WASHINGTON — Petty Officer Jimmy E. Forbis, a 20-year-old yeoman based in Charleston, S.C., has been in the Navy just a little over a year. But he can already feel the pinch of the shrinking military all around him.
His ship, the guided-missile frigate Hawes, is likely to remain in the fleet, but Forbis and his shipmates will increasingly have to compete with sailors from decommissioned ships if they want to remain part of its crew.
The young sailor's father, an Army enlistee with almost 19 years of service, worries whether he will be permitted to complete a 20-year career and retire with a full pension. And Forbis' fledgling career as a yeoman--a Navy administrative clerk--simply is not as bright or as secure as promised when he walked into a Navy recruiting center two years ago.
"At the time my father came in, the military was a career choice," said Forbis, one of 2,346 enlisted men and women surveyed by The Times Poll on a range of issues facing the military services. "Now, it's more of a temporary thing. There's no sense of security there, and that makes you look at other options. They're going to lose a lot of good people that way, and the military will become more average, whereas it used to be considered elite."
Like 52% of those surveyed in the nationwide poll, Forbis called the downsizing of the military--and the resulting troop reductions--one of the two biggest problems facing the U.S. military. The other, cited by 48% as the most pressing problem, is President Clinton's proposal to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military.
Close behind those two "top problems"--and directly connected to reductions in the ranks brought on by budget constraints and the end of the Cold War--are low morale and few opportunities for advancement.
"Morale is really a problem in the Army right now, and the drawdown is adding to it," said Army Sgt. Ray Frisbey, a 26-year-old platoon sergeant who leads a unit of helicopter mechanics at Ft. Hood, Tex.
"I cut my people in half, I maintain the same mission load, I work my people twice as hard, they're tired, they're irritable. It's a whole lot harder to come to work with a smile on your face," he said.
While grumbling is as old a military tradition as parades and bad chow, the satisfaction level of enlisted members is important in maintaining the quality of the nation's all-volunteer force. If promising young enlistees and more-senior noncommissioned officers leave because they are disgruntled over conditions in the services, Pentagon planners fear that the nation will be left with a force that is harder to train and less effective in combat.
And because the military depends on volunteers to fill its ranks, it must continue to attract intelligent and promising youths with guarantees of training, advancement, good benefits and security. At some point, military experts say, dissatisfaction among the rank-and-file could result not only in a less-capable force today but a decline in high-quality recruits tomorrow.
Those concerns have led military leaders like Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to fret openly about a drawdown in military personnel so rapid and so deep that it would "break the force" and nullify the hard-won gains of the past decade.
The poll clearly illustrates that the drawdown has generated a high level of worry among enlisted service members even though overall, 74% indicated that they are generally satisfied with life in the military. Satisfaction levels are roughly the same in the Air Force (79%), the Army (78%) and the Marines (78%) and lowest in the Navy (66%).
The findings are the result of a poll of 2,346 enlisted men and women who were surveyed through confidential written questionnaires in commercial and residential areas near 38 military installations across the country. The survey was conducted under the supervision of John Brennan, director of The Times Poll, from Feb. 11 to Feb. 16.
The first independent poll of military personnel of its kind, the survey was carried out without the involvement of the Pentagon or the individual services. Because of the broad sample, the poll is considered highly representative of the attitudes of the 1.5 million enlisted men and women in the U.S. armed forces.
According to the poll, 60% of those surveyed said they either were "very worried" or "somewhat worried" about the possible effects of military downsizing on their careers.
That anxiety was evident in all branches and among all demographic groups but was highest in the Air Force, where manpower rolls were slated to shrink by 29% even before the Clinton Administration's proposed spending cuts. Two-thirds of the Air Force enlistees surveyed said they were worried about the impact of downsizing on their lives.