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Cannon Fodder

by Gary Sudborough Monday, Nov. 10, 2003 at 10:43 AM

The Bush administration has cut veteran's benefits and forced wounded soldiers to pay for hospital meals. They have kept returning sick and wounded soldiers in horrible conditions on US military bases and made them wait months for doctor's appointments. Now, they plan to close schools and commissaries on military bases and privatize the remaining commissaries. Oh well, that is more money for Halliburton, Bechtel and all other corporations which profit immensely from war.

Issue Date: November 03, 2003

An act of ‘Betrayal’
In the midst of war, key family benefits face cuts

By Karen Jowers
Times staff writer

Commissaries and the Defense Department’s stateside schools are in the crosshairs of Pentagon budget cutters, and military advocates, families and even base commanders are up in arms. Defense officials notified the services in mid-October that they intend to close 19 commissaries and consider closing 19 more, mostly in remote areas.At the same time, the Pentagon is finishing a study to determine whether to close or transfer control of the 58 schools it operates on 14 military installations in the continental United States.The two initiatives are the latest in a string of actions by the Bush administration to cut or hold down growth in pay and benefits, including basic pay, combat pay, health-care benefits and the death gratuity paid to survivors of troops who die on active duty.The roots of all these efforts reach back to the highest levels of the Defense Department.Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made no secret of his desire to get the military out of support activities that are not central to its core war-fighting functions, said Joseph Tafoya, director of the Department of Defense Education Activity. As soon as he arrived at the Pentagon three years ago, Tafoya said, Rumsfeld began asking: “Why am I running stores? Why am I in education?”On Oct. 16, at the headquarters of the Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools in Peachtree City, Ga., Tafoya hosted more than 70 senior officers, school administrators, teachers, military parents and students for a forum on the future of the U.S.-based schools.“As Marines, we take the short end of the stick in many ways,” said Col. James Lowe, commander of Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. “But when it comes to our children, we’re very intolerant about them being shortchanged.”And shortchanged is exactly how military families and family advocates are feeling, said Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. “How can leadership be talking about cutting back on quality-of-life benefits right now when the force and everyone supporting the force is at such a high stress level?” Raezer said.The week the commissary cuts became known, 11 soldiers were killed in Iraq, and as many as 30 failed to show up on schedule for return flights to Baghdad at the end of their two-week R&R visits.A ‘personal affront’“Betrayal — write that down and put it in your report,” said Col. John Kidd, garrison commander of Fort Stewart, Ga., testifying at Tafoya’s forum on the need to keep military-run schools on his post. “As a commander, I will fight this tooth and nail. Folks down there are not just militant on this issue. They will march on Washington.”Lowe, the Quantico base commander, said he never has seen his community more united than it is over the schools issue.“The very fact that this transfer study is being conducted at this time when Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen and their families are increasingly required to give more of themselves and to go in harm’s way is taken by many as a personal affront,” he said. “It raises serious questions about DoD’s commitment to all quality-of-life issues.”Tafoya said there is no problem with studying the need to keep the schools. “[But] I do have a problem with the angst it has caused,” he said. “If we had known about what military families would be going through, we may well not have done [the study]. … I hope we will never have to do this again.”The study’s recommendations must be submitted by Feb. 15 to Charles Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The timeline for what happens after that is unclear, but officials say no decisions are likely before March or April.Officials could decide to transfer operational control of some or all schools to local public districts — or simply keep the status quo. Tafoya said any changes would take at least three or four years to implement. In the first two phases of the $1.6 million DDESS study, which began earlier this year, contractors have:• Analyzed the operating costs of each school. • Projected costs of transferring each school to its respective public district outside the gate. • Assessed the physical condition of each building.