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To maintain military dominance, don't skimp on our service members

To maintain military dominance, don't skimp on our service members
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The defense of our nation depends on the Defense Department’s ability to recruit and retain the best our country has to offer. Even under ideal situations, that’s a tall order.

And these are not ideal situations. Research puts the total recruiting pool of 17- to 24-year-olds at 20 million individuals but, of those, only 465,000 are fit to serve, mentally and physically, according to Department of Defense (DOD) data. The military needs about 260,000 such Americans each year. Even worse: 55 percent of parents discourage their sons or daughters from military service, the data show.

Retention brings its own concerns. As the saying goes, “You recruit the soldier, but you retain a family.” In recent years, that part of military retention has included poor base housing conditions, inadequate programs to battle spouse unemployment, multiple long deployments, and long child care wait lists.

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The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) and other military and veterans advocacy groups have fought for programs to improve both the recruitment and retention prospects of our all-volunteer force. But even those that have taken effect have come at an unfair cost, with resources shifted from an existing program to cover a new priority. In effect, budget-makers are robbing one group to support another by requiring a “pay for” — a proposed source of funds — for any bill requiring new funding.

Some examples:

  • Vietnam veterans exposed to toxic defoliants such as Agent Orange while at sea — so-called “Blue Water Navy” vets — received long-sought relief in 2019, but with funds generated by an increase in Veterans Affairs (VA) home loan processing fees.
  • When the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) was about to expire, Congress tapped the beneficiaries, via increased pharmacy copays, to fund the provision that spared that allowance.

  • Programs designed to trim budgets or find efficiencies regularly do so by passing along the pain points to beneficiaries. The move to public-private housing has resulted in congressional hearings and a series of missteps, all at the expense of military families. Moves to realign the Defense Health Agency may have the well-intentioned purpose of an efficient medical system, but they could result in retirees and family members seeking care in an over-stressed civilian health system as dozens of on-base options disappear.

Sadly, these examples aren’t the worst-case scenarios. Recent history is replete with budget moves that take from beneficiaries without boosting other DOD or VA programs. One example: MOAA and other groups successfully fought off a 2013 law that would have cut the cost-of-living increase for retirees by 1 percent, with disastrous results: A retiring E-7 would have lost $83,000 before reaching age 62, and an O-5 would have lost $124,000 for the same period.  

And for three years (2014-2016), the Obama administration undercut the legislated military pay raise by a cumulative total of 2.6 percent to fund other programs. Service members are still feeling the effects of these cuts — and will for decades throughout their retirement. New recruits, meanwhile, often cite pay and benefits as the No. 1 reasons for signing up. So these persistent erosion incentives will have strategic consequences that I don’t believe our nation is in a position to accept. 

There are many more examples of budget-makers attempting to compensate the personnel who make up our military — not by encouraging or rewarding their service, but by squeezing their benefits to just above the breaking point … they hope.

Our service members are our No. 1 weapon system. We must, as a nation, come to terms with what it costs to have a dominant defense capability. Continued fiscal maneuvers such as the ones noted here will impact retention — and the word will get out to those who are considering military service.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins is president and CEO of the Military Officers Association of America. He served as a command pilot with more than 4,000 hours in fighter aircraft. During his career, he flew as a demonstration pilot for the European A-10 Demonstration Team and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. He retired from the Air Force as commander, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Command; commander, 11th Air Force, Pacific Air Forces; and commander, Alaskan North American Defense Region, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.