BY TOM SLEAR
Tom Slear, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 2001, is a freelance writer in Annapolis.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned to a receptionist in a physical therapist’s office that I was covered by Tricare, the military’s health-care program for service members, retirees and their families. (It has nothing to do with the troubled Veterans Affairs hospital system.)
“Good deal,” I said.
“You deserve it,” she responded.
Really? If she only knew.
Though I spent more than five years on active duty during the 1970s as an Army infantry officer and an additional 23 years in the Reserves, I never fired a weapon other than in training, and I spent no time in a combat zone. I returned to active duty for five months in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, but I was assigned to the Pentagon. My hazardous duty consisted of a daily drive on New York Avenue before its upgrade.
I am hardly unique. Despite the extended operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly half of the 4.5 million active-duty service members and reservists over the past decade were never deployed overseas. Among those who were, many never experienced combat.
It’s a fact of warfare called the logistical tail. For every soldier, Marine, sailor or airman whose job is to engage the enemy, there are three or more service members in a well-guarded, reasonably comfortable bivouac area ensuring that the troops are fed, resupplied, paid, entertained and attended to medically.
These jobs are important. Battles are won based on logistics just as much as tactics. But these support jobs aren’t particularly hazardous. Police officers, firefighters and construction workers face more danger than Army public affairs specialists, Air Force mechanics, Marine Corps legal assistants, Navy finance clerks or headquarters staff officers.
And yet, the benefits flow lavishly. While on active duty, I received medical care without any premiums or co-pays, a substantial housing allowance, a small stipend for food, and a base salary that by today’s pay scale would be $5,168 a month.
Once I joined the Reserves, I started out receiving what today would be $11,000 annually for two days of drill per month and 13 days of active duty per year. That increased to $17,600 when I retired in 2001.
Even though I spent 80 percent of my time in uniform as a reservist, I received an annual pension in 2013 of $24,990, to which I contributed no money while serving. (Reserve retirement pay does not start until you turn 60. For those who remain on active duty for at least 20 years, payments start the month they leave service. Those who enlist at 18, right out of high school, can retire at 38 and receive $26,000 a year for the rest of their lives.)
My family and I have access to U.S. military bases worldwide, where we can use the fitness facilities at no charge and take advantage of the tax-free prices at the commissaries and post exchanges. The most generous benefit of all is Tricare. This year I paid just $550 for family medical insurance. In the civilian sector, the average family contribution for health care in 2013 was $4,565, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Simply put, I’m getting more than I gave. Tricare for military retirees and their families is so underpriced that it’s more of a gift than a benefit. A fourfold increase in premiums would leave Tricare safely on the side of hearty largesse, yet the Pentagon’s attempts to raise premiums by as little as 10 percent have had shelf lives shorter than ice cubes.
The budget agreement last year included a trim of 1 percent in the cost-of-living increase in military retirement pay for those under 62. Predictably, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Military Officers Association of America would have none of it. “Breaking faith” is how the MOAA’s chairman characterized the deal.
Oh, please. One percent on a non-contributing pension while the retirees are still in their productive working years? That’s not breaking faith. It would be a judicious concession to the expanding federal deficit and would go largely unnoticed by recipients.
Forfeiting 1 percent of military retirement pay would not shortchange those wounded and disabled in combat, the ones most deserving of benefits. Disabled retirees were promptly exempted from the cut, and there was never a proposal for reducing disability care or benefits. But veteran interest groups refuse to abide by that distinction.
In this time of excessive expenditures for government pensions, wouldn’t a very small decrease in pay to military retirees be reasonable, particularly during the period of their lives when they are fully capable of civilian employment?
Instead, it’s all or nothing. As Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said on the Senate floor in February: “You vote yes, you’re for our vets. You vote no, you’re against our vets.”
Either Begich and his colleagues fully back military benefits regardless of the expense, or they become political dead meat.
The draft ended more than 40 years ago and with it the public’s direct association with the military. Nowadays most Americans don’t know a sergeant from a general, an infantrymen from a mail clerk, or an Army Commendation Medal from a Silver Star.
What they do know comes from watching movies such as “Lone Survivor,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Black Hawk Down,” in which nearly everyone in uniform comes across as a heroic warrior. What ensues is a combination of guilt and relief: Thank God those in uniform are willing to do what I don’t even want to think about. And suddenly no benefit is excessive or paycheck too large.
Our service members are paid well, particularly those who join with no more than a high school education. The benefits are substantial and pensions are generous, especially when compared with civilian plans.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t sweeten the pot for our service members to some degree. Though I never served in combat, I was trained and ready to go when called. That’s worth something. Those who went to Iraq or Afghanistan and never left a base camp still disrupted their family lives for months on end. That’s worth something. And those wounded in action deserve the best care possible and reasonable disability benefits.
But budget deficits are tilting America toward financial malaise. Our elected representatives will have to summon the courage to confront the costs of benefits and entitlements and make hard choices. Some “no” votes when it comes to our service members and, in particular, military retirees will be necessary. We can afford it.