February 13, 2013

Not Much Better Than 'Nothing'

Phil Bronstein's riveting Esquire feature on "The Shooter" -- the unnamed Navy SEAL who reportedly killed Osama Bin Laden during the May 2011 raid on the terrorist's compound in Pakistan -- is making waves, not least for claiming that that the former sailor has been deserted by his country. "[H]ere is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no healthcare, and no protection for himself or his family," Bronstein wrote.

A number of veterans have criticized the piece for its failure to accurately report on the benefits available to those who have left the service. But the article raises important issues with our nation's care for veterans. Although all veterans are eligible for government benefits, many struggle to obtain them. Perhaps more important, many (like the Shooter) perceive the system as being so broken that it may as well be closed to them. Similarly, the piece raises questions about the antiquated military retirement system, which gives nothing to sailors like the Shooter, who left the Navy after 16 years, but much to those who serve for 20 years, regardless of what they do in the service. More broadly, these questions lead to a much bigger one: What should the nation provide its veterans, and can the nation afford the current social contract with the military?

By law, all veterans are eligible for healthcare and other benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). However, because the VA lacks the resources to treat every veteran, it prioritizes those who get access to its care, based on disability status, medical needs, and income. In practice, this closes doors to veterans without a "service-connected disability" rating. Last week's VA data shows there were 819,008 veterans waiting for such a rating, with 585,876 waiting for more than 125 days (what the VA calls its "claims backlog"). This backlog has been steadily growing over the past decade, as young and old veterans file claims at record-breaking rates. The VA currently projects the backlog will continue to grow until 2015, at which point it will see the effects of additional personnel, new computer systems, and process changes. Until then, veterans must wait to have their claims decided, a process that can take months or years.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans can get into the VA healthcare system for up to five years after their discharge, and their initial claims are now being fast-tracked by the VA as well. But this approach still falls short for some veterans, because it covers only potentially service-connected ailments and does not provide any health coverage for families. And veterans must still contend with delays in seeking other benefits, such as their disability compensation, GI Bill benefits, and other programs.

So it's not exactly true, as the Esquire piece originally reported, that the Shooter will get "nothing" from his country after he leaves the Navy. But there is a perception that exists, for better or worse, that the VA is closed to new veterans. Cumulatively, the various barriers to entry (and the delays associated with each one) contribute to this perception. And the limits on VA benefits, and their ability to provide for military families, also contribute to the perception that the VA isn't doing enough for today's veterans. (A majority of servicemembers have families today, something that was not true during the mid-20thcentury, when the current VA benefits structure was built.) The nation could choose to do more for veterans, but doing so will cost a lot of money, at a time when budgets are being squeezed, even at the Defense Department and VA.

The second big issue raised by the Esquire piece relates to the basic fairness and effectiveness of the military retirement system. This system gives a generous retirement package to those who serve for 20 years or longer -- including at least 50 percent of base pay, health insurance (including family coverage), and other benefits like commissary access. However, the military retirement system gives nothing to those who serve fewer than 20 years, no matter how difficult or dangerous their service. The system does not distinguish between SEALs like the Shooter, who had a record of 12 combat deployments and the military's toughest training assignments, and those who serve 20 years in a relatively safe and comfortable job within the military. And by setting an arbitrary retirement mark of 20 years, the system creates many unintended effects and skewed incentives within the force, as chronicled well by Air Force vet and entrepreneur Tim Kane in his new book about the failures of the military personnel system.

A better retirement system would do away with the arbitrary 20-year retirement timeline, and also reflect the relative dangers and hardships of service. Veterans who serve for 5, 10, or 15 years should earn some retirement benefits for their service -- more than the Thrift Savings Plan and VA benefits they do today. And those who serve in the most difficult or dangerous jobs -- such as Navy SEALs, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, aircraft carrier flight deck crewmen, and infantrymen -- deserve to have their retirement timelines and benefits reflect their service. These personnel often face the most danger, inflict the most punishment on their bodies on the job, and frequently have the most difficulty translating their service into the civilian workforce. The retirement system should reflect these realities of service.

For most of the nation's history, the national social contract with veterans was quite stingy. From the Revolution through the Civil War, the government limited its support to care and pensions for those injured in the line of duty, and sometimes for their families, and that was it. The contract expanded after the First and Second World War to include a comprehensive package of disability compensation, educational benefits, housing benefits, and other programs. At the end of the Vietnam War, the military changed from a conscription-based force to a recruitment-based force -- and adjusted its pay and benefits systems accordingly. However, the VA's system of care and benefits remains largely unchanged from the post-World War II era.

For all its failings, the Esquire article asks an important, fundamental question: What does the nation owe its veterans in the 21st century? Telling the story through the lens of the SEAL who killed bin Laden puts a fine point on the issue, but the issue is much larger than one sailor. The social contract must evolve to fit today's force, and today's generation of veterans. The old VA models of disability compensation and healthcare do not fit the needs of today's veterans well, nor do they fit the realities of today's workforce and health insurance market well either, particularly after the passage of theAffordable Care Act. The antiquated military retirement model does not fit today's force either, and should evolve to reflect the demands being placed on today's military personnel. The time to fix these issues is now, while we still have the nation's attention focused on issues affecting veterans and military personnel, and still feel grateful for what the Shooter and his teammates did on a dark night in Abbottabad.

Phillip Carter is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where he directs the Military, Veterans, and Society Program.