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Bush Vows Better Pay to Soldiers

President promises to improve health benefits, telling crowd of GIs in Georgia that 'America is not serving you well enough.'

February 13, 2001|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FT. STEWART, Ga. — President Bush on Monday announced plans for $5.7 billion in spending for America's servicemen and women, the bulk of it in pay increases and improved health benefits for soldiers and their families.

"America is not serving you well enough," Bush told hundreds of cheering GIs and their families.

"We'll do better. I have great goals for all our military--to advance its technology, to rethink its strategy."

The bulk of the money, $3.9 billion, would go to improve health benefits. The funding also would include $1.4 billion to increase pay--$400 million more than Bush had promised during the campaign. And the president said he will seek another $400 million to improve military housing.

The funding requests will be in Bush's budget proposal for fiscal year 2002, which begins Oct. 1.

"If our military is to attract the best of America, we owe you the best," the president said.

Bush's appearance and 11-minute speech, delivered on a bleak day at the Army's largest post east of the Mississippi, launched a weeklong drive to focus attention on national defense and to boost morale.

The president is scheduled today to visit the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., to inspect the next generation of warfare technology. On Wednesday, he will visit with National Guard and Reserve troops and their civilian employers in Charleston, W.Va. Bush himself is a veteran of the Air National Guard.

Despite the fanfare Monday over Bush's announcements, the three days of military events come at a difficult moment.

Though Bush condemned the Clinton administration during the campaign for neglecting the military, he has announced that he is holding off major defense spending at least until the new defense team, headed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, can conduct a top-to-bottom review of the military's needs.

That announcement touched off protests from defense hawks, who strongly backed Bush, and has drawn taunts from Democrats.

The White House clearly hoped that the three military visits and the offer of additional money aimed directly at improving the lives of military personnel would blunt that criticism.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Bush's proposal, calling it "an excellent first step in the effort to keep faith with the men and women in uniform and their families."

But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) questioned whether the $5.7 billion is actually "new money," as the administration described it, for the military budget.

Lieberman said that some of the funds may simply have been shifted from other defense accounts. And he said that, by his calculation, more than half of the $5.7 billion had been required by Congress under the military pay increase bill adopted last year.

"In other words, it's not clear to me those are add-ons," he said.

Improving military morale and national defense preparedness, including a controversial missile defense system, were among Bush's top priorities during the 2000 campaign. According to the White House, more than 5,100 military families get by with the help of food stamps and the "pay gap" between the military and the private sector is approaching 13%.

"Many in our military have been over-deployed and underpaid," Bush said Monday.

"Many live in aging houses and work in aging buildings. You see some of this right here at Ft. Stewart. . . . Two-thirds of your barracks need renovation. Some of your workshops are housed in wood buildings built in 1941, buildings that were designed to last 10 years.

"These problems--from low pay to poor housing--reach across our military. And the result is predictable: Frustration is up; morale, in some places, is difficult to sustain; recruitment is harder. This is not the way a great nation should reward courage and idealism."

Bush also wants a full Pentagon review of the deployment of U.S. troops around the world, with the aim of replacing what he has called "uncertain missions" with well-defined objectives.

As Bush put it here: "When we send you into harm's way, we owe you a clear mission, with clear goals."

The president's words were met with stylized grunts of approval by his military audience.

"HOO-ah!" they shouted over and over again as Bush decried their quality of life and promised them better days.

At one point, Bush himself playfully echoed the grunt, barking "HOO-ah," and adding: "There is no greater duty for the president, and no higher honor, than to serve as the commander in chief."

Bush's whirlwind tour of the base, about 40 miles west of Savannah, was filled with colorful military pageantry, allowing him to assume his most visible role yet as commander in chief.

For the first time in his presidency, Bush was greeted officially with "Hail to the Chief," followed by a 21-gun salute.

*

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this story.

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