, ever,” Barrett said. “We have never had it so good.”
What he said next drew the most fire.
“If we don’t stop, step back and take a look at 1 percent pay, that makes sense, because our quality of life is good. . . . I truly believe it will raise discipline and it will raise it because you’ll have better spending habits. You won’t be so wasteful.”
The Marine Corps Times led its story with: “Lower pay and slimmed-down benefits will make Marines more disciplined and less wasteful, according to the Corps’ top enlisted Marine.”
The criticism was swift on the Web.
“Unless he is willing to take the first pay cut, he should shut up,” was one early comment.
There were more than 400, and some pretty nasty ones.
The uproar, which reflects the battle that Hagel faces in getting Congress to approve the personnel cost changes, forced Barrett on Friday to write an open letter to all Marines.
He began by saying, “Recent reporting of my testimony may have left you with the mistaken impression that I don’t care about your quality of life and that I support lower pay for service members. This is not true.”
He did not back away from his testimony, adding, “Nobody wants less . . . but if we don’t slow the growth of our hard-earned, generous compensation/benefits entitlements that we have enjoyed over the past decade, we won’t have sufficient dollars for what we need — investment in our warfighting capabilities and our wonderful Marine and family care programs.”
Barrett was reflecting what senior Marine officers also have been saying. In a panel preceding Barrett’s, Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead Jr., deputy commandant for manpower and Reserve affairs, said personnel costs and benefits amount to “64 percent of the Marine Corps budget,” a figure proportionally higher than the 40 to 50 percent of the other services.
Marine Corps Commandant James F. Amos told the Senate committee in November that the disparity is “not because Marines are more expensive; it’s just my portion of the budget is smaller. That’s going to go well over 70 percent by the end of [the next five years] if something is not done.”
Despite talk of reduced future benefits, the services are meeting their recruitment goals, and the Marines have a waiting list.
As Milstead put it at the hearing, “We’ve been at war for 13 years, and if a young man walks into a recruiting office today and signs up he’s going to have to wait six to eight months before he ships.”
Perhaps the new enlistees, as Army Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler III told the senators, are like he was as a young man.
“My own experience when I was 19 years old and joined the Army, and I wasn’t thinking about compensation. I was actually thinking about going to Germany and be a tanker [in the tank corps] for a couple of years and then leaving the Army and coming back to Massachusetts, where I grew up.”
Prospects for the changes in personnel benefits are slim.
As Gillibrand put it at the hearing, “It will be difficult for many of us to support these proposals.”
The Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) budget that passed the House on Thursday does not include any proposed saving from military personnel accounts, which include health care. Most members of Congress seem to prefer doing nothing until they see the recommendations of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which is scheduled to issue a report in February.
Hagel’s hoped-for savings of up to $2.1 billion to put toward readiness will have to come from somewhere else.
Barrett, meanwhile, should get a medal for bravery on the home front.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.