Overhauling the Military Retirement System: A Lesson in Service Before Self

Busted budgets have become commonplace in the United States, and not just at the federal level. Most states are in trouble, too. The old progressive playbook traditionally has had one solution: raise taxes. But that paradigm has been challenged by a more practical approach, one that most American families understand well: cut spending.

The Department of Defense is eying some spending cuts as part of an effort to save $400 billion over 12 years. In all likelihood the Pentagon will buy fewer airframes, tanks, and ships (it usually does), but this time it is also considering a restructure of the military retirement system. The Air Force Times reported on a speech that outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made recently in which he said it was time to take a look at the “rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to retirement, pay and pensions left over from the last century.”

This writer is both a fiscal conservative and a military retiree, so I am torn over the issue, but this article is not about advocating for anything. Instead, I will make a prediction. Military members will accept whatever retirement overhaul the DoD and Congress make, and they will do it without grumbling. The United States military member is the ultimate public-sector employee, but unlike public-sector unionized employees who recently have faced pay and benefit cuts, military members will not stage mass protests, legislative sit-ins, and self-indulgent pity parties.

The Air Force Times incorrectly stated that such an endeavor would be the first time the military retirement system faced an overhaul in over 60 years. That’s simply not true. During the 1980s there were two significant changes to the retirement system. As a result, the original plan known as “Final Pay,” and the two new systems, “High 36” and “REDUX” remain in effect today. The date a military member entered active duty determines which retirement plan he falls under.

More to the point: when these overhauls took place in the 1980s there were no riots, demonstrations, or heavy-handed union thuggery the likes of which we’ve seen in some states when public-sector worker benefits are impacted (just ask Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker). The United States military is not unionized (thank God), and because it is not, it remains a true professional force that has America’s best interests at heart. After all, we already ask our servicemembers to work under the most austere conditions possible for meager salaries. Many even qualify for food stamps, so they certainly aren’t serving their country for the money.

To be sure, there will be lobbying efforts to head off any changes to the military retirement system. There were in the 1980s, but the difference is the people on the receiving end of the benefits – the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines – will be busy safeguarding America and will stay out of the political fray. Even then, the lobbyists for military members won’t engage in outrageous scare tactics like we’ve seen recently over Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget. MediScare commercials showing wheelchair-bound senior citizens being pushed off cliffs won’t have a military equivalent. The United States military and those who lobby for it simply have too much class.

I suspect the Air Force Times staff writer failed to mention the two retirement system overhauls of the 1980s because they came and went with no controversy, no violence, no threatened work stoppage. Most Americans understand the need to cut spending to balance budgets. When the military is asked to make a pay or retirement system sacrifice, it does so with a sharp salute. After all, these are the same professionals who stand ready to make the ultimate sacrifice of life and limb. If only this service before self attitude were to become infectious.

Mike Angley is the award-winning author of the thriller series, the Child Finder trilogy. He is a retired USAF Colonel and 25-year career Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). He held thirteen different assignments throughout the world, among which were five tours as a Commander. Mike is a seasoned criminal investigator and a counterintelligence and counterterrorism specialist. (www.mikeangley.com)

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