Feb. 20, 2014 — A belated tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Bliss

The Buffalo Soldiers Memorial statue has been a gleaming sentinel near the main southeastern entrance to Fort Bliss, Texas, since 1999.

Last week, the statue, which depicts a Buffalo Soldier — Cpl. John Ross of I Troop, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment — with rifle in hand riding atop a horse in full gallop, watched over a “small and belated” ceremony that recognized the legacy and sacrifice of the Soldiers that the $100,000 monolith represents.

Robert E. Lee Road at Fort Bliss was renamed Buffalo Soldier Road partly because of the large memorial located in the median of the road, a statue titled The Errand of Cpl. Ross, which was based on a painting by El Paso artist and former warrant officer Bob Snead. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)
Robert E. Lee Road at Fort Bliss was renamed Buffalo Soldier Road partly because of the large memorial located in the median of the road, a statue titled The Errand of Cpl. Ross, which was based on a painting by El Paso artist and former warrant officer Bob Snead. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)

A small crowd was on hand Feb. 20 as Fort Bliss commanding general Maj. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland presided over a ceremony to rename the road on which the Buffalo Soldiers Memorial sits. The thoroughfare was officially renamed Buffalo Soldier Road to honor the famed group of black troopers of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry regiments who protected settlers, pioneers and the interests of the United States as the nation continued its westward expansion in the late 19th century. The road was previously known as Robert E. Lee Road.

“These American fighting men valiantly and selflessly served our great nation,” MacFarland said. “No other group of American Soldiers sacrificed so much and yet received so little respect in return.”

The renamed road was deemed a fitting tribute, MacFarland said, as various Buffalo Soldier regiments served at Fort Bliss and nearby areas from 1869 to 1885. Barracks for black Soldiers were located not far from where the memorial statue sits. The unit produced 23 Medal of Honor recipients for actions during the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection and World War I. There are 52 Buffalo Soldiers buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery and at nearby Concordia Cemetery in El Paso. The renaming ceremony also came during Black History Month.

The Buffalo Soldiers were borne of an experiment to utilize black Soldiers to bolster the Army’s ranks in the aftermath of the Civil War, said Bob Snead, a retired chief warrant officer and El Paso artist whose painting, The Errand of Cpl. Ross, served as the inspiration for Fort Bliss’ memorial.

“It was not hard to recruit Soldiers, it was hard to get good ones,” Snead said during the dedication ceremony.

In 1866, the 9th Cavalry Regiment was formed in Greenville, La. The 10th Cavalry Regiment followed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Initially, the units, which were led by white officers, trained in squalor. But they quickly proved their mettle, emerging as what Snead calls, “some of the toughest and hardest fighting units in the Army.” They did so despite encountering racism from the very people they were charged with protecting.

“No detachment [of Buffalo Soldiers] ever bolted under fire or failed to do its duty,” Snead said. “Their desertion rate was among the lowest in the entire Army. These men fought, bled and died for their country.”

The Buffalo Soldiers moniker was bestowed upon the units by Native Americans as a sign of respect for their fierceness and appearance. That fortitude was on display April 11, 1878. That day, Ross was conducting a mission in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas. He was dispatched alone to guide a supply wagon that had lagged behind. When he reached the presumed location of the wagon, he was fired upon by three armed Mescalero Apaches. Ross bucked his horse in an effort to slip his attackers. While in a full gallop, he turned in his saddle and fired at his pursuers, killing one of them. The other two bid a hasty retreat. With the threat nullified, Ross completed his errand and entered Buffalo Soldier lore.

Snead’s painting is one of many he’s created to honor the history of the renowned units. He says he is honored to tell their story and convey the importance of the Buffalo Soldier name.

“That’s a nickname that many black Soldiers today carry with pride, and rightly so,” Snead said. “They’ve climbed up on the backs of some brave men and courageous men who fought and died for this country in the face of disgrace, in the face of prejudice and bigotry.

“The annals of American military history are full of their heroic deeds and accomplishments. Even though they endured many hardships, they rose above that to serve their country with honor, with pride and with glory.”

