WASHINGTON -- To head off a "brain drain" of experienced troops, the Pentagon is proposing to improve life for military families with higher pay, better housing and more day-care facilities.
Behind the new concern there is a striking statistic: Today 61 percent of the all-volunteer force is married. In 1972, when the draft ended, the figure was 42 percent.
'Hollow' force feared
Secretary of Defense William J. Perry wants to prevent families, stressed by frequent and long deployments, from becoming so disillusioned with military life that they leave in such numbers that it pro- vokes a return of the "hollow" force of the 1970s.
Then, thousands of underpaid and demoralized troops quit. Their exodus left an undertrained and undermanned force, defense analysts say.
To prevent a repeat of the problem, Mr. Perry is proposing:
* $7.7 billion in military pay increases through the end of the century. Military pay raises are capped at a half-percentage point below the index of private-industry pay. Since 1982, under this formula, military pay raises have lagged behind comparable civilian raises by 12.6 percent.
* $2.7 billion over six years to improve military housing, increase allowances for living off base, and provide more day-care and recreational facilities.
Recognizing that the government cannot afford to bring all its military homes up to standard, the administration is trying to go into partnership with private builders. Among the ideas: selling existing housing and leasing it back once it is renovated; giving developers military land in exchange for houses, and guaranteeing loans or rent to developers who provide military housing.
* Lessening the time military families are apart. Among proposals Mr. Perry is considering: increasing the use of the reserves overseas and using more private contractors for nonmilitary support roles.
Although Pentagon officials say they are meeting their targets for recruiting new troops and keeping old ones, early signs of trouble are beginning to blip onto the screen, pointing to a loss of highly trained personnel.
The evidence is anecdotal. But there is enough of it for military leaders to bring it to the attention of Congress, whose support will be needed for corrective action.
The Army reports an increase in soldiers deciding to quit some highly stressed units.
In 1994, 85.7 percent of mid-grade noncommissioned officers in the Army's Patriot missile air defense units re-enlisted.
But after two battalions recently returned to Fort Bliss, Texas, from six-month deployments in South Korea and the Persian Gulf, their re-enlistment rate dropped to 56 percent.
The Marines, who routinely spend up to 50 percent of their time away from home, have recorded a shortfall in first-term re-enlistments and trouble meeting their recruitment targets.
At Camp Lejeune, N.C., home of the frequently deployed 2nd Marine Division, another indicator -- the number of Marines who changed their minds after initially deciding to re-enlist -- has doubled this year over last year.
"I think we are on the leading edge of a problem," said Brig. Gen. Michael J. Williams, commanding general of the 2nd Force Service Support Group.
"If we continue on this road, several years from now we will be scrambling to keep people in.
"What to do about it? Like everything else, it comes down to national priority and money."
Attracting particular attention is a decline in the number of second-term Navy re-enlistments. A similar decline in the 1970s turned out to be the first indicator of the alarming military decline.
'I worry about it'
"Is it a concern? You bet your bottom dollar I worry about it," said Vice Adm. Frank L. "Skip" Bowman, chief of naval personnel. He explained, however, that the re-enlistment figure was depressed because sailors are accepting financial incentives to leave the service as part of the military scale-back.
More alarmed by the decline is an umbrella group of 27 of the nation's leading military organizations, ranging from the Navy League to the Association of the United States Army.
Recalling the Navy re-enlistment decline in the 1970s, the group told Congress last month it was "very concerned that history appears to be repeating itself."