Military pay panel hears concerns in Norfolk

By Dianna Cahn The Virginian-Pilot ©


Despite short notice and a holiday weekend, service members turned out in droves to make sure a commission studying how to streamline military pay and benefits knows what matters to them most.

Many of those who spoke at the hearing with four members of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission described anxiety among the rank-and-file over low military pay and uncertainty about their future jobs.

“That financial distress is actually adversely impacting the integrity of your force,” LeCresha Dunnings, who works for the Fleet and Family Service Center in Norfolk, told the panel members.

“Our goal is to retain military members,” she added. “Unfortunately, sometimes – and we are seeing that increasingly – it’s easier for them to get out to take care of their families.”

The meeting was the first of several public hearings the commission will hold around the country to gauge what compensation issues most affect service members.

The commission’s focus is on pay and compensation, health care, retirement and quality of life, Chairman Alphonso Maldon told the more than 125 people in the audience at the Waterside Marriott on Monday night. Its goal is to ensure the long-term viability of an all-volunteer force; quality of life for service members and their families; and fiscal sustainability for all military pay and retirement programs.

The panel also held daytime sessions in Norfolk on Monday and Tuesday to hear from invited witnesses, including unit commanders, senior enlisted service members and medical services. It will make its recommendations to President Barack Obama and Congress in the spring.

At a time of budget cuts and economic hardship, commission members took pains to reassure the audience that their goal was not to cut but rather to realign military benefits in a way that will work for recipients.

“We want to make sure we talk to people about whatever impact may be coming down the road,” Maldon said. “You know where the issues are, where the potential obstacles are.”

Young officers and enlisted sailors told the panel similar stories of financial hardships, describing them as a motivation for joining the military but also for choosing to get out.

Lt. j.g. Derek Greene said he grew up in a trailer park. He joined the Marines to get away from that and give his children a better life. When he sought the most financially viable path to becoming a career aviator, he switched to the Navy.

“I looked for upward mobility,” he told the panel.

It’s the same for enlisted service members, he said: When they come up for re-enlistment, they ask: “How well will I be compensated? Can I do better in the private sector?”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Edmond DiFulvio told the panel he’s in the process of getting out of the Navy because of a spinal injury.

While he was originally disappointed that he could not continue his military career as an electronics technician, he’s now happy to be leaving.

“With all the experience the Navy has given me, I will easily make 30 to 40 thousand more,” he said.

At more senior ranks, pay is good. “Down here on the E-5 level, it’s not so good,” DiFulvio said.

Cmdr. Geoffrey McAlwee, the new executive officer of the Carrier Airborne Command and Control Squadron 120 at Norfolk Naval Station, said he recognizes that the commission faces a daunting challenge as the military draws down from two wars.

“I don’t envy your position,” he told the panel.

But he warned that too much belt-tightening will eat into the health of the force.

“What I am worried about is… where people start voting with their feet because they can go outside and get better jobs,” he said. “My concern is, we draw down too far and then it’s hard to build back up from that.”

One retired sailor said she was shocked when she realized that a petty officer second class earns just slightly above the poverty line.

Another sailor said he did his own research because he was living paycheck-to-paycheck and found that a petty officer third class with a spouse and a single child can apply for food stamps.

Those people would be most vulnerable if commissaries were closed, said Petty Officer 1st Class Alicia Cole.

Lisa Dane said she came to the hearing to be a voice for her husband, currently deployed to Bahrain.

A Navy wife for 27 years, Dane said she was worried that just as her husband is about to retire, his benefits could take a big hit.

But panel member Stephen Buyer, a former Indiana congressman, was quick to reassure her that no one already in the service would be affected by the potential changes.

“These changes would only affect people that come on to active duty after the laws are adopted from whatever recommendations we might make,” Buyer said.

“That makes my heart very happy,” Dane said.

Dianna Cahn, 757-222-5846,

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