The aide further noted that military cuts are already eating into equipment budgets and troop levels, cuts the Obama administration admits reduce the military’s capability to fight one major war while conducting a holding action in another conflict. “And now they are going to [the troops] again and asking them to pay more for their health care when you’ve held the civilian workforce at DoD and across the federal government virtually harmless in all of these cuts,” the aide said. “And it just doesn’t seem fair.”
That’s because it’s not about fairness. It’s about election-year politics. First, the increases aren’t scheduled to kick in until after the 2012 election, more than likely to avoid riling up military voters, as critic of the plan contend. And second, the double-standard of leaving civilian workers’ benefits unchanged while raising the cost for members of the military is a transparent attempt to keep labor unions on the Democratic side of the voting ledger for the same election.
Military groups are opposing the changes, with a heightened animus aimed at the tier system, which some veteran groups characterized as “means-testing” for service personnel. Retired Navy Capt. Kathryn M. Beasley, of the Military Officers Association of America, whose Military Coalition comprises 32 military service and veterans groups with an estimated 5 million members, calls the proposed changes a “breach of faith.” Richard L. DeNoyer, head of the 2-million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), was even more direct. “There is no military personnel issue more sacrosanct than pay and benefits,” he contended. “Any proposal that negatively impacts any quality of life program must be defeated, and that’s why the VFW is asking everyone to join the fight and send a united voice to Congress.”
And then there is the obvious impact on recruitment. Opponents of the proposal note that the current benefit system has played an integral part in attracting and keeping high-quality soldiers in our all-volunteer military forces–forces that will be reduced from 570,000 soldiers to roughly 490,000 over the next decade.
Adding insult to injury, a new policy that took effect in February reduces something known as “imminent danger pay.” Previously, soldiers in a “danger pay location” for any portion of a month got imminent danger pay for the entire month, which totaled $225. Now that pay is pro-rated at $7.50 per day. Thus, for example, a service member stationed 7 days of the month in Afghanistan will receive only $52.50. Exceptions will be made for troops “exposed to a hostile fire incident,” regardless of location. This change was part of the 2012 budget mandated by Congress.
Congress will also have to enact most of the proposed changes in Tricare, and hearings on the matter are scheduled for next month. Current law limits any increases in Tricare fees to cost of living increases in retirement pay.
There is little question that runaway budget deficits and a national debt of over $15 trillion require a serious re-thinking of America’s spending priorities. There is also little question the military budget contains fat that can be trimmed. Yet there is an unseemliness surrounding the idea of balancing the budget on the backs of people who have served, and continue to serve, their country. Some have paid the ultimate price, leaving members of their families to cope without them. Others have endured life-changing injuries, both physical and mental. Virtually every one of them merit the honor and respect of a nation that, more often than not, takes their sacrifices for granted.
Most Americans are well aware of the so-called “sacred cows” and their well-connected supporters that inform the budget-making process, both in the military and every other area of government. They also know the political class tends to go where resistance to cuts is either weak or least impactful at the ballot box. In short, these particular cuts make it apparent that military personnel and their benefits are considered “low-hanging fruit.”
It behooves Congress and the military brass to aim higher.
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