Troops' pay and other benefits are on the chopping block. And Rob Frank, the new CEO of the Air Force Sergeants Association, wants to push back against any effort to cut compensation.
But Frank, who took the reins of his organization in May, knows AFSA can't do it alone — and doesn't have to. That's why AFSA is aiming to increase its reach by building stronger relations and teaming with other military organizations, such as the Association of the United States Army and other groups that are part of the 32-organization Military Coalition, which AFSA helped found.
"We want to have a more collective voice," Frank said in an interview. "We look for common ground. We talk about issues that affect airmen, they may affect the Army or Navy [as well] — pay issues, basic allowance for housing. We have some similar viewpoints where we work together."
AFSA and other organizations lost the fight to provide troops a 1.8 percent pay raise, which would have kept their pay in line with private-sector wage growth, when Congress last month passed and President Obama signed the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. That bill included a 1 percent pay raise for 2015, slowed the growth in troops' housing allowance and increased most prescription drug co-pays by $3.
More cuts could be coming. An independent commission is to propose by Feb. 1 changes to military compensation and retirement. The recommendations — expected to include controversial proposals such as replacing the military's 20-year cliff-vesting retirement model, creating new incentive pays or eliminating some installation-based services — are also expected to spark a sweeping debate.
Frank served in the Air Force for 25 years as a C-130 and C-141 aircraft maintenance crew chief and first sergeant before retiring in 2013 as a chief master sergeant. He has been a member of AFSA since 1995. AFSA was founded in 1961 by four Air Force noncommissioned officers who wanted an organization to represent enlisted personnel. Today, with 110,000 dues-paying members, it is the largest enlisted military organization.
Following are edited excerpts from the Dec. 1 interview.
1. What are your goals for AFSA?
We really are looking to grow the association. When we go and lobby Congress [with] 110,000 members, that's a pretty strong statement in itself. But when I'm able to go forward and say, we're 150, 200, 250,000 members, and growing, it really brings better credibility to our message. We want to be able to do that to advocate on behalf of our membership.
2. Why is it important to have groups like AFSA talking to Congress?
The things that we advocate on Capitol Hill come from our membership. Roughly 19 percent of Congress has military experience. That's as of today, compared to the '70s. Back then there were 70-some odd percent of members of Congress had worn a uniform. It's more important than ever that organizations like us are their advisers, to educate our members of Congress about the experiences and challenges of military life.
3. As the military draws down due to budget cuts, is it doing right by enlisted service members?
I had an opportunity recently to travel out to several locations both in Europe and in the States and there's a consistent theme of concern out there for, what's going to happen to their future? Because of the position the Air Force is in, there were some folks who were force shaped on out, and the concern is, what's next?
I think the military is doing what they need to do. They are put in a particular position by Congress, because Congress is the one that sets the budget for them. There are a lot of opportunities that Air Force leaders have said of ways they can save money. I hope Congress listens to them. There's definitely some aircraft [Air Force leadership says can be cut, such as the A-10]. There's no discussion of a BRAC going on, but how many times does an Air Force leader have to say, "We have excess infrastructure," before Congress goes, "Hey, we ought to take a look at that." You've got all these big things the Air Force says they can save money on, and if they're not allowed to do that, the only choice they have is to chip away at this personnel budget.
4. What is one of AFSA's biggest recent victories?
We really wanted to level the playing field for our military children as they moved from school to school. We worked for years, since about '05, '06, on the Interstate Compact for Military Children. Each state has their own rules for school, ... and [when military children move], they run into problems trying to get the credits necessary to graduate. These are not choices these children make. They are moved based on military necessity. When somebody moves from one state to another, that commission's efforts to have a compact where all states agree to a similar set of rules was worked on for many years. That is something that when I started on board, I think we had 48 of 50 states. As of the last couple of months, the last two states [New York and New Hampshire] signed on to this.
5. One of AFSA's priorities is to establish a catastrophic leave program. Why is that important?
We're talking about leave sharing for an airman. Our civil service folks get that benefit of, you can donate to somebody who has a catastrophic event. Wouldn't it be nice to have the ability to provide that type of leave sharing opportunity? It has to have some checks and balances and monitoring. But if a young service man or woman comes home and has brought his new wife or husband to meet the family, and then they've used up all their leave to do that, and then unfortunately something catastrophic happens. Instead of going into a leave without pay status, it would be a great opportunity, in a limited amount, for somebody to be able to donate for that.
It is on our platform. We would like to see it introduced. We've had some discussions on doing that particular thing. But there's nothing necessarily on the floor [yet].