has been breaking news for and about military
people since 1977. After service in the Coast
Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior
editor with Army Times Publishing Company,
Tom launched "Military Update,"
his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994.
"Military Update" features timely
news and analysis on issues affecting active
duty members, reservists, retirees and their
families. Tom also edits a reader reaction
column, "Military Forum." The online
"home" for both features is Military.com.
Tomís freelance articles have appeared in
numerous magazines including The New Yorker,
Reader's Digest and Washingtonian.
His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied,
on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of
Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held
prisoner of war in American history, is available
in hardcover and paperback.
Readers of Tom Philpott's "Military Update" column sound
July 29, 2005
Every time I read an article on ex-spouses and military retirement, it upsets me to no end.
I retired in 1997 after 20 years active duty and divorced my ex-wife that same year. My understanding of the law was that it was to help the ex-wife support the family while she got back on her feet. In my case, she was a GS-9 and our children were adults, but the courts still made me give her 39 percent of my retirement. I lost my home and had to file bankruptcy.
I'm the person who went in harms way, not this woman. I'm the person who went through 18 months of workups and deployed for six months. I don't feel state courts are very fair when it comes to divorce.
I caught her in an adulterous relationship and am going through the pains of divorce now, in the military. It kills me that she is the one ruining life for my kids and me, and bragging how she will still get half of my retirement because of how judges interpret and divide retirement pay.
When I retire next year she will take half of the money I was going to use to get a better job and support our family during my transition to civilian life. It’s amazing there is such a law.
Sergeant First Class, USA
I married 18, fully expecting to spend the rest of my life with him and to support his career and family. He was happy that I stayed at home raising our children and attending to his needs while he was there or off fighting wars.
During his time away, sometimes up to 256 days a year, I ran the home much like a single mother. When he was home, he enjoyed many hobbies including alcoholism, spouse abuse and sleeping with other women.
We have separated because the mental and physical abuse. He continues to harass us with drunken mental games. I depend on his child support and benefits, and cannot afford to turn him into the authorities. But [if we divorce] why should I be left out in the cold after 16 years of making sacrifices for him and his children?
When Army Lt. Col. Patricia Larrabee at a Pentagon “town hall’’ meeting raised the issue of the 1982 law that affects military divorces, Secretary Rumsfeld denied any knowledge of it and therefore its significant impact on military service members.
There is no way he was unaware of the Uniformed Services former Spouses Protection Act (USFSPA) law. We cannot have a secretary of defense who is ignorant of such an important issue, affecting so many thousands of military personnel and opposed by so many veterans organizations for so many years.
Congress has lacked the fortitude to do the right thing to protect our military members. Yet this is no less important than quickly bailing out the VA after its mindless bungling of VA healthcare funding.
I’ve been blessed to have a great lady, my wife of over 40 years, during my 38-year career, so this issue does not affect me. But it does affect our fighting forces, past, present and future.
Veterans’ service organizations should locate members of Congress who will sponsor realistic, fair legislation to change the USFSPA.
RICHARD D. DUFFY
To correct a point in your Military Update, the Defense Department has stated its position and advised Congress on this issue of amending the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act numerous times.
The Department supports the concept that the portion of a member's retired pay that may be treated as property should be based on the retiree's length of service and pay grade at the time of divorce.
The Department does not believe that the USFSPA authorizes state courts to issue orders that would financially compel the member to retire to make retired pay available to a former spouse. Since the member is not entitled to receive retired pay prior to retirement, courts should not be permitted to require the member to make current payments to the former spouse based on the treatment of the member's future retired pay as property.
Without this prohibition, military members may be economically compelled to retire to satisfy a court order requiring current payments to the former spouse.
ELLEN G. KRENKE
Lieutenant Colonel, USAF
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs
I understand why then-Rep. Pat Schroeder wanted the ex-spouse law passed in 1982. I knew of several military marriages that didn't work and the spouse didn't get anything. They are entitled to something for their contribution.
What I have never agreed with is how the share is determined. The ex-spouse amount is set based on what the military member gets when he retires, regardless of how many years he served, or how many promotions he earned, after the divorce. It should be based on what the military person was making at the time of the divorce.
The law is an example of how well-intentioned people trying to correct a problem can fail to think the process through. They looked at immediate need and not the long-term effects.
You wrote in July 2000 about a Pentagon report on the ex-spouse law that was "crawling toward completion." If it is completed, where can I read it?
Lieutenant Commander, USN-Ret.
The 85-page “A Report to Congress Concerning Federal Former Spouse Protection Laws” can be read online at:
-- Tom Philpott
There should be new limits placed on the ex-spouse law. First, no payments until members actually retire. Second, the ex-spouse’s share should be calculated on number of years the member served at time of divorce. Finally, former spouses should only be entitled to a share of retirement if years of service and marriage both exceed 20.
JEFFREY L. ALEXANDER
Senior Master Sergeant, USAF
I don’t expect to divorce my husband who, over the past 22 years, has served our country well. I have supported him too, by moving on average every 18 months, changing jobs every move. I have not been able to vest in a retirement of my own. There are many spouses in the same situation. Because a divorce might happen, there should be the protection for those who need it.
In these days of many deployed troops in high-risk areas, with spouses staying comfortably at home, this law can adversely affect not only troop morale but military readiness. Imagine getting a Dear John letter while in Iraq or Afghanistan from a spouse who wants the house, the kids, half of your current income and half your retirement pay. How can our service members continue to serve with such adverse impacts?
The secretary of defense and JCS chairman should take the lead on a long-stalled effort to amend this increasingly outdated law.
CHARLES B. COOK
I was married 23 years to a now-retired Navy officer. He cheated on me and finally married a woman 15 years my junior. I retired on disability. I'm 62 and won't be working again. I raised three boys while he was gone all the time. I deserve the 23 percent of his retirement I now get. He worked in a civilian job after retiring and earned over $200,000 a year. He now has two retirements plus Social Security.
What I see in those men compelled to give part of their retirement to a former spouse is a deep bitterness, though they know the wife was wronged or deserves the money. They now hope to ride the wave of wartime patriotism to disavow any responsibility to their former wives.
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© 2005 Tom Philpott. All rights reserved.