James Webb (D-Va.), a take-charge senator who in his second year conceived and negotiated passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, made clear Wednesday he will continue to influence issues that impact the lives of service members, retirees, reservists and their families.
Webb has more leverage now as new chairman of the Senate armed services’ personnel subcommittee. He also has more knowledge of, and curiosity about, military people and policy than arguably anyone in Congress.
At his first hearing, Webb called as witnesses the four political appointees who have day-to-day control of personnel policy in the Pentagon.
Webb promised “continuous and active oversight of all our military personnel matters through hearings, through consideration of the Department of Defense budget and legislative proposals, and also through day-to-day interaction with you and people who work with you.”
Lawmakers and leaders have “no greater responsibility,” he said, than “to care for our service members and their families. This is a concept of stewardship I and all of my compatriots up here feel about very strongly.”
Webb indicated he’s still upset with the Army chief of staff’s decision in 2007 to extend soldier deployments in Iraq to 15 months with only a year back home between deployments.
“I said, ‘First of all I can’t believe you’re going to do that. I don’t think there’s any operational requirement…to put that kind of pressure on our people. And then you’re going to have challenges on the other end.’ And quite frankly, we’re seeing that,” Webb said, alluding to record suicide rates, high divorce rates and service demands for stress counselors.
Webb reminded witnesses he fought to stop 15-month deployments, with a mandate of one month home for every month deployed. Now, nothing is more valuable then increasing time st home between deployments, he said.
Thomas R. Lamont, assistant secretary of the army for manpower and reserve affairs, endorsed those comments.
“We have any number of programs that are well intentioned, well resourced. It doesn’t matter. There is nothing more important than exactly what you say,” Lamont said, “the dwell time of our soldiers with their families and others to help them decompress.”
Son of a career Air Force officer, Webb said he knows what it’s like to have a parent deployed for long periods and to change schools almost yearly.
“I went to a different school in fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, three different schools in the eighth grade, ninth grade and two different schools in the tenth grade … I know how that stresses the family and I know how important it is for us to always keep that in mind,” Webb said.
Webb, 64, graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy, distinguished himself in combat as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, served as chief counsel on the veterans’ affairs committee, wrote best-selling novels, and was assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs and Navy secretary.
“I’m the father of a Marine NCO who had some hard time in Iraq. I’m also the father-in-law of a Marine infantry sergeant who is now, at the age of 24, looking to be deployed for the fourth time, coming this July,” he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), ranking Republican on the panel, told Webb, that of “all the people in the Senate, you’re clearly the most qualified person to lead this subcommittee right now.”
Webb and Graham allowed only glimpses of their goals for this year. They openly supported only a few priorities listed by The Military Coalition, an umbrella groups for 34 military and veterans associations, who had five representatives also testified before the panel.
Both senators expressed worry over rising personnel costs, particularly for health care, and each noted TRICARE fees haven’t been raised on beneficiaries since 1995. Neither senator endorsed raising fees now, though Graham questioned whether TRICARE can be sustained without doing so.
Webb noted he is one of 55 co-sponsors of SB535, a bill by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to end reductions in Survivor Benefit Plan annuities that occur when widows also qualify for dependency and indemnity compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. DIC is paid to survivors of members who die in service or from service-connected ailments.
“My father paid into SBP for 28 years,” Webb said. “When he died in 1997 they took it out of my mother’s social security. Luckily, we had that situation fixed. But we will give the situation you mentioned a hard look,” Webb told Coalition representatives.
Clifford L. Stanley, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, testified that DoD continues to oppose ending the SBP-DIC offset. It “would create an inequity with one select group receiving two survivor annuities, while survivors of most military retirees and survivors of veterans who died of service connected cause but were not retired, would receive only one,” Stanley said in his statement.
Graham said he wants to expand an early reserve retirement provision passed in 2008 so that it applies to any Reserve and Guard members mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001. Currently, for every consecutive 90-day period of mobilization in a fiscal year, reservists see their age-60 retirement start date cut by three months. But this only applies to mobilizations after Jan. 28, 2008, leaving out 600,000 members recalled since fall of 2001.
Webb was silent on the Coalition’s call to add another half percent to the proposed 1.4 percent military raise for next January. Graham said, “We all wish it could be more but we do have budget problems up here.”
Stanley noted that from Jan. 1, 2002 through Jan. 1, 2010, military basic pay rose by 42 percent and housing allowances by 83 percent, compared to 32 percent growth in “private sector wages and salaries.”
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