Can the military save on pay and benefits without breaking faith?

Bryan Denton/Corbis

America’s military community has long felt disconnected from the civilian population it protects. In the latest survey from the nonprofit military support group Blue Star Families, 95 percent of respondents, who included service members, veterans, spouses and children, agreed with the statement: “The general public does not truly understand or appreciate the sacrifices made by service members and their families.”

What happens when service members and their families start to feel unappreciated by the institution that has promised to take care of them?

That’s the current situation confronting the Defense Department, which is trying to rein in skyrocketing personnel costs without “breaking faith” with millions of active-duty members and retirees on pay and benefits. The Pentagon also has to be careful not to alienate potential recruits to an all-volunteer force by making military compensation less attractive. The department, at least at the rhetorical level, understands that challenge. “When you ask young men and women to deploy three to five times, we do take on an obligation to take care of them,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the National Press Club breakfast Government Executive  hosted in June. “The fabric that holds the institution is trust.”

That trust is shaky right now. The same survey that Blue Star Families conducted showed that potential changes to pensions, pay and other benefits rank at the top of issues weighing on military families. Thirty-one percent of respondents listed retirement benefit changes as their No. 1 concern while 20 percent ranked pay and benefits issues in general as their biggest worry. A lot of the anxiety is being driven by proposals from various think tanks and the Pentagon’s own Defense Business Board to restructure the pension system, which currently favors those who have served 20 years or more, and increase the amount retirees pay for their health care. The health care fees for military retirees and their families, which have stayed relatively flat since 1995, are a particular point of contention for critics. Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, called TRICARE—the health care system that covers 9.6 million active-duty service members, reservists, retirees and their dependents—the “most extravagant government health care program in the country,” in a 2011 column titled “Defense Budget Reform or Hysteria?”

Determining a fair price for sacrifice, especially at a time of high unemployment, when troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and budgets are shrinking governmentwide, is like walking a tightrope blindfolded. Missteps are a constant threat and the end is never in sight. Service members and their families understand the pressure to corral spending. But like their civilian counterparts in government, they don’t want to be the poster children for belt-tightening. 

“To a certain extent, it’s a generous compensation package, but it is a difficult job,” says AnnaMaria White, director of public relations at Blue Star Families, whose husband serves in the Marine Corps. “How many times does a postman get shot at? How many nights does he not get to spend with his family?”

In the Aug. 15 special issue of Government Executive, senior correspondent Kellie Lunney explores the tough decisions the Pentagon faces on military pay and benefits. Click here to read the full story.

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