September 02, 2011

A Veteran Questions a Proposed Overhaul of Military Pensions

Proposed changes to the military’s retirement system have been much in the news lately. According to the Defense Business Board, a Pentagon advisory committee tasked by former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates with finding ways to reduce the Department of Defense budget, “the current system is unsustainable and in dire need of repair.” The board proposes that the military abandon its traditional pension system in favor of a 401(k)-style contribution program.

The current system “encourages our military to leave at 20 years when they are most productive and experienced, and then pays them and their families and their survivors for another 40 years,” committee chairman Arnold Punaro told Stars and Stripes last year. Nathaniel C. Fick, chief executive officer for the Center for a New American Security, a Washington research group, also argued in Foreign Policy that “advances in medicine, lengthening lifespan, and the shift to a service economy in this country” had made him wonder “as a taxpayer – why we’re paying 38-year-olds as they embark on their second full career.”

Under the current “all-or-nothing” system, anyone who serves at least 20 years will receive payouts equal to half of their pay (and up to 75 percent of it, if they serve longer) the day they retire. Those who serve less than 20 years, however, are not eligible for any benefits. The newly proposed plan will offer partial benefits payouts to individuals who serve at least 10 years and full benefits to those with 20 years or more. While money paid in would not vest until service reached at least three to five years, if a contributor left before the 10-year mark, the time served would be rolled over into their Social Security fund. The plan, which is projected to save nearly $250 billion over the next 20 years, is a bold effort to reign in government spending. Without a change, the Defense Department’s retirement payouts are expected to more than double over that same time period.

As a responsible citizen, I appreciate the need for such drastic reform. Fiscally conservative by nature, I cannot help but worry about the tremendous debt our nation has incurred and the prodigal shopping spree that our elected officials in Washington have enjoyed over the past several years. This new program will give people who do not stay in the military for 20 years something for their service, while at the same time help shrink the mountain of debt that our nation has managed to amass.

Furthermore, many military members, who receive benefits like Basic Allowance for Housing, Cost of Living Adjustment and Basic Allowance for Subsistence in addition to their base pay, often have enough disposable income left over for non-essentials, like expensive cars and vacations. As a former service member, I have often wondered: Is it too much to ask them to contribute a small percentage of their money to their own retirement?

Still, I reject this new plan. When I think back on my years spent leading soldiers, a deluge of joyful images, beaming faces, lascivious yet hilarious jokes and fantastic war stories fill my mind. Such is the life of just about any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who serves today. Yet I also remember the harder times. I think about the years spent deployed to austere combat zones, months of training in the bitter cold, and constantly missing my wife. I am haunted by thoughts of riding in noisy trucks, lumbering under the weight of 90 pounds of combat gear, sweating so much that my uniform could stand up on its own when dry, and waiting for that next I.E.D. strike, wondering if it will have my name on it. I shudder when I think about having to pull half-charred bodies from a mutilated hunk of metal that, only seconds ago, was unscathed. And I cringe when I think about having to tell one of my boys that, because our luck finally ran out, his best friend would not be coming back to his bunk that night.

I think about these things, and I wonder: Is enduring 20 years of this not enough to justify a generous retirement? There must be another way to save money.

I served five years on active duty and was deployed to Iraq twice, yet I am entitled to no long-term benefits. If the proposed system passes, those with similar service records as mine will be eligible for at least something. While a plan like that would have been nice, I cannot help but feel guilty about how it will essentially cheat those who endure 20 years of this life out of a retirement that they have not only earned, but also deserve. That is no way to compensate those true patriots who sacrifice so much for our country.

In October, the board will make its final recommendation to the secretary of defense.