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

 

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Charles N. Taylor Jr. (left) of the Donnie Brown Chapter of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Association in El Paso, Texas, relates a story to Sgt. DeAngelo Coatie of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison-Fort Bliss, before the start of the ceremony Feb. 20 to rename a major arterial at Fort Bliss “Buffalo Soldier Road.” (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Charles N. Taylor Jr. (left) of the Donnie Brown Chapter of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Association in El Paso, Texas, relates a story to Sgt. DeAngelo Coatie of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison-Fort Bliss, before the start of the ceremony Feb. 20 to rename a major arterial at Fort Bliss “Buffalo Soldier Road.” (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)

During ‘Military Saves Week,’ Army reminds Soldiers of year-round financial education

By C. TODD LOPEZ
Army News Service

As the Department of Defense embarks on “Military Saves Week,” Feb. 24 through March 1, the Army wants Soldiers, civilians and their families to know that it provides financial education year-round — including information on how to save — at installations across the force.

As part of “Military Saves Week 2014,” service members and their families can point their web browser to militarysaves.org to take the pledge to save money. This is the eighth year of Military Saves Week, which is cosponsored by the Consumer Federation of America. The week focuses on helping military families find the tools needed to reduce their debt and save for the future.

“It’s a social campaign where we collaborate with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and our Military Saves partners, under the umbrella of America Saves. The intent is to get folks to save as much as possible. The Army had the most pledges last year,” said Gale Johnson, financial readiness and Army Emergency Relief program manager at Installation Management Command.

Johnson said service members’, civilians’ and family members’ finances are keys to successful service and a satisfactory lifestyle while in the Army.

Michael A. Wood, chief of transition support services at U. S. Army Installation Management Command, or IMCOM, agreed. He said when a Soldier has his or her finances in order, that translates to increased personal readiness. And that means increased mission readiness for the Army and increased personal satisfaction for service and family members.

“If a Soldier doesn’t have to worry about their finances, that’s one less thing to think about as they go downrange to deploy, while they build an Army career,” he said. “If you are financially secure, you will be more resilient and more ready to help defend the country.”

Through Army Community Services, or ACS, IMCOM provides personal financial managers to Soldiers, civilians and their families to counsel, train and mentor them on the financial issues and challenges that life brings, Wood said.

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NCOs in the Army watercraft field take pride in leading unique, versatile units

By MEGHAN PORTILLO
NCO Journal

Army NCOs working on the water as vessel engineers and operators help form one of the Army’s most important assets, but many individuals don’t even know they exist.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Vanasse is the “skip,” or vessel master, aboard one of 73rd Transportation Company’s small tugs. The small tug, manned completely by enlisted personnel, is designed for coastal towing operations. It is used to build temporary piers at unimproved ports and to assist in docking larger vessels. “When you are towing 1,000 feet between two little buoys out there, it is not easy,” Vanasse said. “Bobbing back and forth, when you’re in 3- to 5-foot swells, this boat rocks like there is no tomorrow.” (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Vanasse is the “skip,” or vessel master, aboard one of 73rd Transportation Company’s small tugs. The small tug, manned completely by enlisted personnel, is designed for coastal towing operations. It is used to build temporary piers at unimproved ports and to assist in docking larger vessels. “When you are towing 1,000 feet between two little buoys out there, it is not easy,” Vanasse said. “Bobbing back and forth, when you’re in 3- to 5-foot swells, this boat rocks like there is no tomorrow.” (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

The 10th Transportation Battalion, a unit of the 7th Sustainment Brigade based at Fort Eustis, Va., conducts port and vessel operations to move cargo from port to port or from ships anchored at sea to the shore. According to information from the U.S. Army Transportation School, Army watercraft move 90 percent of the U.S. forces’ supplies and equipment for operations throughout the globe.

The vessels’ flat bottoms allow them to operate in shallow water. Soldiers can build a temporary pier, use a floating crane or simply drop the vessel’s ramp onto a beach to unload equipment and supplies. This ability gives the Army the flexibility it needs to react to any situation. Sgt. 1st Class Robert Plank, the first mate — second in command — aboard one of the 97th Transportation Company’s seven Landing Craft Utility vessels, said that whether it is sending tanks to Kuwait, ammunition to Afghanistan or relief supplies to the site of a natural disaster, the battalion plays a key role in supporting the force.