• Surveyed local and state school officials in affected districts.The physical analysis found that four of the 58 schools need to be replaced; six are in excellent shape; 26 are adequate; 17 are good; and five are in poor condition. The bill for fixing the subpar schools is $121 million, Tafoya said.School officials will use this data to plan for repairing or replacing the schools, regardless of whether they’re turned over to public districts, he said.Not just dollars and centsCommanders and parents urged defense officials to consider not just the dollars involved, but the quality of the education provided by the schools, which consistently rank high in national test scores.Students at DDESS schools at Fort Benning, Ga., outperform any nearby district, said Brig. Gen. Ben Freakley, commander of the post, which has six elementary schools and one middle school. Some 89 percent of parents surveyed are satisfied with the schools, he said. “I remind you we’re at war,” Freakley told Tafoya. “Having just come from Iraq, I know that the last thing soldiers, sailors and airmen want is to be concerned about the education of their children while they’re fighting.”Freakley said the roughly 1,000 parents who attended a recent Fort Benning town hall meeting are “mad that this is even being suggested at a time of war and deployment.”He warned against making a decision based on dollars rather than quality of life. “Dollars don’t tell the whole story — they never do,” he said.Commanders also noted states and local communities are having problems funding their public schools. Col. Larry Ruggley, garrison commander at Fort Campbell, Ky., showed local newspapers with headlines noting a two-week delay in the opening of civilian schools outside the gate because of budget wrangling.Fort Campbell soldiers will continue to be deployed, Ruggley said. “We look to the stability and support of the school environment on Fort Campbell to take care of the children. It’s all about the soldier we put in harm’s way.”Col. John Neubauer, commander of Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., said his base’s schools outperform those outside the gate. DDESS students at Maxwell consistently score in the 75th percentile nationally, he said, while “students outside the gate consistently score in the lower half.”“We have a close relationship with the local community,” he said. “But the state of Alabama refuses to adequately fund education.”Marine 2nd Lt. Daniel Allen, 32, a former staff sergeant with 14 years in the Corps who is assigned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., said the debate over the DDESS schools comes down to one thing — quality. He and wife, Shelby, have two children — daughter Mercydes, 11, and son Zachery, 10, both of whom go to DDESS schools on Lejuene.“All that matters is quality,” Allen said. “Once education [quality] starts falling, that’s when you start asking, ‘Is this best for my kids?’.”Impact on retention Lt. Gen. William Lennox, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., urged defense officials not to overlook the potential impact on recruiting and retention that this study could have.Lennox was disappointed that senior Pentagon leaders who would make the decisions about the future of DDESS were not at the forum. He said the study probably is the top concern among families at West Point. “I dare say I would lose 50 percent of those who want to teach because they wouldn’t want to put their kids in jeopardy,” he said. “I would be transferring 800 students into a 600-student [public] school, and have no voting representation in the school board.” He showed a video clip from a town hall meeting held at West Point in which parents said the No. 1 reason they love living at West Point is the schools. Said one soldier: “We choose not to invest in a home [off post] because our equity is in our children.”The same is true at Quantico, said Lt. Gen. Edward Hanlon, commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.“To win battles, you’d better have a good family foundation,” he said. The DDESS schools were started after World War II, when President Truman desegregated the armed forces. The military needed them because so many bases were in the segregated south, where black soldiers’ children couldn’t get the education they deserved.Race continues to be an issue for some commanders. Segregation “still exists in the deep South,” said Kidd, the Fort Stewart commander. “If that was a prime situation for the [creation] of DDESS, then that need is not yet met.”Safety and security also are at issue. “My peers and I feel much safer from violence and drugs,” said Drexel Heard, a student at Camp Lejeune High School in North Carolina. “At DDESS, safety is right up there with education.”A powerful kinshipFor DDESS students, one of the most reassuring aspects of the schools is their strong sense of community. Christie McCrum, a high school senior at Fort Campbell, Ky., said teachers at her school are intimately familiar with the stresses often placed upon military families.McCrum said words can’t express the pain she endured being separated from her father during his long deployments. Her teachers “know what to say when you’re crying your eyes out and need to step out in the hallway,” she said.Caroline Myers, stateside director of the Federal Education Association, which represents DDESS teachers, remembers a little girl named Elizabeth who came into her second-grade class at Fort Benning the morning after the 1991 Persian Gulf War began.