So the chattering classes of defense “experts” are lining up to defend the cuts to military pensions made in the recently passed NDAA. I get a news compilation via daily email of what we used to call the “Early Bird,” a listing of top defense-related news stories from around the world. In the past week, I have counted three opinion pieces defending the cuts, as well as coverage of Congressman Paul Ryan defending them as “no accident.”
What drives me insane about every one of them is the complete absence of any sense that they understand what military life is like. I mean, it’s one thing to declare yourself a “defense expert” because you and your journalism degree trot around the Pentagon and Congress interviewing people for shallow articles on stuff you know nothing about. I’m not saying a journalist (or a member of Congress for that matter) has to have served in the military themselves to speak about it with credibility. But what they DO need for credibility is to make a serious attempt to understand the sacrifices of the actual people defending the country. These people work in places they call Squadrons, Companies, and aboard ships. Some of them are unlucky and get plucked away to work in Washington, but they know who is really doing the grunt work – the grunts are!
So when these journalists and pundits say we are overcompensated – being paid pensions in the prime of our lives with medical care premiums “wildly outside the norm,” it becomes really evident to me that they never talk to the actual people they write about. They either compare military personnel to federal employees or to the population at large. I worked with federal employees my whole military career. In fact, for a couple years, I was a federal civilian employee. I like them. They contribute a LOT to the defense of the nation. But they are NOT asked to make the same sacrifices military personnel make, not even close.
Here is the main difference between military personnel and everyone else, what General Ronald Fogleman called the “unlimited liability clause.” A military member commits his or herself to their country fully, up to and including their lives if necessary. But wait, you say, policeman and firefighters risk their lives for others every day! Very true. But the difference is that no one will ever send firefighters into a building KNOWING some percentage of them will be killed to get the fire out. Firefighters do get killed or injured in the course of doing a dangerous job, but if a Fire Chief knew 30% of his firefighters would die fighting a big warehouse fire, he would not send them in. I worked with an Air Force pilot who was shot down and captured during the first Gulf War. He flew an F-16CJ in the first attack on the Iraqi air defense system. He was a Captain at the time, probably in his mid-twenties. They expected to lose around 30% of the aircraft on that first sortie – his was one of them. Know what? Every one of those guys got into their aircraft and flew their missions anyway, just like we expected them to. Young troops now say, “I’m just doing my job.” Some job! I think what they mean is that they are doing their “duty,” a word we don’t use much anymore, but one which defines their actions perfectly.
Congress has traditionally recognized this difference, as well as many other hardships inherent in military life for members and their families. When I joined the military, one could retire at 20 years of service (like most civilian police and firefighters) with an expectation of free medical care for life. Pretty nice huh? Nice, but also necessary to recruit and retain a quality all-volunteer force. All of us retirees are very angry with the current Congress, possibly the worst in our history, because they cut our retirement pay. I didn’t put “cut” in quotations in the previous sentence like the pundits do because a pay raise 1% below the rate of inflation is in fact a cut in pay. It is a little ironic that we blame Congress though, when, for the most part, it is Congress that has resisted Department of Defense efforts to cut pay and benefits. Every SECDEF since Cohen has come after our pay and benefits somehow. Our current SECDEF brings young enlisted folks to his office to let them know he cares, and then talks publicly about the need to renege on benefits they were promised. Remember that “free health care” promise? Well, not so much. This is one area where Congress caved in to DoD, and created the TRICARE managed health care system. We used to get free care in military hospitals, but now we have an HMO, which we get the privilege of paying for. Not only that, but DoD constantly complains we don’t pay enough, trying to dramatically raise our premiums every year. Then they fudge budget numbers about how personnel costs are eating too much of the budget, when what we really need to do is spend more money on weapons systems. Don’t get me started on that! If Americans really understood the waste factory that is DoD, they would reintroduce the gallows.
But hang on for a second (ha ha). Suppose all the pundits are right and we should be treated like other federal employees and the populace at large – retroactively. OK then, on behalf of my brothers and sisters in arms, here is some stuff we’d like to be compensated for since we are regular folks now:
1. Overtime! Wahoo! Many specialities in the military are what I call “git er done” jobs. That means you work till the work is done, not 8 to 5. Aircraft maintainers are like that, up before dawn or working all night to get the jets ready for the day’s sorties and fix them when they come back. Even in peacetime, this is a hard job with long hours. I’m thinking many of them work at least 60 hours a week, so that is 20 hours of time and a half they will get now right? Not to mention wartime where you just work all the time! Bonanza! Double time for holidays too right? Right?
2. Equal pay for equal work. Military personnel will now get at least as much as their civil service and civilian counterparts for doing the same job. This will be VERY expensive since civilians make substantially more now than their military counterparts, but hey, we are all equal now.
3. Spouses. Few of them get to establish careers because they move with their military members. Even skilled positions like nursing are always starting at the bottom again. Try moving 18 times in 32 years if you don’t think this is important. We should compensate them for lost wages and lost opportunities.
4. Housing. Certain federal and corporate employees receive a house buy-back benefit when they, infrequently, relocate. Military families don’t get this, so they either buy a house here and there when they can, often losing money when they are ordered (ORDERED) to move, or they are renters, never developing equity in a home. They defend the American dream but must defer participating in it for the duration of their service. So awesome they will now get equal treatment!
5. Kids. We’d like to see their births now if that is OK, plus first steps, first words, first everything, all the way to high school graduations etc., and not on frickin’ Skype or U-Tube. Personally, I would have liked to pick up my then seven-month old daughter and not be afraid she would scream because I was a total stranger to her. I’m not sure how to attach cost value to the incalculable but I’ll sure try now that we all are equal.
6. Our wounded heroes. I don’t think I can express my shock and disgust that they were included in the pay cut, for those medically retired due to combat injury. But hell, since we are all equal now, let’s restore them to full function shall we, since we won’t be expecting anyone to make their sacrifice again? After all, we won’t be doing our duty anymore; we’ll be doing “jobs.”