“That’s the greatest thing that sets Army watercraft apart from the Coast Guard, the Navy and the Marine Corps’ boats,” Plank said, comparing the Army’s flat-bottomed vessels to the majority of the other branches’ vessels with round or “V-shaped” hulls. “We can go where they can’t go. For instance, the Philippines just got destroyed by that tsunami. There is no fixed port there whatsoever anymore. But if we can get into 5 to 7 feet of water, we can get stuff on the ground and save lives.”

Unknown to the rest of the Army

The “Waterborne” Battalion is the most deployed battalion in the Army, said Command Sgt. Maj. Jerome Smalls, command sergeant major of the 10th Transportation Battalion. Even so, the existence of Army watercraft appears to be unknown to the rest of the transportation field, let alone the rest of the Army, he said.

“I’ve been in transport for 23 years. I never knew these units existed until I got here,” Smalls said. “I didn’t even know we had boats until I showed up and realized, ‘Wow, that’s my unit!’”

When Plank re-enlisted in 1999, he said he was looking for a military occupational specialty that would allow his family to remain settled. His retention NCO recommended the watercraft field because there are few destinations for the MOS — Fort Eustis; Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va.; Hawaii — and Soldiers often remain in a unit for 10 or more years.

“What is that?” Plank remembered asking. “The only thing I could think of was watching those old Army commercials from the 90s with the little river boat going through the jungles of Florida — Special Forces guys. Those are the only Army boats I ever knew about. When I got to Fort Eustis and actually saw all these big gray vessels out here, I thought, ‘Wow, the Army actually has full-blown boats!’ I’ve been here ever since.”

The small tug: Enlisted only

The battalion utilizes several types of vessels, all with the flat-bottom shape that allows them to operate in shallow water. The largest is the Logistics Support Vessel, or LSV, referred to as the “Cadillac” of the battalion. With an overall length of 273 feet and a crew of 23 enlisted Soldiers and six officers, it is used to transport heavy, oversized cargo to destinations around the world.  Another vessel used is the 174-foot long Landing Craft Utility vessel, or LCU, which has a crew of 13 enlisted Soldiers and two warrant officers. The LCUs are also oceangoing vessels and are usually used to transport vehicles and other cargo from ships to shore and to coastal areas unreachable by larger vessels. Smaller vessels, referred to as large and small tugs, are designed for coastal towing operations.

Staff Sgt. Gary Pugh, the junior marine engineer aboard one of 73rd Transportation Company’s small tugs, discusses the firefighting equipment worn by Pvt. Timothy Hays, a member of the fire crew. “As a part of our weekly drills, it’s his responsibility to get dressed out in two minutes and be able to respond and fight that fire — whether that fire is on this or another vessel,” Pugh said.  (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Staff Sgt. Gary Pugh, the junior marine engineer aboard one of 73rd Transportation Company’s small tugs, discusses the firefighting equipment worn by Pvt. Timothy Hays, a member of the fire crew. “As a part of our weekly drills, it’s his responsibility to get dressed out in two minutes and be able to respond and fight that fire — whether that fire is on this or another vessel,” Pugh said. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

The small tugs, manned completely by enlisted personnel with a crew of 10, are used for towing within harbor areas and have the ability to tow from the back, the side and the front of the vessel. Other uses include firefighting, docking large vessels and towing segments of causeway to build floating piers at unimproved ports. The tugs are prepositioned at ports all over the world, but can also be towed overseas or deployed aboard the larger vessels if needed.

“Basically, our company works like a packing firm,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Vanasse, the vessel master aboard one of 73rd Transportation Company’s small tugs. “We are a floating-craft unit, which means that with the large tug, the [floating] crane and the two small tugs, we are self-deploying.”

To self-deploy, the crew would use the floating crane to pick up the small tug, then attach the tug on top of the crane. The crane and tug could then be towed overseas by a large tug or loaded aboard a semi-submersible vessel. This allows the tugs to deploy wherever they are needed.

“This job is a lot of fun,” Vanasse said. “You get to see a lot of neat things, having the dolphins swim next to us, a lot of beautiful sunrises when you are out there. But it’s actually a very dangerous job — very stressful. When you are towing 1,000 feet between two little buoys out there, it is not easy. Bobbing back and forth, when you’re in 3- to 5-foot swells, this boat rocks like there is no tomorrow. … The tug boat is probably one of the most dangerous jobs in the boat field because of the amount of line handling that we do.”

