Putting muscle behind 'Thank you for your service'

Putting muscle behind 'Thank you for your service'
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The words “Thank you for your service” are commonly heard to acknowledge those who serve or have served their country. The words are most welcome and go a long way toward acknowledging the sacrifice those in uniform make each day in putting their lives on the line for our country.

Unfortunately, these words were not uttered 50 years ago when U.S. troops returned from Vietnam. Instead, people such as myself who returned from that war were spit on, cursed at and even physically assaulted by ungrateful Americans. It certainly was an ugly period in our nation’s history.

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But, as welcome as that phrase may be today to service members, it rings hollow for some of our decision-makers. Budget analysts in the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), looking for ways to solve our nation’s growing budget deficit, have proposed slashing benefits promised to those who serve in the armed forces and military veterans (along with their families). That would be catastrophic — a dramatic drop in morale, resulting in a drop in retention. The Army already is in shoal waters with difficulty meeting recruiting goals. The other services will not be far behind. Who wants to join an organization that reneges on its promises?

Here are just a few of the actions identified by the CBO for consideration in the Department of Defense budget between now and 2028:

  • Capping pay increases in basic military pay for service members even though the law states military pay must be aligned with the Employment Cost Index (ECI), currently 3.1 percent;
  • Reducing housing allowances to only 80 percent of average housing costs in a geographic area;
  • Reducing the number of military medical personnel by 17,000, which could affect the military mission and medical care in the field, as well as medical care promised to dependents and other beneficiaries;
  • Disproportional fee increases to TRICARE, the health care program for uniformed service members, retirees and their families, who already have accumulated several unannounced fee increases. With the reduction of military medical personnel discussed above, this means more reliance on civilian medical care and unanticipated out-of-pocket costs for beneficiaries. 

Military pay, benefits and health care often are seen as funding sources for other programs. But this must not be allowed to happen.

The nonprofit military support group Blue Star Families recently released its survey of 10,000 military families. It was clear the respondents have concerns about their health care in the military health care system. Two-thirds of respondents cited health care benefits as one of their top reasons for remaining in the military, but their satisfaction with their ability to access care in a timely manner is a concern. They cited long waits and rushed care — not good if you factor in a 17,000 medical personnel reduction.

Regarding compensation, only 10 percent of families surveyed said they could subsist on their service member’s salary alone. Sixty-two percent said they experience financial stress.

Widespread reports of squalid conditions in military housing — vermin, mold, lead paint, faulty wiring, radon contamination — among other issues are another concern. Military construction funds that would be used to fix these problems now are being considered for construction of the southern border wall.

The actions by the CBO, along with consideration of military construction cuts, equate to a breach of faith and trust. The reductions in benefits are reckless and reflect an easy way to counteract continued deficit spending by our Congress. The national debt is reaching critical mass and climbing. The CBO itself cites a budget deficit of $779 billion for 2018, raising our nation’s debt to 78 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP). So why should military people and their families be the pawns in the budget process?

It’s time for our political leadership to put some muscle behind “Thank you for your service.”

Tom Jurkowsky is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and sits on the board of the nonprofit Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), which advocates for a strong national defense and for military service members. He is an adjunct instructor at Anne Arundel Community College in Annapolis, Md.