‘They are not cogs in a wheel’ — Congressional panel to focus on humanizing issues regarding troops in 2021

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Entering her third year as chairwoman of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said she is on a mission to further humanize military service members to the massive organization they serve.

Speier, who led the subcommittee to work on sexual assault issues, racial disparity problems, readiness gaps and extremism in the military, told Federal News Network this year will be an extension of the progress the panel has made in the past.

“Military personnel has to be elevated in the eyes of all of the service secretaries, and in the secretary of defense. They are not cogs in a wheel,” Speier said. “The experience I have had visiting bases suggests to me that we are not respecting the talent and energy and service of our service members. I say that because I’ve had spouses say things to me, that the operational tempo is so stressful that she fears coming home one night and finding her husband hanging in the shower.”

The military is dealing with a hydra of problems around personnel: Suicide and sexual assault rates are at record highs, the military is dealing with a housing crisis, coronavirus has infected nearly 150,000 troops, the Defense Department is starving for talent and the Pentagon is having trouble retaining minority groups and women.

Speier said one of the issues she will hold the Biden administration to is filling the Pentagon’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness position.

The spot has fallen fallow over the six years. Since March 2015, only two people have been nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to hold the personnel and readiness undersecretary position. Both served for less than a year.

That, according to multiple experts, will at least help DoD give service members an ally.

“Without a personnel and readiness undersecretary or a strong manpower and reserve affairs assistant secretary, then there is no advocacy voice for the men, women and families serving our nation, in and out of uniform,” said Todd A. Weiler, assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs under President Barack Obama.

Speier said this year she also wants to focus more on the privatized military housing issue. For the past two years, DoD has been trying to solve issues with companies it contracted with that built houses for service members that ended up with lead paint, mold, mice and other problems.

The military housing usually falls under the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee’s jurisdiction. However, Speier and Readiness Chairman Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) decided to hold joint hearings on housing this year.

While Congress passed a tenant bill of rights and added funding to fix houses, there are still reports of continued issues with military housing. DoD and Congress are trying to figure out how they can work within the contracts created with the housing companies or if they can pull out of them.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of these contracting provisions,” Speier said. “We’re also going to get greater accountability from those providing housing to our service members. We need to do a wholesale review of the conditions of all of the housing. It is not acceptable, that our service members live in tenement style housing settings.”

Sexual harassment and assault in the military is another issue Speier wants to keep pushing against. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act held a slew of provisions addressing the problem, like making it easier for victims to report assault without fear of repercussions and creating new channels to report assault.

Speier said incidents at Ft. Hood in Texas are giving the issue more traction. Speier said she plans to continue to push for sexual assault cases to be taken out of the chain of command and handled by an independent body. The House put that provision in the 2021 NDAA, but it did not make it into the final bill.

The Military Personnel Subcommittee will be overseeing the 70 recommendations an independent review gave to the Army surrounding events at Ft. Hood involving service member safety and sexual assault.

“The committee found that there’s a real vacuum and a lack of both expertise and talent in the Criminal Investigation Division in the Army. So we’re going to spend time making sure that they have the talent to do the kinds of investigations necessary and the resources,” Speier said.

The subcommittee also plans to investigate pregnancy discrimination after hearing of some cases within the service.

Outside of marquee issues, Speier said she plans to visit bases as much as possible while staying COVID compliant.

“I’ve found that to be very helpful in terms of evaluating what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong,” she said.

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