Tactical and technical experts

Spc. Heather Hroch, a deckhand aboard one of 73rd Transportation Company’s small tugs, prepares the forward storage room for a mission. The heaviest cargo is secured at the bottom so that if it does fall, it doesn’t go far. “Just on the missions I’ve done on this boat, I see dolphins all the time,” she said. “That’s the cool thing about being an 88K. You get to see the sights, whereas the engineers are stuck in the engine room most of the time.” (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Spc. Heather Hroch, a deckhand aboard one of 73rd Transportation Company’s small tugs, prepares the forward storage room for a mission. The heaviest cargo is secured at the bottom so that if it does fall, it doesn’t go far. “Just on the missions I’ve done on this boat, I see dolphins all the time,” she said. “That’s the cool thing about being an 88K. You get to see the sights, whereas the engineers are stuck in the engine room most of the time.” (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

NCOs aboard the vessels ask a lot of their Soldiers, and the Soldiers rise to the challenge.

“In the short time I have been here, I see that these Soldiers do a phenomenal job, and our NCOs are phenomenal leaders,” Smalls said. “I get blown away every day by what they know — their technical experience. You can talk with a specialist on that boat who will sound like he is a sergeant major because he knows so much about his vessel. … He can tell you everything from the bottom of that vessel to the top.” 

Enlisted Soldiers work aboard the vessels as 88K watercraft operators and 88L watercraft engineers. Watercraft operators are part of the piloting team and are responsible for navigation and cargo operations. Watercraft engineers are responsible for maintenance and auxiliary equipment on the vessels. Both MOSs are in need of more Soldiers, Smalls said. 

“It’s a challenging field,” Smalls said. “It’s hard to get into, and it’s hard to maintain.”

Injured Soldiers often reclassify to 88K or 88L for the benefit of a low-impact job, but they quickly learn that Soldiers with more experience have an enormous advantage. Smalls said it is best for Soldiers to classify as 88K or 88L within their first couple of years in the Army.

“For our unit, the technical aspect is probably the most important,” Smalls said. “You can be good at kicking in doors and all that good stuff, but if you do not understand a technical piece of your job, you are really useless to this organization.”

Sgt. Ryan Light, a junior marine engineer aboard one of 97th Transportation Company’s Landing Craft Utility vessels, examines a tank level indicator, or TLI, that shows the amount of sewage being held on the vessel.  “The TLI went out,” Light said. “We pulled it apart and found that this transformer in here is blown.” As part of their normal duties, engineers monitor the vessel’s fuel, oil, sewage and drinking water. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Sgt. Ryan Light, a junior marine engineer aboard one of 97th Transportation Company’s Landing Craft Utility vessels, examines a tank level indicator, or TLI, that shows the amount of sewage being held on the vessel. “The TLI went out,” Light said. “We pulled it apart and found that this transformer in here is blown.” As part of their normal duties, engineers monitor the vessel’s fuel, oil, sewage and drinking water. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

As in many other fields that require Soldiers to put their lives on the line, crewmembers face stressful situations daily and depend on one another to be good at their jobs.

“It’s just like in Iraq for ground transporters,” said 1st Sgt. Billy Perdue, first sergeant for 97th Transportation Company. “Out there on that ocean, if you make a mistake, it’s unforgiving. It’s awesome when you go out there with these guys and you see them work. You understand that if something goes sideways out there, you are in some trouble unless you are prepared and understand what is going on.”

Sgt. 1st Class Jonathon Plake, the first mate on an LCU in 97th Transportation Company, agreed.

“No re-dos. You can’t pull over to the side of the road and regroup,” he said.

Should someone get injured on a smaller vessel, a junior-level medic is often the only healthcare professional aboard. Each Soldier must take it upon him or herself to become an expert in their duties.

“I think all of us take a lot of pride in our versatility and in the varieties of expertise we have in the Army watercraft field,” said Sgt. Derrick McElroy, a boatswain — one of the senior crewmen on deck — aboard one of 73rd Transportation Company’s small tugs. “Some of the similar-sized vessels in the Navy have much higher manning requirements than we do.”

