Philpott’s Forum presents questions, opinions and insights from readers of Tom Philpott’s Military Update news column. The following are readers comments and questions concerning retirement benefits, commissaries, and the survivor benefit plan. CONGRESS IGNORED MANY VETS IN LIFTING CONCURRENT RECEIPT BAN I always read Military Update and always learn something new. In your July 5 column, you refer to congressional approval of new military benefits over the last decade. Your list included, “Concurrent receipt, which allowed more than 500,000 military retirees to draw both full military retired pay and VA compensation for service-connected disabilities...” I want to point out that a significant omission by Congress, to not include under concurrent receipt Chapter 61 retirees, those of us who were not allowed to complete 20 years or more to reach normal retirement. I served during the Vietnam era and was retired after ten years of service with a 100 percent permanent and total disability rating. Since my retirement, I have been diagnosed with cancer, attributable to my exposure to Agent Orange. I am not complaining. I am alive and beating my cancer but I feel I have contributed, have suffered and deserve no less in compensation than a fellow officer who served 20 years and receives both full military retirement and VA disability compensation. If I remember correctly, Senator Harry Reid was about to bring a bill to a vote to repair this inequity when Senator Tom Coburn put a hold on it because it was not offset with comparable savings elsewhere. The bill has not been reconsidered. I appreciate your column and the information you provide. But you should clarify that Congress has not treated all retirees with service-connected disabilities equitably. MICHAEL S. DOCTOR Lieutenant Commander, USN-Ret. Tacoma, Wash. You might appreciate that the purpose of that column was not to review every aspect of the concurrent receipt benefit. So I also didn't mention in full term retirees (those who served 20 years or more) who have VA disability ratings of 40 percent or less also are not beneficiaries of concurrent receipt. – Tom Philpott TWO ‘SBP OFFSETS’ Just read your column in the Pensacola News Journal. I didn't know that the offset in Survivor Benefit Plan payments had ended. I currently have a paid-up SBP account with an annuity base amount of $1,998 but a payable amount of $1,099 (55 percent). Why the difference? I have had a 100-percent disability rating from VA for nine years. If I make it to 10, my wife will be eligible for DIC when I check out. The newspaper here has a liberal orientation but there is a very strong military base living here. Your column is always welcome news. JAKE J. Sergeant Major, USA-Ret. Pensacola, Fla. There have been two different "offsets" regarding SBP. Until a decade ago, survivors with SBP coverage saw payments, which are set at 55 percent of the "covered" amount of their spouse’s annuity, fall to only 35 percent when they reached age 62. Congress phased out that offset. And to answer your question, the maximum benefit under SBP has always been 55 percent of the amount of covered annuity. So that “difference” you see is the benefit payment as designed. The second SBP offset to which you refer is called the SBP-DIC offset. A survivor eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from VA often sees SBP reduced by that amount. Congress has softened that offset with a small special payment to impacted widows. But survivors eligible for both programs, the reduction in SBP by the DIC amount remains in effect. As you describe, survivors of veterans who have been rated 100-percent disabled for 10 years are exempt from the SBP-DIC offset. – T.P. COMMISSARIES I agree that passing on the cost of operating a commissary will result in a decline of customers at both the commissary and exchange. A mid-level officer, I shop at the commissary for the savings. I purchase retail items not from retail stores such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target because of greater selections and cheaper prices than exchanges. The only time I shop at the PX is when I price match an expensive item, such as an Xbox, or need an item in 10 minutes or less. I recommend combining the exchange and the Defense Commissary Agency model so service members pay wholesale prices plus a marginal surcharge that is tiered. This would allow young soldiers to purchase essential items such as children’s clothes, running shoes and military uniforms at lower costs. Luxury items such as video games, recreation equipment and cosmetics would have a higher surcharge. That would still provide significant savings for shoppers while generating revenue to supplement the DeCA subsidy. I also suggest commissaries drop certain items from their inventories such as perishable products that can be locally purchased at lower costs and higher quality. WILLIAM NAVARRO Major, U.S. Army Via email A note for the Joint Chiefs of Staff: How can this administration, in good conscience, back more than $80 billion in food stamps to feed 50 million persons annually, and then deny food savings of $1.4 billion annually to the members of the military? Who is kidding whom? JAMES VIBBERT Chief Warrant 2, USA-Ret. Via email Let’s look at reality. They will cut the military budget! And if we keep pushing for no change, there will be no commissaries. Then all the reservists, retirees and active duty who do not live or work near a post will stop going to exchanges. Morale, welfare and recreational activities on base will have reduced funding and those programs will go away. Military life as we know it will change drastically in the next three to five years. So we need a plan to sell to budget officials and Congress to maintain some sort of status quo. When I look items that overlap the commissary and exchange I see very little difference in cost -- for chewing gum, over the counter medicines, chips and beef jerky. So why won’t a “super exchange” system will not work? I shop at the commissary, a half-hour from my home, once a month for the meat and cheese, cereal, drink mixes, frozen items and yogurt. I do not go for milk, vegetables and fruit because quality and prices don’t compare to my local supermarket. So why not let the commissary and exchange systems combine? That would reduce overhead, management positions and product buyers. It could generate more money for MWR and allow more name brand exchange items. We all need to look for long-term savings and to take our cuts. To save our way of life, we will have to change. But let’s be smart about it. By the way, I’m a gray area retiree, and Army civilian contract specialist and the wife of a 100-percent disabled vet. CONNIE T. Via email I live in Florida. The commissary I go to is as expensive, if not more so, as local grocery stores. Commissary items are tax free, but the mark-up on non-food items, like paper towels, is incredible. I'm spending six to seven cents more on items at the commissary. If you add it up there really is no difference in prices with Wal-Mart. Its crazy! So I shop at Wal-Mart. ALISHA DARCY Via email One small item often overlooked in comparing prices between the commons and commissaries is that all commissaries use baggers who are paid only in tips from shoppers. That adds even more dollars to the shopping bill on base. I normally tip $5 every time I shop. I drive 11 miles to get to the closest commissary. There are numerous commercial stores two to three miles from my house, including an expanded Wal-Mart. No baggers work for tips. So when all is considered the average commissary savings is not 30 percent. M. C. PETERSON Port Orchard, Wash.
# # # # #Tom Philpott 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. Visit Tom Philpott's Military Update Archive to view his past articles. Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com. Tom's 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. Buy Glory Denied from Amazon