Army won’t rule out any possible fixes to recruiting, housing woes

by Vern Evans

ARLINGTON, Va. – From housing problems to retention, recruiting and pay, the Army is looking at in-house solutions in the face of budget challenges, said the service’s top enlisted soldier.

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Weimer shared few details, but hinted at options the service might consider for addressing issues facing soldiers and their families when he spoke Wednesday at the Association of the U.S. Army.

The first question Weimer faced from an audience of more than 100 people, many enlisted soldiers, was what the service is doing about housing problems facing both families and barracks residents.

Repeatedly, Weimer stressed that while some factors, such as larger defense department mandates, budgets or congressional actions are out of the Army’s hands, the service is looking at what it can do on its own to solve problems.

“The answer is there’s nothing off the table,” Weimer said. “What can we control internally as a service and where do we need [the Pentagon’s] help because there’s certain things all services need to agree to and then there’s a congressional piece to it. And we’re looking at all that.”

While there are still areas to improve in family housing, Weimer said the Army has made strides when it comes to enforcing the Pentagon’s 2020 Tenant Bill of Rights and holding housing contractors accountable to military families.

“Frankly they’re doing a much better job but that’s been a journey,” Weimer said.

The sergeant major then turned his sights to barracks conditions.

“We’ve got some work to do there, we really do,” he said.

He pointed to construction schedule delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic that the service is trying to catch up on.

Adding to the problem, he said, is budgeting for long-term renovations and new construction across the service’s facilities with military budget delays.

“We’re struggling to get after this without predictable funding and this is where we need congressional help,” Weimer said.

The Pentagon rolled out a new Strategy for Resilient and Health Defense Communities on Feb. 15 as the Defense Department struggles to maintain its aging barracks and address issues facing military families due to limited on-base housing at many of its 538 installations. The same day the Pentagon unveiled its housing strategy, commanders at Fort Liberty, North Carolina laid out a host of infrastructure initiatives from new barracks to road repairs and improvements to child development centers, Army Times reported.

In late January, Weimer testified to Congress alongside his counterparts in the other services about military quality of life concerns.

In that testimony, enlisted leaders urged Congress to boost service members’ housing allowance to cover 100% of expenses, rather than the current 95% coverage rage, Military Times reported.

The shortfall amounts to an out-of-pocket cost ranging from $85 to $194 each month, according to Pentagon analysis.

In a similar vein, the Army’s looking at ways to improve pay and compensation for service members, he said.

Weimer noted that the Pentagon is six months short of finishing the two-year process of its pay and compensation review. That process will compare troop base pay to civilian equivalents and could spell a pay increase, pending the results.

Those figures are controlled by the Defense Department, not the services, along with housing and subsistence allowances. But incentive pay, additional skills pay and other compensation such as reenlistment bonuses, are controlled by the services, Weimer said.

“We’re taking a look at those holistically also,” he said.

But he cautioned that the Army faces a zero-growth budget while trying to simultaneously improve installation infrastructure and modernize a variety of equipment and systems.

“Remember, it’s all the same checkbook,” Weimer said. “And I hate ending on that but it’s real and I feel obligated to let you know that.”

In addition to housing concerns, recruiting and retention came up in the January congressional hearing, and audience members at Wednesday’s event echoed some of the same questions.

Weimer pointed to a recruiting restructure the Army put in place last year as well as the ongoing Future Soldier Prep Course, a pre-training camp that helps potential soldiers not yet qualified for basic training improve their physical fitness or test scores.

The restructuring included reassigning recruiting command to report directly to the Army secretary, raising the commanding general’s rank to three star and extending the command tour to four years, Army Times reported.

As of January, Weimer said that more than 14,300 individuals have completed the course. Many of the prep course graduates are being selected for positions such as squad leader or platoon guide in basic training because of their familiarity with the Army.

While promising, Weimer said he wants to see long-term data on the program’s effectiveness.

“The data that I’m really waiting for is the one to two-year enlistment time at first duty station,” Weimer said.

An audience member asked Weimer if the service was considering ending the longstanding “up or out” policies that push service members out of the military if they don’t reach certain rank promotion levels.

The more stringent version has been adjusted in recent years to an “up or stay,” which can retain personnel with certain skills, regardless of rank.

Weimer didn’t dive into details but said that as far as retaining soldiers, especially those in high-skill, low density jobs such as cyber, the Army was “looking at everything.”

“I don’t think we could ever completely change an up or out model for all MOSs,” Weimer said.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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