Though the Navy also operates landing craft vessels to transport equipment and troops to the shore, the NCOs were confident in claiming that more is expected of their Soldiers than of enlisted sailors in the Navy.

“Years ago, when the watercraft field was up for debate on whether the Army was even going to keep us or not, they looked at the Navy and asked if they could man our boats,” Plank said. “They couldn’t, because they would need a larger crew to do what we do as a crew of 12. … So that idea got squashed pretty quickly. That kind of made me feel good — the Army finally got that one-up on the Navy.”

Certifying above grade

Extensive training is required to make sure each crewmember is qualified for his or her position, and the schooling is challenging. Plake explained that the courses at the U.S. Army Transportation School’s Maritime Training Department at Fort Eustis are the only military courses that lead directly to a civilian license to drive a vessel.

 

Spc. Adam Hartman examines a map in the bridge — the command center — of one of 97th Transportation Company’s Landing Craft Utility vessels. Hartman is certified above grade at skill-level 20, and operates as an E-5 while on the vessel. The vessel has two electronic chart systems, but in the event the electronic systems fail, the crew is also prepared to navigate using a map and compass. “Spc. Hartman has responsibilities as the vessel’s quartermaster, or navigator,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Plank, the vessel’s first mate. “He is a genius when it comes to plotting our course on those paper charts.” (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Spc. Adam Hartman examines a map in the bridge — the command center — of one of 97th Transportation Company’s Landing Craft Utility vessels. Hartman is certified above grade at skill-level 20, and operates as an E-5 while on the vessel. The vessel has two electronic chart systems, but in the event the electronic systems fail, the crew is also prepared to navigate using a map and compass. “Spc. Hartman has responsibilities as the vessel’s quartermaster, or navigator,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Plank, the vessel’s first mate. “He is a genius when it comes to plotting our course on those paper charts.” (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

“We have to pay for the license, but we don’t need any additional training to receive it,” Plake said. “There are officers in the Coast Guard and the Navy who can’t even get those certifications without further training.”

Both watercraft operators and engineers are required to obtain certifications and licensing at each skill level. Certification is gained through academic instruction, whereas licensing is gained through unit training and Duty Performance Tests based on vessel-specific tasks.

“If you are a sergeant first class but are not certified to grade, I really can’t use you,” Smalls said. “So it’s really important to stay up on your certifications and to stay motivated, because every five years, your certifications go away. If you don’t have that certification, you are just a warm body that can’t be used.”

The Soldiers in the battalion often surpass the high expectations set for them. Several are even certified above grade, creating a unique dynamic aboard the vessel.

“For vessel units, if there is somebody who is more technically proficient, we acknowledge that and send them to school to be certified and licensed above grade,” Perdue said. “With that certification, he can serve at a higher grade, but only while on the vessel.”

For example, an E-4, who would normally certify at skill level 10, may certify at skill level 30.  That Soldier would be a specialist working as a staff sergeant, serving directly below his first mate.  He may even have an E-5 working below him who is certified at skill level 20. 

Though Soldiers who are certified above grade do not wear anything different on their uniform, the crew knows who is working in which position, Perdue said. Crewmembers recognize that, because lives are at stake, it is important to give authority to the most capable individual.

“In the Army, we all know rank is very important,” Plank said. “Could a specialist tell a sergeant certain things? No. But when it comes to operating that vessel, that [skill level] 30 is in charge of that [skill level] 20. In my experience, it puts some stresses in there. But in the end, the mission is accomplished, and no disrespect or hard feelings are ever shared.”

Leading the experts

Despite working on water instead of land, being an NCO in the Army watercraft field is like being an NCO anywhere else, Smalls said.

“You enforce standards and discipline,” he said. “You lead from the front, making sure Soldiers are doing the right thing. You make sure Soldiers are trained and held accountable for their actions. You make sure the families and the Soldiers both stay resilient.”

Perdue explained that, as a first sergeant, his job is to take care of his Soldiers and manage the company, attending to the things his Soldiers shouldn’t have to worry about because they are busy on the vessels. He said that, even though his role in the organization does not require him to be an expert in watercraft operation or maintenance, he must learn about his Soldiers’ jobs in order to understand the issues they face and take care of their welfare.

