I have up until this point demurred from writing about the recent defense authorization bill that will reduce future cost of living adjustments to military pensions. (As J.S. Bateman correctly argues in his blog, a 1% COLA reduction is indeed a pay cut.) I assumed that the resulting clamor would force our legislators to reconsider and rectify their mistake, but recent essays written in defense of the cut have led me to conclude that I need to speak out.
First off, let me be clear in saying that I am not opposed to cuts in overall defense spending. The United States needs to reduce spending and decrease its national debt, and the DoD budget should be part of that solution. I also recognize that military pension reform may be required. Any such reform, however, should be grandfathered (as the current administration had promised as recently as last September). I might further add that cuts to retirement pay would be more palatable if I knew that such spending cuts would ultimately be leveraged to reduce the debt as opposed to offset increased spending for other programs. I am not optimistic in this regard.
The arguments made by politicians and pundits in support of the cuts give me the chills, because they pave the way for further cuts and lead me to the realization that much of the “support the troops” rhetoric of the last decade was a mile wide and an inch deep.
Let us review a few of the more egregious arguments in favor of the pension cut:
”The current pension system is overly generous.” “Generous” is a word used in relation to a gift. My future pension is not a gift. I will have earned that pension. I earned it with every catapult shot into an ink-black night with no horizon. I earned it with all three Christmases (so far) that I have spent away from my family. I earned it when I missed the birth of my third child when I was on my fourth deployment. My wife and children have earned it with every move, every new school, every new neighborhood (seven in ten years, at current count).
“The current pension system is unlike any civilian sector pension”. Indeed. Because a career in the military is unlike any career in the civilian sector. See the above paragraph.
“Personnel costs have doubled over the past decade.” Besides being a misleading statement, this argument speaks louder than every “People are our most important asset” bromide ever uttered. If people come first, then reforming the bloated acquisition process that results in overpriced weapons systems should be a higher priority than cutting pensions.
“The current system encourages service members to leave early.” Since when is leaving the military after 20 years considered “early”? If anything, the current system encourages people to stay in longer. There have certainly been times throughout my career that I have seriously considered getting out and devoting my talents to far more lucrative pursuits. Although I have stayed in the Navy for a number of reasons, I must admit that it was the promise of a pension that often nudged the calculus in favor of staying. Whether we have an all-volunteer or a conscription force, the US military will always need talented individuals to choose to continue their service beyond initial obligations, in order to provide continuity and professionalism. The pension system ensures retention of talent, and we alter it at our peril.
“40% of military personnel have never seen combat.” Even if this statistic is true, it is irrelevant. The pension system was not designed to make such a distinction. A 20-year career is a 20-year career, and we still need to retain talent in the military, whether or not those individuals conduct combat operations or stand the watch in order to deter combat operations. Furthermore, as US military involvement in Afghanistan comes to a close this year, this statement is an ominous portent of a return to 90’s era views of military personnel and their service, which at best manifested itself in apathetic ignorance but was often characterized by cynical disdain.
Unfortunately, the pension cut seems to have bipartisan support. One party seems to only support the military when it’s politically convenient (exhibit A: John Kerry’s acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention). The other party had no previous ideological conflict with unsustainable operational costs during the last decade of war, but now is so suddenly concerned about the debt that they are willing to break faith with those that fought that very war.
Please do your part to reverse this recent legislative error and ensure further cuts are not politically feasible. Write your Senator and Representative. Sign the petition on whitehouse.gov. Tell your government that they have broken the faith.
Disclaimer: This essay is my personal opinion, and in no way represents the official position of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.