A recent memo from the Air Force Surgeon General’s office to all major commands has put into motion a diversity initiative championed earlier this year by Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) Deborah Lee James. The new policy doubles the length of post-pregnancy deployment exemption from 6 to 12 months, theoretically bolstering retention of more family-oriented female servicemembers. It’s a sound idea that seeks to reduce the intensity of the constant dilemma faced by female airmen: whether they can make family objectives consistent with enduring service.
The problem: this policy, which will provide anecdotal relief for a relatively tiny number of the service’s female airmen, stands to have its impact utterly washed away by a provision in the Senate version of next year’s proposed defense spending bill. That measure, which would slash housing compensation for dual military families on the theory that they are currently overpaid, would have a disproportionate and disastrous impact on thousands of female airmen, profoundly threatening SECAF’s equality push.
In the time since the controversial proposal gained steam in budget negotiations, scores of female airmen in dual military families have reached out to JQP, wondering aloud why SECAF has silently acquiesced to something that will upend the diversity platform she rolled out just a few months ago.
One female officer told me privately:
“If this passes, I’ll likely get out [as soon as my commitment is up]. That makes me really sad, but I won’t knowingly work for an entity that, as a matter of policy, pays me 30% less for the same work as my husband.”
These sentiments are representative of what I’ve heard from scores of others.
Some will argue this isn’t an equality issue, but the projected impact of the policy demonstrates just the opposite. According to calculations derived from the service’s own demographic reporting and a 2013 manpower study (available here), nearly 17,000 active duty women — more than 28% of the service’s female airmen — are in marriages with other military members, while less than 8% of male airmen are in such marriages.
In other words, the households of more than one quarter of the service’s women are about to take a pay cut measured in the double-digit thousands. Against the wave of departures this is likely to instigate, an extra six months at home for new mothers with untimely deployment cycles is like a candle in a hurricane. Its light will be instantly extinguished and the fact it was ever lit utterly forgotten.
There are many sound arguments against the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) reduction plan. Since BAH is not a benefit but a component of basic servicemember compensation, reducing it on the basis of spouse income amounts to the imposition of a means test on military pay. This is objectively absurd. No ordinary employer could sustain a policy of means testing pay based on spousal support without facing charges of discrimination and undue intrusion into the private lives of employees.
Moreover, 37 USC 403 makes BAH an “entitlement,” and states that all who are entitled to basic pay are also entitled to BAH unless in-kind housing is provided. In other words, housing allowance is an employee right, even if by bracketing it separately, the system permits an alternative impression. The sad irony in this situation is that BAH is separately bracketed by public law as an untaxed allowance — rather than being rolled into base pay — in order to limit the size of defined benefit pensions. In other words, a policy approach already unfavorable to servicemembers is now providing the perceptual foundation for attacking their interests even more.
Should the measure succeed, it’s logical to assume Congress will expand the practice in future budgets, with all servicemembers required to report spousal income and have their BAH calibrated accordingly. By shrewdly prioritizing the relatively small subgroup of dual military families, Congress seeks to legitimize the practice of means testing without facing a sizable opposition. It further benefits from internal squabbling among servicemembers, many of whom argue from motivations of individual resentment and misapprehension rather than lucid consideration of the merits.
SECAF’s silence and public dodging on this issue, which stands to create hardship for more than 36,000 Air Force families on October 1st, has shaken many airmen who believed in her initiatives. They’ve essentially given up on her, starting a White House petition instead.
Meanwhile, the new Surgeon General policy demonstrates the irretrievable mess generals have made of Air Force human resource management. The lack of a deliberate plan and the unwillingness to audit deployment workcenters for efficiency is creating a raft of confusing contradictions leaving commanders in the field mystified and constantly shuffling rosters to satisfy edicts from above.
Extending the postpartum deployment exemption directly contradicts another recent move by the Air Staff to ignore mission-critical exceptions when filling deployment requests. While admirable in its own right, the postpartum exception will introduce another limitation and more complexity into an already chaotic process over which airmen and commanders have zero useful visibility.
At the root of this pressure is the continual urge by deployed leaders to pile up more bodies to fill their already bloated staff rosters. Their hunger rages unchecked because of a lack of moral courage among service leaders to push back concretely against what airmen have long reported to be massive manpower waste at deployed locations.
Here’s an anecdote recently scraped from an online forum:
“One of my peers got hit with a short notice 180 day tasking to Africa. He is [a] 11K [First Assignment Instructor Pilot] type and when he shows up they say oh this is supposed to [b]e a 11M [Airlift Pilot] tasking so we are going to find a different job for you and bring in another individual. Needless to say he is still there not doing what he was tasked to do. And then they short noticed a second individual to come in as well. Awesome personnel management.”
This account, later verified with its source, rings true and matches up with what not only what I hear constantly, but what I saw during my own time on active duty. A report like this should catalyze a near-instantaneous email exchange between leaders followed by the purchase of an airline ticket to send home a non-essential deployer. But it happens constantly with zero consequences and stubborn inaction. The excuses, sometimes breathlessly rendered offline, are both uninteresting and irrelevant. They amount to basically “because we’re stupid and because we can.”
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Air Force’s failed human resource bureaucracy is pulling violently at the service fabric. Pressure yanking them in all directions is stretching the sanity of the airmen caught in the middle. It’s in such trying moments that the enemy normally chooses to register his vote. In this case, the “enemy” is personified by a congressional cabal bent on treating military pay as a vulture’s quarry.
Will SECAF intervene and shoo the vultures away, or is she quietly helping them scavenge in order to keep them distracted from other potential prey? With every moment she stands silent on an issue clearly oppositional to her stated rhetoric on women and families, more airmen conclude the latter. They see her silence as nothing short of a betrayal.