Want to thank troops and families for serving? Don’t cut their benefits

(Bo Zaunders/Getty Images)

At the podium, political power brokers are quick to thank those who serve and have served in America’s military, and their families, for their sacrifices on behalf of a grateful nation. Away from the public lens, they’re often fed false narratives from think tank “experts,” saying the men and women in uniform cost our nation too much — a potentially damaging process in a Congress where less than 15 percent of members have worn a uniform.

That’s creating a much different, unsettling message: “Thank you for your service and sacrifice, especially after two decades of war, but we need to cut your pay and benefits to modernize.”

Among the chief offenders in this regard is a recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggesting personnel costs are “unsustainable,” while confirming they’ve remained at one-third of the Department of Defense’s overall budget, where they’ve been since 2001. Or, a report in the December issue of The Economist, which sets up a false choice between bullets and benefits, claiming the money needed to preserve what’s been promised to troops and veterans could “crowd out” modernization efforts in the face of threats from China and Russia.

These efforts might be new, but the idea of cutting compensation to benefit the Pentagon’s bottom line certainly isn’t:

  • Military pay raises fell below the Employment Cost Index — the level prescribed by law — for three years (2014 through 2016), creating a “pay gap” that’s yet to be meaningfully addressed.
  • Fees and pharmacy costs under TRICARE, the health system that active duty families and military retirees use, have far outpaced cost-of-living adjustments for retiree pay, weakening this critical benefit.
  • The Blended Retirement System, entering its fifth year, has lessened the benefit of serving a 20-year military career. It’s unclear whether this money will go back into the Pentagon’s budget, at the expense of those in uniform, or will need to be used to cover rising retention bonuses as mid-career service members consider leaving early — and taking their wealth of experience out the door with them.

These budget lines aren’t the only places where personnel cuts show through. Recent headlines have described awful housing conditions and health hazards for families on military installations, as well as a growing need for food banks near bases as junior enlisted members attempt to make ends meet. These examples indicate a larger problem, and a willingness to serve may be declining across the nation as a result.

Even the budget process itself has proved harmful for those in uniform. Stop-and-start negotiations and continuing resolutions make the kind of long-term planning needed to shape and modernize a fighting force difficult, if not next to impossible. Improvements to benefits passed in authorization acts come months after a fiscal year has started, and then sit idly for months as appropriators find the funds to enact them.

A bipartisan push to address one of these issues does bring some hope; House members have pledged to make improved military pay and benefits a priority in this year’s budget discussions. It’s a welcome step away from conversations deriding the costs of military personnel, and a move toward ensuring that we protect what they’ve earned through service. Otherwise, we risk having a weakened force and an insurmountable recruiting and retention challenge — in the face of growing global threats.

Our economy may fluctuate, but our resolve on behalf of service members cannot. We must support the greatest weapon system in America, one that has never failed us: our uniformed service members and their families.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins is president and CEO of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). 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 Air Force Thunderbirds. He retired as commander, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Command; commander, 11th Air Force, Pacific Air Forces; and commander, Alaskan North American Defense Region.

Tags Defense budget Department of Defense Military benefits military families

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