“It tends to get a little bit tedious when I get on the vessel and they’re like, ‘What are you doing?’ They have to explain things to me, and they are not used to that,” said Perdue, who spent the majority of his career as an 88M motor transport operator. “But how could I proficiently take care of my Soldiers if I don’t understand the importance of their jobs and what they do out here?”

With every word, the NCOs expressed pride in their Soldiers and in their units’ capabilities. They know they are leading younger Soldiers in a job that truly makes a difference in the Army.

 “When you see all the pieces come together, it’s thrilling to know that I’m a part of this,” Plank said. “A lot of things couldn’t happen without our Soldiers and our boats. It’s pretty cool.”

Army Landing Craft Utility vessel 2035, “Port Hudson,” is shown off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, during a Combined/Joint Logistics Over the Shore (CJLOTS) exercise in March 2013. (Photo courtesy of 10th Transportation Battalion, 7th Sustainment Brigade)
Army Landing Craft Utility vessel 2035, “Port Hudson,” is shown off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, during a Combined/Joint Logistics Over the Shore (CJLOTS) exercise in March 2013. (Photo courtesy of 10th Transportation Battalion, 7th Sustainment Brigade)

DOD moves to slow military compensation growth

By JIM GARAMONE
American Forces Press Service

The Defense Department can no longer put off slowing the growth of military personnel costs, and the fiscal year 2015 budget request DOD is recommending to the president begins that process, defense leaders said in Washington on Monday.

Saying they are ready to take on the hard task of curbing growth in compensation, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, previewed the fiscal 2015 budget request for reporters.

Hagel said all defense leaders agreed to a holistic and comprehensive approach to compensation changes. “Continuous piecemeal changes will only magnify uncertainty and doubts among our service members about whether promised benefits will be there in the future,” he said.

“I know this weighs heavily on the minds of our men and women in uniform and on their families,” Dempsey said. “Our force is extraordinarily accepting of change. They are less understanding of piecemeal approaches. They want — and they deserve — predictability.”

Military and civilian compensation accounts for 50 percent of the DOD budget. This has put the department out of balance, the defense leaders said, and the department must invest to ensure service members are well-equipped and well-trained to handle future challenges.

All savings from compensation reforms will help keep service members properly trained and equipped, they added. The budget request recommends a 1 percent increase in military pay, and it freezes pay for general and flag officers.

Hagel and Dempsey stressed that no one in uniform will see a pay cut. Rather, they explained, the push is to slow growth to put pay and benefits on a more sustainable path. “Total pay and benefits increased 40 percent faster than the private sector between 2001 and 2012, and while that was the right thing to do at the time, we can’t continue at that rate over the long term,” Hagel said.

In addition to pay, the budget request begins the process to slow the growth rate of tax-free basic housing allowances. This will continue for five years until the allowances cover about 95 percent of the average service member’s housing expenses. Again, no one will see a decrease in their basic house allowance, Hagel said. DOD also would no longer reimburse service members for renter’s insurance.

This change will happen slowly, so that no one’s housing allowances will go down, Hagel said, noting that the process also will consider differences in the relative cost of living, so service members in high-rent areas won’t be adversely affected.

Under the request, the department will not shut down any commissaries, but will cut subsidies for some of them, the secretary said.

“Over three years, we will reduce by $1 billion the annual direct subsidy provided to military commissaries, which now totals $1.4 billion,” he said. “We are not shutting down commissaries. All commissaries will still get free rent and pay no taxes. They will be able to continue to provide a very good deal to service members and retirees — much like our post exchanges, which do not receive direct subsidies. Overseas commissaries and those in remote locations will continue receiving direct subsidies.”

DOD will simplify and modernize the TRICARE health insurance program by consolidating plans and adjusting deductibles and co-pays in ways that encourage members to use the most affordable means of care — such as military treatment facilities, preferred providers, and generic prescriptions, the secretary said.

“We will ask retirees and some active-duty family members to pay a little more in their deductibles and co-pays, but their benefits will remain affordable, as they should be,” he said. “To protect the most vulnerable, under this plan medically retired service members, their families, and the survivors of service members who die on active duty would not pay the annual participation fees charged to other retirees, and would pay a smaller share of the costs for health care than other retirees.”

