WASHINGTON -- America's military men and women should be allowed to take part in the nation's economic boom through a pay raise and 401(k) retirement accounts, the Navy's top civilian leader said Wednesday.
"The economy is benefiting, but our men and women in uniform have not," Navy Secretary John Dalton told a group of defense writers. "I think the American people would be supportive."
Dalton, who has announced that he plans to step down later this year after more than five years in office, said he is asked about such issues every time he visits with sailors.
"Our young people are very well informed" -- and much more cognizant of pay scales and the need to have long-term savings for retirement -- than when he was in the service, the 56-year-old Dalton said.
The 1998 monthly basic pay rate for a recruit entering the service is $856.80.
Improved benefits and pay rates more comparable to the private sector would go a long way toward helping the military cope as it competes for young people in this growing economy, Dalton said.
He said the Navy will be short 7,000 sailors this year, putting pressure on recruiters to garner more enlistees and on the service to retain experienced personnel. There are 380,700 men and women in the Navy and 1,398,000 in all of the active-duty uniform military forces.
Although there has been no formal cost analysis, Dalton said something like a 401(k) would be "the least costly" move. "It's the minimum thing we could do," he said.
The Navy is adding recruiters, increasing its advertising and promoting its college savings funds to attract more sailors. And Dalton said he has begun a letter-writing campaign to high school principals to help get recruiters into schools.
A 1964 graduate of the Naval Academy, Dalton served in the Navy from 1964 to 1969 aboard the submarines USS Blueback and USS John C. Calhoun.
Defense Secretary William Cohen bolstered Dalton's suggestion, commenting during a Pentagon photo session that he is looking "across the board" to improve pay and benefits for all service members.
"We have a booming economy and we have some challenges -- to say the least -- in attracting people into the service," Cohen said when asked about Dalton's comments. "We're trying to maintain the very high standards that we have and to achieve our recruiting, our retention goals."
The House approved a 3.1 percent pay increase for the military as part of the 1999 defense budget and the Senate has approved a 3.6 percent hike. Lawmakers are expected to agree on the larger amount when they meet to merge the two bills.