Norfolk, Va. - In World War II, there were 30 Navy ships for every admiral. Now, the Navy has more admirals than ships.
That's a point not lost on Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner.
"I want to see the Pentagon cut back on some of this “brass creep” both in terms of numbers and some of these perks," Warner said.
Not long ago, the Navy forced out 3,000 mid-career sailors. Military budget cuts have scrapped air shows, delayed deployments, and threatened civilian contractors with two-week furloughs. Craig Quigley, a retired rear admiral who heads the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, says the cuts -- while not as bad as first feared -- will ripple past the local bases.
(Web Extra: In the interview below, RADM John Kirby talks about what some call the “entourage culture” surrounding top generals and admirals and whether it is necessary or appropriate. He also talked about why the Navy had forced out some sailors but is hiring others.)
"You’re not going to buy the new car, you’re going to fix up the old one. You might cancel the family vacation. You are going to have to adjust your own household finances to accommodate 14 days without pay," he said. "If you are a small business with only a handful of employees, you might not survive."
At the same time, the Pentagon has added admirals and generals. There are now nearly a thousand. Many of those top officers are surrounded with entourages including chauffeurs, chefs and executive aids. Top flag officers have private jets always at the ready. They live in sometimes palatial homes and frequently travel in motorcades. Former Democratic Senator Jim Webb asked the Pentagon why the Air Force has more four-star generals than the Army, even though the Army has almost twice the manpower. Across all service branches, Warner said, the number of people at the bottom has shrunk while the number of generals and admirals has swelled.
Investigations have shown some in power misuse these perks. General Wiliam "Kip" Ward was demoted for using his staff and military vehicles to take his wife shopping, to spas and on vacations in $700-a-night suites, all at taxpayer expense.
"If you’re a four-star, and you’ve got a G-5 aircraft waiting for your private use, or governmental use, 24/7, that doesn’t make sense to me," Warner said. "That all adds up, and it just sends the wrong signal, when we are cutting back on the number of troops, and soldiers, sailors and airmen, yet we are increasing the number of generals and flag officers."
Slate.com estimated that the perks and entourages afforded flag officers cost a million dollars for every admiral and general.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, speaking from the Pentagon, says he understands Sen. Warner's concerns.
"I can’t say honestly that there aren’t some generals or admirals who perhaps surround themselves with more people than they need," Kirby said. "That is certainly a fair argument, a fair criticism to make. But I don’t think it is the norm. I don’t think it is taken advantage of by the great majority of them."
Kirby added that many of the admirals and generals have labored for years under massive wartime burdens, and need skilled officers and aides to help manage their workloads.
To Tiffany Waterfield, that doesn't make sense.
"You’re getting your steak dinner while we don’t know if we’re going to eat Ramen or eat at all," she said. "So it hurts. It definitely makes me angry."
Waterfield's fiance served 12 years when he was told he was no longer needed. He became one of the 3,000 sailors dismissed from service by the Enlisted Retention Board. Waterfield said he was on track to be a chief, and now they are facing the possibilty they'll be homeless.
"We’re on food stamps," she said. "I have never in my life needed help or handouts for things like that. So it is hard. I don’t know what to do."