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Louis Caldera

The Tough Job of Keeping Soldiers Ready for War and in the Army

November 22, 1998|Paul Richter | Paul Richter covers military affairs for The Times

WASHINGTON — Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera took his post as the army's top civilian last July, just as the military was becoming embroiled in a new debate over whether its readiness has slipped since the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years ago, the Army's active-duty ranks have been sliced from 2.1 million to 1.4 million, even as troops' duties in peacekeeping missions and other overseas deployments have steadily expanded. Until last summer, military leaders, expecting that future budgets would be held steady, if not cut, had been trying to muddle through with what they had. But, in recent months, they have acknowledged that the cutbacks went too far and have argued that, after 14 years of shrinkage, they would need to spend more money to attract, train and equip personnel.

Since his arrival, Caldera has been trying to figure out how to improve readiness. One key question: How can the Army meet its recruiting and retention goals when a strong economy is drawing many young people to private-sector jobs?

Caldera's job is to sell the Army's career opportunities to young men and women it needs, to manage its continuing adjustment to the post-Soviet era and generally to represent the service and explain its needs to the public and Congress.

Other controversies are likely to boil up. Caldera's predecessor, Togo D. West Jr., who now heads the Department of Veteran Affairs, wrestled with the sexual-misconduct controversy that arose from the mistreatment of recruits by drill instructors at Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland. West also confronted allegations that the Army had allowed Democratic political donors to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Caldera may have a special advantage in recruiting young people, since the military helped him rise from a modest background in Los Angeles to a series of career successes. He is the first Latino Army secretary.

The son of immigrant parents of modest means, Caldera, 42, grew up in Boyle Heights, La Mirada and Whittier. He went to West Point, then, after service as an Army military police platoon leader and battalion intelligence and executive officer, to Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School, where he earned an MBA in 1987. He practiced law at two Los Angeles law firms before entering the public sector to work as a deputy Los Angeles County counsel in 1991 and 1992. Caldera then ran for the state Assembly, where he represented downtown Los Angeles from 1992 to 1997. In the year before he took his current job, Caldera held the No. 2 post at the Corporation for National and Community Service, President Bill Clinton's stipend-for-service program.

While in the Legislature, Caldera attracted notice as a rising star. He became immersed in controversy in 1994 when he pressed a successful effort to require young people to wear helmets on bicycles. With his military background, he was more moderate than many in the Latino caucus. Caldera said he saw his job as problem solving and compromise, rather than partisanship.

Caldera and his wife, Eva, live in Bethesda, Md., with their daughters Allegra and Sophia.


Question: Many are surprised to hear that, despite the end of the Cold War and the absence of any overarching enemy, defense spending will be going up. Why is that necessary?

Answer: We've been in our 14th year of declining budgets, over which time we were downsizing the force and looking to modernize. . . . Just absorbing that amount of change means that, of late, we've seen that there are some strains in the readiness of our forces. We need additional resources. There are still many dangers and many threats in the world, which has become more complex with the actions of nonstate actors, such as terrorists and drug traffickers, who pose real threats to our country, including the threat of attacks on our homeland. . . .

The total amount that we're spending today on defense, which is less than 3% of GDP, is about as low as we've ever spent in our nation's history. So, we're not, in real dollars, spending too much on this.


Q: Should we expect the 3% to rise?

A: The president's commitment that the military will have the resources to do its job, and the statements of our uniformed leaders, makes us optimistic that we're going to see a much-needed increase, probably somewhere between $15 billion and $30 billion a year. It is needed, because what we're trying to do is invest $20 billion a year more in modernization, make sure that we have ready, trained troops and take care of our troops in terms of quality of life, pay and retirement and medical care. Right now, we have been underfunding some of those. . . . Those are increasingly becoming the things soldiers cite as the reasons they are leaving the military, especially when you have such a competitive private-sector economy drawing them away.


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