Hard Decisions and Change

A recent article in Stars and Stripes has a lot of people talking, and talking about a subject a subject sure to result in raised voices and anger in almost every conversation - the sustainability of military retirement benefits.

Namely, as described by the 25 member Defense Business Board, that military retirement benefits are too expensive and the system needs to be changed. Several possibilities were put forth, including raising length of time in service before retirement benefits kick in and lowering benefit amount. And the reasons behind what the Defense Business Board recommended were undeniable: the United States budget needs to find cuts somewhere.

Now, I'm not privy to all the internal conversations. I don't know the members of the Defense Business Board personally, we don't do lunch. I've only met the Secretary of Defense once, and I didn't really meet him then, I just got my picture taken with him (his hair is much better than mine). I doubt he'd take my calls, if you know what I mean, because in the grand scheme of things and as awesome as my kids tell me I am, the Secretary of Defense has far more important things to do. I can't cast aspersions on anyone's motivations or background, and I realize the difficult position the budget has put people into.

But I'd appreciate a bit of a reality check here.

Oh, sure, I can hear some people saying, "No, YOU need the reality check. It is what it is, costs need to be cut."

And you know what? I agree. I do. Where I disagree is at the point where the cuts start to come out of the retirement of service-members who have not only endured years of separations from their families, but are leaving at what is deemed the "young age" of 38 years old with disabilities that normally don't show up until 25 years later in civilians.

Reality Check 1:

Humping around 100 pounds of gear in an inhospitable environment rife with pollution doesn't maximize a person's health potential. Being exposed to the chemicals in jet fuel doesn't exactly lessen a person's chances at contracting cancer. That's the most abbreviated list of issues possible, and it doesn't even get into the damage done by lack of sleep and stress situations - situations that are absolutely unavoidable in today's military. I wonder how many civilians understand the difficulty in getting your recommended eight hours with mortars and other explosions going off?

I'm going to go ahead and throw down that a military member retiring at the calender age of 38 is probably going to show up as quite a bit older "in dog years", if you get what I mean. I truly don't think that it's too much to ask for those set up to review the military retirement system to take that into account. And quite heavily, too.

As a family member, I know the stress of sending my husband off to war multiple times in increments of months that exceed the average length of pregnancy hasn't been kind. I'm 36 years old right now, and without the help of Lady Clairol, I'd look like Robert Massi. I keep on top of it, and you'll never hear me mention it again, but it's the truth.

The stress wears you down. It does things to your body - ulcers, IBS, panic attacks; all these things are real physical medical issues that result from exposure to the prolonged stress of living the military lifestyle - and that's just on the dependent side.

That doesn't even get into the physical scars that military service-members carry out in the open. How do you tell someone with the scars left behind by shrapnel in multiple deployments that they haven't given enough to warrant a retirement after 20 years?

Reality Check 2:

Another suggestion put forth by the Defense Business Board is requiring service members to stay in longer than the now-required 20 to qualify for retirement - I think a quote I read in comments elsewhere stated it best, "Nothing like trying to charge up a hill with a squad of fifty year olds." General Petreaus's amazing physique aside, it's generally not a good plan.

Even if tweaks and twitches were thrown around to change up the current promotion system (which makes staying thirty years an impossibility for the vast majority of service-members), the question then becomes whether those changes would truly be able to accomplish what they set out to do. Or would a slower promotion rate merely add even more politics into a promotion system where lives depend on the best and brightest going forward.

I'm not the biggest fan of the promotion system in place today. Ask me sometime in person - you'll get an earful. And truly? My husband is in the Reserves - any change in military retirement is probably not going to affect us all that much. I realize that I sound worked up over this. The simple reason for that is because I am.

There is a lot of advocacy going on right now for military family benefits. There is a call for more childcare benefits, there is a call for help with spouse job placement. The MyCAA fiasco, and the attempt to fix it. The thing is, all those new items will not be worth much if the government and the American people decide that there isn't all that much difference between someone who spends 20 years in the military and all that entails, and someone who spends 20 years doing IT for the FBI headquarters without recognition that the shelf life of those people performing these jobs is vastly different.

I'm not denigrating civilian jobs in the least. When it all comes down to it I myself am a civilian. The FBI headquarters needs that IT person, or the FBI will not be able to do its own job.


But I do not think that there is an equivalence than can be made monetarily between the two positions. And perhaps this is the sticking point. The Defense Business Board, according to its charter:

... shall provide the Secretary of Defense and the Deputy Secretaryof Defense independent advice and recommendations on effectivestrategies for the implementation of best business practices on mattersof interest to the Department of Defense.TheBoard shall provide the Secretary of Defense and the Deputy Secretaryof Defense independent advice and recommendations on effectivestrategies for the implementation of best business practices on mattersof interest to the Department of Defense.

The emphasis there is mine, and I think it's important. The Defense Business Board is advising the DoD on business practices. And while there are many aspects of defense that enter the business realm (someone has to produce weapons, someone has to produce planes, and there needs to be a purchasing system in place for such things), for the government, war cannot be conducted in the manner of business as usual. Because it is not, it never has been, and if it ever becomes such we are in big trouble.

There is no mandated work-day in war. There is no contract negotiation for service-members. You can not turn down a move or an assignment because you happen to like what you are doing and where you are doing it. There is no union, there is no negotiation, and a part of the military contract is the knowledge that doing your job may mean giving up your life.

And none of that fits in with with "business practices".

I do hope that the DoD and those charged with oversight of military budget affairs take that fact into account along with the Defense Business Board's recommendations.

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