Aug 10 2020

The Fayetteville Observer

The proposed $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2021 again calls for a 3% pay raise for service members and $119.9 million for Fort Bragg special operations forces facilities, one of North Carolina’s senators said

The fiscal 2021 budget for defense would be about a $2 billion increase compared with the current fiscal year budget of $738 billion.

The Senate approved its version of the annual military budget July 23 on an 86-14 vote, and the House approved its version July 21 with a 295-195 vote.

The Senate reviewed the House version Wednesday, and the House received the Senate version Friday, where it is awaiting a vote.

The Senate version has about $215.8 million for North Carolina installations and includes a provision to allocate money for Department of Defense research on a coronavirus vaccine; addresses military housing and military sexual assault prevention; and has bipartisan language to address holding Russia and China accountable, Sen. Thom Tillis said.

“This bipartisan legislation is a big win for North Carolina’s service members and our military families, and I will work to get this bill to the president’s desk and ensure our men and women in uniform and their families have the support they need,” Tillis said.

For Fort Bragg, $119.9 million is allocated for special operations forces facilities, including a $17.7 million military working dog facility, a $53.1 million special operations group headquarters, and $49.1 million in other special operations construction.

“I think longer-term, the local garrison is trying to move ahead with some realignment of roads and make room for airfield expansions, which is still on a needs list,” Tillis said of future military budgets.

The budget also allocates $20 million to Camp Lejeune, $51.9 million for Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and $24 million for the Army Reserve Center in Asheville.

“A fair amount of credit goes to Sen. (John) Boozman, who knows Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune are priorities and understands the strategic importance of both installations,” Tillis said of the Arkansas senator who toured Camp Lejeune with him last year.

Housing

The budget authorizes installation leaders to fill housing positions to supervise military housing projects. It also prohibits service secretaries from allowing substandard family housing to be leased and requires the Department of Defense inspector general to conduct an audit of medical conditions of service members and families who have lived  in unsafe or unhealthy private military housing.

During the past year, Tillis said, there have been efforts on the congressional level to ensure a tenant bill of rights is in place for military housing residents and to ensure garrisons have the resources to properly oversee housing.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tillis held town hall meetings with Fort Bragg residents for updates on how they viewed housing conditions.

An ongoing effort, he said, is reviewing the private housing contractor’s portfolios and trying to identify a way to free up funds typically allocated for fixing military housing in other countries. 

“Deserts aren’t going to have the same problems we’re having here in North Carolina like mold and mildew after hurricanes,” Tillis said.

To free up those funds will require a legal process, he said.

“But it doesn’t hurt to take a look at it,” Tillis said.

While Tillis said he thinks a better job is being done to repair and renovate homes, structural problems still need to be addressed, and Senate oversight hearings will continue to focus on military housing.

COVID-19 response

On the Department of Defense level, Tillis said the 2021 budget would allow for $44 million to be invested in vaccine and biotechnology research for COVID-19.

It also calls for a civilian and military partnership pilot program to address medical surge capabilities and capacities in the National Disaster Medical System, which would allow for training and more personnel if there is a surge of patients. 

During a June 9 budget markup meeting, Tillis recognized how the virus has affected service members and their families. That includes moves that were delayed, spouses’ loss of income, limited access to medical care and problems finding child care.

“Even under normal conditions, you all make sacrifices every day in service to the nation,” he said in June. "During this pandemic, however, your sacrifices have been much greater. I greatly admire your strength and resilience as we all adjust to a new normal under COVID-19, and I thank you for your continued service to the nation.”

Tillis said he has filed legislation that would address child care funding.

Sexual assault prevention and response

Tillis said the act would require the Department of Defense to survey sexual assault response coordinators and prevention and victim advocates on their experiences for assisting victims.

It also would require the secretary of defense to develop a policy that allows victims to report an assault without fear of discipline.

Russia and China

Tillis said the act would extend the limitation on providing sensitive missile defense information to Russia or integrating the U.S. missile defense systems with China and Russia.

It would require the secretary of defense to consider security risks posed by foreign vendors when making overseas basing decisions.

Tillis said there are also provisions to require restricting military-to-military cooperation with Russia and require reports on Russian support of ethnically motivated violent extremist groups and networks in Europe and the U.S. that create national security threats and information warfare.

Family support

Among provisions to support families, Tillis said the budget calls for $4 million to be allocated toward assisting military spouses who seek professional relicensing in new states.

It also calls for increasing impact aid by $70 million to support school districts that educate military children and $20 million to support military children with disabilities.

“A lot of the markup was driven out of our personnel subcommittee,” said Tillis, who sits on the Senate Armed Service Committee and its personnel subcommittee. “I’m happy that it makes progress for military justice and sexual assault, looks at privatized housing, secures pay raises and continues to make reforms and progress for health care. So we’re going to continue to work on that.”