“She walked in, looked at me, ran into my arms and said, ‘My mommy said my daddy might die,’” Myers said.Myers took the girl to talk to the school counselor. When she returned, “I said, ‘Elizabeth, we have to cross our fingers they’ll be OK,’” Myers recalled. “I had 20 children in the class. … Eight had parents deployed. Elizabeth crossed her fingers and walked back to her seat. I looked across the room, and 20 children had their fingers crossed.”Commissary concernsWith the Navy community at Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., already concerned about their schools, news that their commissary also is under scrutiny for possible closure comes as a double whammy.“The commissary is busy all the time when it’s open,” said Maggie Coulson, the wife of a Navy captain. “They’ve got good prices, which is important for our younger service members.” The small base is an hour’s drive from the next-closest commissaries at Quantico and Andrews Air Force Base, Md., she said. “If we lose that and the school, there will not be a whole lot here for us.”Raezer, of the National Military Family Association, questioned why Defense Commissary Agency officials hadn’t notified her association or other military family advocates about the closures. Although Abell signed a memo about the closures on Aug. 29, sources said the commissary agency director didn’t hear about it until Oct. 15, and service officials didn’t hear about it until a few days before that.Defense officials did not respond to questions about the closures by press time. But previous Defense Department documents cite criteria for operating stores that include having at least 100 active-duty personnel stationed at the base and consideration for the remoteness of the location, with the benchmark being that a store generally should be within 20 miles or 30 minutes’ driving time for personnel assigned in the area.That puzzles family members at places like Dahlgren and the Army’s White Sands Missile Range, N.M., where driving time is twice that. “We are so remote, it would make it really difficult” if the store closed, said Patti Gentry, wife of an Army colonel at White Sands. Although two sprawling bases — Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., and Fort Bliss, Texas — actually border White Sands, it’s 45 miles to the commissary at Holloman and more than an hour’s drive to the store at Fort Bliss.“Even the closest commercial grocery store is 26 miles away, in Las Cruces. It’s desert between here and there,” Gentry said. “It would be awful” if the White Sands store closed.She noted that a large proportion of the housing area, with more than 330 homes, is populated by enlisted and company-grade officers from all services.In his Aug. 29 memo to the services and the Commissary Operating Board, Abell referred to funding shortfalls. “I appreciate the difficulty of decisions to close commissary store operations,” he wrote. “[But] we can no longer justify marginal stores in close proximity to another commissary.” Previous commissary agency officials developed a formula to measure the operating efficiency of stores, based on, among other things, how much taxpayer money is used to operate a store compared with its total sales.The Commissary Operating Board recommended cutting off taxpayer funding for the combined commissary/exchange store at Orlando, Fla. The fate of that store hasn’t been decided. Abell sought recommendations from the Navy on the future of the store, which would have to charge higher prices without taxpayer support.Abell approved the board’s recommendation to close the stores at Bad Aibling, Germany, this fiscal year, and approved a request from the Army and Air Force to close combined stores at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., and Fort McClellan, Ala. He asked for a report on the combined store at Fort Worth, Texas.He also asked for plans to close this fiscal year stores at Sagami Depot, Sagamihara and Camp Kure, Japan; Idar Oberstein, Neubreucke and Panzer, Germany; Chinhae, Korea; and Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.Based on sales-to-operating-cost ratios, decisions are imminent on store closures at Dahlgren, Va.; Lakehurst, N.J.; Kelly Barracks, Germany; Hario, Japan; Pusan, South Korea; and Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. Abell said another 19 stores, including the White Sands store, “do not meet the criteria for continued operation.” For the moment, he is deferring closure decisions on those but wants to see quarterly reports for each.Raezer said service members and families in remote areas appear to be the potential big losers in the current round of store closures.She said the main argument for providing appropriated funds to the commissary agency is to support stores in such remote areas, because they are more costly to operate.With that need gone or sharply reduced, incentive to privatize the stores could grow.Commercial grocery chains will not go into such small communities to provide this benefit, Raezer said, adding that divesting the commissary agency of such stores could boost the incentive to privatize the commissary system, an idea that has simmered on the back burner for years.“What does it do to the benefit if you say some places are too isolated even for the Defense Commissary Agency?” she said. “You’re taking it away from the people who need it the most.”Staff writer C. Mark Brinkley contributed to this story from Jacksonville, N.C.

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