Under the budget recommendation, the average military retiree would go from paying 8 percent of health care costs out of pocket to paying 11 percent. Retirees old enough to use Medicare and who choose to have TRICARE as well, eventually would be asked to pay a little bit more to enroll in TRICARE, Hagel said.

The approach encourages retirees to use free military facilities if they are close to home, which provide outstanding care and are often underused, the secretary said.

The compensation proposals do not recommend any changes to the military retirement benefits for those now in the services, Hagel said.

“We are awaiting the results of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which is expected to present its report in February 2015, before pursuing reforms in this area,” he added. “But DOD continues to support the principle of ‘grandfathering’ for any future changes to military retirement plans.”

Hagel said the proposals were carefully crafted to reform military compensation in a fair, responsible, and sustainable way.

“We recognize that no one serving our nation in uniform is overpaid for what they do for our country,” he added. “But if we continue on the current course without making these modest adjustments now, the choices will only grow more difficult and painful down the road. We will inevitably have to either cut into compensation even more deeply and abruptly, or we will have to deprive our men and women of the training and equipment they need to succeed in battle. Either way, we would be breaking faith with our people. And the president and I will not allow that to happen.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brief reporters on the fiscal year 2015 defense budget proposal at the Pentagon, Feb. 24, 2014. (DOD photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brief reporters on the fiscal year 2015 defense budget proposal at the Pentagon, Feb. 24, 2014. (DOD photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp)

Army coach leads Team USA to more Olympic medals

By TIM HIPPS
U.S. Army Installation Management Command

U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program and Team USA Olympic skeleton coach Sgt. 1st Class Tuffy Latour received a whole lot of love from his skeleton athletes on Valentine’s Night at Sanki Sliding Centre.

Latour, 45, a four-time Olympic coach from Saranac Lake, N.Y., has led U.S. and Canadian athletes to six Olympic medals. He helped coach Team USA’s Noelle Pikus-Pace to an Olympic silver medal and Katie Uhlaender to a fourth-place finish Friday night in the women’s skeleton event.

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U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program and Team USA skeleton coach Sgt. 1st Class Tuffy Latour leads Noelle Pikus-Pace (right) to an Olympic silver medal and Katie Uhlaender to a fourth-place finish in women’s skeleton Friday night at Sanki Sliding Centre in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs)

One day later, Latour led Matt Antoine to an Olympic bronze medal and John Daly to 15th place in men’s skeleton.

“He’s a rock,” Pikus-Pace said. “He’s the absolute best coach I’ve ever had, whether it’s track and field, skeleton, softball, basketball or soccer.

“It’s not just because of his coaching on the track,” she added. “It’s because of the sacrifice he makes for us. He puts his athletes first, and he cares so much about us. He’s results-based and all about what will make us better as a team.”

Uhlaender thanked Latour for his support at the start of the bobsled run, and asked him to hold the good-luck necklace charm she usually wears during competition. It was the Major League Baseball National League Championship ring passed on by her late father, Ted Otto Uhlaender, whose Cincinnati Reds lost the 1972 World Series in seven games to the Oakland Athletics. Katie told Tuffy she wanted to make the final Olympic run on her own — without her father’s presence, yet in honor of his name. It was a psychological way of “moving on,” so to speak.

Ted Uhlaender, an outfielder for the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds from 1965 through 1972, died of a heart attack at his ranch in Atwood, Kan., on Feb. 12, 2009, shortly before Katie finished second in the World Cup season finale at Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah.

“He made me feel like a warrior,” Uhlaender said. “He made me feel like I have a purpose, and I felt like I lost my way when he passed away.”

Nonetheless, Katie came roaring back on skeleton tracks and battled through numerous injuries to finish fourth at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games — five years and two days after losing her dad. Seemingly atop her game during the 2012-2013 World Cup skeleton season, Uhlaender again was forced to persevere after suffering a concussion last autumn. Having resiliently rebounded from numerous injuries and surgeries, including a shattered kneecap, Uhlaender expected to be in the medal hunt here.

“I can’t help but wonder, what if I hadn’t had that concussion, what if I had slid more, what if my start number was better,” she said.

