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Senior enlisted retention a priority for command chiefs

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
photo by Nick Stubbs
Col. Pete Davis, SOCOM legislative affairs, addresses senior NCOs and spouses at a town hall meeting called by Gen. Bryan Doug Brown to help understand the issues senior enlisted face. Retention of senior Special Operations NCOs is a priority for the general.

Command Chief Master Sgt. Lew Monroe spoke with five members of Congress during a breakfast in the base dining facility in December. One topic was retention, particularly of experienced senior noncommissioned officers.

Meanwhile, the same issue was the theme of a U.S. Special Operations Command 'town hall' meeting at the Officer's Club initiated by USSOCOM's Commander Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown. The command's senior enlisted member, Command Chief Master Sgt. Bob Martens, hosted the meeting that brought 25 members of Special Operations Forces from the command's three components - elite warriors from the Air Force, Army and Navy from Florida, North Carolina and California.

Leaders in both meetings found there is no replacement for experience and that fact rings in the ears of senior enlisted members, who increasingly see the senior enlisted ranks opting out of service to pursue more lucrative careers in the private sector. This sector's call can be magnetic for SOF, whose experience and expertise are in high demand as private companies and foreign governments seek the best in security at a time when terrorism is on the rise, said Chief Martens.

Chief Monroe agreed that "the skills, discipline and sense of responsibility of a veteran senior NCO are quite alluring" to private companies.

Retention has become such an issue at USSOCOM that General Brown identified it as a primary goal, and Chief Martens feels the command faces more retention challenges.

"Retention becomes difficult when there are private security jobs advertised at $10,000 a month," he said. Chief Monroe concurs, noting the Air Force would like to keep its most experienced NCOs around as long as possible. Retention and "proper utilization" of senior NCOs has become an Air Force priority, he said. Efforts to achieve the goal include restructuring that puts the chiefs group under the Air Force Senior Leaders Management Office, the same office that handles colonel and general officer matters, Chief Monroe explained.

Some leaders feel that military pay and benefits can scarcely compete with the private sector but both chiefs have a couple of things on their side. Sense of duty, pride, patriotism and the camaraderie that comes with being part of the country's fighting forces, along with good, old fashioned job security are pluses. Far from intangible, Chief Martens said, these are the reasons most special operators make the extra sacrifice, accept a heavier workload, and risk their lives by venturing well beyond the lines of safety and support - and it's why they hang in there after 20 years. After all, it's what kept him around for 27 years of service.

Chief Monroe agrees, noting that pride of self and country are big factors in the retention equation. "The sense of fulfillment in our jobs still does a lot to keep our very best senior enlisted leaders around for the long haul," he said.

While both agree a sense of duty and pride go a long way toward retention, both chiefs note the military has to stay aware of the "other" sense of duty senior NCOs have - the one to family. It is ever present and powerful. It's part of the reason General Brown called for the town hall meeting and ensured that the invitation extended to enlisted spouses. Issues that came out of the town hall meeting for SOF enlisted are benefits and ensuring families have financial security should a special operator not return from his next mission.

An Air Force master sergeant and SOF aviator with 15 years service, said he and his wife are optimistic. They see efforts like the town hall meeting as evidence that USSOCOM is concerned.

"I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing but I do have concerns," the sergeant said. He noted that while the gap of responsibility between officers and senior NCOs seems to be narrowing as senior NCOs take on loads closer to those traditionally carried by captains and even majors, the pay disparity only becomes more apparent.

The Department of Defense recognizes that pay for senior NCOs is important. The top three enlisted grades have received "targeted" raises over the past three years that culminate more than a 20-percent increase.

With risks on the rise for SOF as special operations continue to engage in the war on terrorism, the Air Force sergeant said he and others are taking pause, particularly when they consider their families must endure more and more. There is "much room for improvement" in family benefits, particularly in the event of death, he said.

But with a longer road ahead than some other senior NCOs, the sergeant said his position is different and with five years to go to reach 20, he can afford to be more patient as well as optimistic.

"I can see change but nothing happens over night," he said. "It takes time."

A 26-year Navy veteran and SEAL (sea, air, land) attended the town hall meeting with his wife. They admit they increasingly wrestle with the cost and benefits analysis, particularly since the Navy chief surpassed 20 years of service and incentives to stay in the military are diminishing - while demands and risks to SOF increase exponentially with the terrorism threats.

"I'm blindly loyal," he said, noting he's taken very high risks, been a jumper in the line of fire, has sustained combat injuries and endured the extra time and duty involved with being a SEAL.

Like others attending the town hall, he would like to see hazardous duty pay factored into pensions. As it is now, despite the danger of the duty, retirement is based on a given rank's base pay. He also has seen some benefits diminish or go away completely, such as free dental care. He wondered aloud whether he and his family might be better served if he got out and took one of the $600-a-day private security jobs apparently available for former SEALs in the outside world.

The SEAL's wife understands his loyalty to country and service, but says the diminishing returns for senior NCOs after 20 years, combined with increased operational tempo since Sept. 11, 2001, make the decision to stay in harder all the time. She met her husband when he was eight years in the Navy. "I have seen him less and less every year since," she said. "At this point we are discussing whether it is worth it."

Such are the sentiments Martens must face, but he has the added task of reiterating to his superiors the experience of senior SOF NCOs cannot be replaced. It is echoed in two of the four "SOF Truths:" Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced, and Special Operations Forces cannot be created after a crisis occurs.

Among the ranks, Martens counts reservists and guardsmen, some of whom represent the "last of the Vietnam veterans" and other battle-hardened and experienced warfighters. With some reservists now being activated for as long as two years, Martens said, the command faces the growing challenge of convincing senior NCO reservists to stay on when their duty call far exceeds what their civilian families and careers ever bargained for.

Chief Monroe voiced the same concern at the congressional breakfast, noting reservists cannot be forgotten. The new demands placed on them for longer tours, and the financial burden reservists face, must be addressed to ensure the voluntary force stays viable, he said.

Chief Monroe expressed he is confident that both military leadership and elected officials understand retention and quality of life issues important to servicemembers.

"The biggest concern to the military warrior is the well-being of his or her family," he said. "Our elected leaders must do everything in their power to ensure that pay, compensation and quality of life for service members and their families reflect the contributions given in defense of this great nation."

 

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