The career soldier is and has always been a rare breed. Finding the best and keeping the best requires an incentive package that keeps them in the ranks. It isn’t an American invention. Gaius Marius used it in 107 B.C. when he reorganized the Roman military from a bunch of conscripted land-owning adventurers into a standing army.
The recent proposals to cut military retirement benefits by $42.5 billion as part of the deficit reduction program are an abandonment of a promise this nation gave to its career soldiers. The argument being made by the Obama administration is that the current retirement system “provides generous benefits to the relatively few members who stay at least twenty years and no benefits for the roughly eighty percent of service members who stay less than twenty years.”
The current administration proposal is to set up a committee like the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, report its findings to the Pentagon and let them make the recommendations to Congress. Among the ideas floated are creating 401ks retirees can’t touch until they’re fifty-seven or sixty; raising premiums on health insurance and the amount of co-pays on medications.
The military “pension” for those who serve until retirement ages is not a pension in the civilian sense of the word. After twenty to thirty years, career soldiers retire at half pay and most attempt to reenter the workforce. They don’t exit the military and walk to the unemployment line to draw benefits, become an uninsured burden on the nation’s medical system or draw food stamps.
The idea they would need to after such faithful service is rightfully intolerable to most Americans. Reentering the work force in their 40s on the low end of the pay scale means this earned supplement is going to help provide for their family while they start a new career and life as a citizen.
A career airman, sailor or soldier is a job in name only. The expertise, knowledge, and talents they possess and pass on to those taking their places are what win wars. It’s understood when these men and women retire their skill sets don’t often fit in civilian workplaces. The time they could’ve spent making a better life for their families, climbing corporate ladders, starting businesses or gaining seniority was instead devoted to protecting their countrymen who did.
Since the creation of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on July 20, 1930, Americans would be hard pressed to find a government organization that has changed, evolved or grown so much in its history. It’s the second largest department after the Department of Defense. It employs more than 280,000 people, oversees retirement benefits, veterans benefits, survivors’ benefits, healthcare, loans and, since 1973, the nation’s military cemeteries. President George H.W. Bush elevated it to a cabinet position in 1989.
Everyone on both sides of the political aisle agrees the department can be streamlined in many ways, making it more efficient, less burdensome to the budget and better operated through modern day common-sense changes without reducing veterans’ benefits.
We the people—not the president, congress or their commanders—promised these men and women a package of benefits for the real-life career sacrifices they made in this nation’s name at the expense of their own. Those promises must be kept.
Ed Hooper is an author and military affairs reporter from Knoxville, Tenn.
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