Pikus-Pace did not complete her six training runs here for the women’s skeleton event and few really knew what troubled the sure-fire Olympic medal contender. She missed some practice runs, and blamed it on back pains. During a post-race press conference after winning the silver and sniffing the flowers, Pikus-Pace admitted that she had sustained a concussion.

“On Wednesday, I had a concussion,” Pikus-Pace said. “On Friday, I was getting MRIs. I was pretty out of it. I couldn’t see clearly. My vision was blurred, so for medical reasons I could not take those runs. … My back has bothered me, but my federation was just trying to protect me from the media to protect me for this race. I had the MRIs on Friday and it was just deduced that I needed to take the maximum runs off that I could. But, honestly, I felt my best and I felt very good today.”

After likely the final race of her career, Pikus-Pace said she was “confident and coming back,” and experienced “only a little vertigo,” but, she said, “Lizzy just threw down.”

Elizabeth Yarnold won Great Britain’s first gold medal of the Sochi Games with a four-run cumulative time of 3 minutes, 52.89 seconds. Pikus-Pace (3:53.86) took the silver, followed by bronze medalist Elena Nikitina (3:54.30) of host Russia. Uhlaender finished fourth in 3:54.34.

“I slid my heart out,” said Uhlaender, 29, of Breckenridge, Colo. “There wasn’t anything else I could have done. I am heartbroken.”

Already a world champion, World Cup champion and Olympian, Pikus-Pace finally got the Olympic medal that eluded her by one-tenth of a second at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Whistler, B.C., Canada. She retired from skeleton to expand her family, but a miscarriage in 2012 inspired her back onto the fast track. Her husband, Janson, and two children, Lacee and Tracyen, supported her long road to Sochi and were here Friday night to share in the celebration.

“It was worth the wait,” Pikus-Pace said. “It was worth every minute of it. Honestly, getting hit by the bobsled, people said: ‘Oh man, that’s horrible.’ Getting fourth at the Olympics, they said: ‘Ah, too bad.’ Then I had the miscarriage at 18 weeks, and many tears were shed. But if I hadn’t gone through every single one of those things I could not be here today. And this is right where I want to be, and to have my family here, the love and support, it’s just beyond words — just beyond words.”

During another post-race interview, she expressed her sentiments again.

“It is so surreal,” Pikus-Pace said. “This is everything I could have imagined and more, just to have my family here with me and all of the love and support and cheers we’ve had, and all of the trials we’ve had to overcome to come to this moment. This is as good as gold.”

The proud gleam in Coach Latour’s eyes seemed to say it all during the flower ceremony.

“It’s just incredible,” Latour said while riding a van down the mountain from the skeleton start to the finish. “We’ve been working hard all season [and] for the last two years with Noelle through a lot of ups and downs, and ever since we got here, she just hasn’t felt well. It was kind of a battle for her to just even get here to these races. For her to come out and finish second was as good as gold to her.

“She wanted to come out and win a medal at the Olympic Games, and we got her there,” he said. “It was little disappointing that we couldn’t get Katie up on the medal stand, as well.”

U.S. Olympic men’s skeleton athletes also praised Latour.

“Tuffy has been the best coach I’ve ever had in my life,” said John Daly, who finished 15th in the Olympic men’s skeleton event Feb. 15. “The one thing he’s kind of drilled into us is: ‘It’s a process, it’s not about results. You focus on the process. You focus on curves one, then two, and on down.’ That’s a really hard thing to do, but he’s always had confidence in us. He’s always kind of believed in us. We look to him when we don’t believe in ourselves and we see what he sees, and that’s kind of how it goes, and that’s kind of why we do well.”

Antoine claimed Olympic medal No. 6 for Latour’s athletes when he struck bronze in men’s skeleton Feb. 15.

“He started with us in 2010 and he’s taken the team to new heights,” Daly said. “He’s taken us all to a medal in each world championships, so you couldn’t really ask for a better coach.”

“It’s great to be in WCAP,” Latour said. “Anytime you can serve your country and represent it at the same time, it’s very, very special. The Russians have put on a great Olympics. The Sochi Games are awesome. The facilities are first class. This is probably one of the best sliding facilities in the world. They have all these gondolas bringing people to these different facilities. It’s spectacular.”

(Editor’s note: Gary Sheftick of Army News Service and Amanda Bird of USA Skeleton contributed to this article.)