The lack of any former enlisted troops on a congressionally mandated panel calling for overhauling military benefits is generating backlash among some service members and veterans.
A Military.com article that profiled the nine members of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission has generated almost 300 comments and hundreds more on the website’s Facebook page, with many highlighting the top-heavy representation of officers on the board.
The makeup of the commission has drawn scrutiny in light of its comprehensive report calling for a complete overhaul of military benefits. The 15 recommendations, released last month after nearly two years of review, include offering troops 401(k)-like retirement plans and their families a choice of commercial health insurance plans in lieu of the Tricare program, among other proposals.
Robert Wert, a retired senior master sergeant in the Air Force described the commissioners as “the upper echelon” of retirees. “They are surely the most comfortably retired military members in our nation,” he wrote in an e-mail. “As well, they have likely landed prominent positions in the civilian world making six figure incomes or more.”
“To use these gentlemen as a gauge for deciding on military compensation for the rest of the 99.9 percent of average military retirees is disingenuous,” Wert added. “Of course they wouldn’t mind giving up their Tricare or other benefits, since to them it is mere pennies on their grand financial scheme of things. But for the average military retiree, every dollar taken away in benefits makes a big difference in their and their family’s livelihood.”
The recommendations by the commission are designed to give service members and their families more benefits options while saving the Pentagon an estimated $12 billion a year by 2040. They promise to dominate the debate in coming weeks and months over the future of military compensation.
The commission itself was created in 2013 as a result of the National Defense Authorization Act, annual legislation that sets policy goals and spending targets for the fiscal year. After signing the bill into law, President Barack Obama appointed the panel’s chairman, Alphonso Maldon, a former Army officer who served as an assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration.
The rest of the commissioners were selected by senior lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. They did so in consultation with the leaders of each chamber’s armed services committees.
Neither the president nor the aforementioned lawmakers chose a former or retired enlisted service member -- or female veteran, for that matter.
The active-duty military has about 1.3 million troops. The vast majority of those -- more than eight in 10 -- are enlisted personnel, while women make up about 15 percent of the force, according to Pentagon statistics from December.
Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the commission, said the staff of roughly 35 employees includes prior enlisted and female veterans. “The staff has a very broad cross-section of military experience,” he said, with various paygrades from each branch of service.
In addition, the panel conducted extensive surveys of more than 150,000 active-duty troops, reservists and retirees, with statistically significant participation from pay grade, Graybeal said. Many respondents expressed a wish for more choice when it comes to retirement and health care.
Even so, Stephen Sandy, a retired master chief petty officer and executive director of the Naval Enlisted Reserve Association, said it was a mistake for lawmakers not to include at least one prior-enlisted member on the commission.
“A lot of these panels -- not just this one -- rely on senior officers, most of them retired,” he said. “And they have managed to get 35 or 40 years in the military, risen to flag or general officer, and they look back with very little to pay for Tricare and free education and the $10,000 they get a month in retirement, and say, ‘This is way too generous.’
“They’re not in touch with reality,” Sandy added. “If I was making up a panel and I really wanted to represent the military, I would go out and find a recently retired E-5 and E-6 to get a true sense of how the system works and what they’re getting out of it. Get somebody who’s affected by it, who’s earning about $1,500 a month in retirement, which doesn’t even pay for the mortgage in some cases, and who’s still got two or three kids left at home or trying to get through college.”
At the same time, Sandy said he welcomes some of the commission’s proposals, particularly the idea of offering a 401(k)-like defined-contribution plan to the more than eight in 10 who leave before the 20-year mark and don't receive any retirement pay.
“As it stands now, we send them out the door with 14, 15 years of service with absolutely nothing to show for it,” he said. “I’m looking to make sure they can take something down the road with them.”
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at Brendan.McGarry@military.com