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Will military benefits programs pay the price of bailing out everything else?

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Keep Our Best and Brightest in Uniform

Will military benefits programs pay the price of bailing out everything else?

There was a time — for years after the Vietnam War — when we struggled mightily with the question of sustaining a capable, professional, all-volunteer force, especially in a strong economic environment.  Yet over the years we managed to assemble a military that was the envy of the free world, not necessarily in terms of equipment — although we did excel there — but rather in the quality of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines we were able to grow, educate, and, most importantly, retain for a career of service. The best way to take a step backwards is to break promises.

Over three decades, we built the best fighting force and professional career in service to one’s country the world had ever seen. It wasn’t easy, and we had to look back to where the train had fallen off the tracks.  This is certainly not to take anything away from the brave men and women who valiantly fought in the Vietnam War; they were courageous beyond words and returned to a country who often scorned their service in time of an unpopular war.  Our military at the time was not self-sustaining in terms of overall retained experience providing the top-down mentoring necessary to build the new all-volunteer force.   

Many of us growing up pre-Vietnam remember some WWII vets telling us, “Son, I wished I had stayed in.  Just look at the benefits. I’d have to start a second career, what with the GI bill and a small military stipend, I’d be set for life.” Then what happened in the early 70s? Corporate America began to offer ever increasing benefit packages above and beyond the pay and bonuses that the military could: dental and health care plans for the entire family, on the job training and subsidized additional education, fully-paid moves and, in some cases, help with an employee’s home sale or guaranteed purchase price, signing bonuses and a retirement package which in many instances would surpass that Uncle Sam was offering for often dangerous work in the prime of one’s life.

Now, a military career can never be looked upon as just a job, but rather a lifestyle that affects your entire family.  Many of our very best, God Bless them, serve just for love of country.  The numbers in this queue climbed significantly post 9-11 just as they had in December of 1941.  

As we went forward as a nation in the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, we had to attract young men and women into the military during a time of changing demographics — from a population which saw a decreasing number of able bodied (not couch potatoes in the new video game age), young (our birth rates had already started to decline), non-drug using (no prior usage waivers allowed), patriotic Americans who were willing to serve and stay in an all-volunteer force.  No easy task without a plan to mirror and in some cases return to exceeding some of the pay and benefits of the civilian world.

Military pay has come a long way since then, and one could argue it is pretty darn respectable.  However, in some cases, I think we should all ask: how do you put a price on missed birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, a child’s first steps, college graduations, medical emergencies, or being there when the family truly needs you, much less the 7 day work weeks while deployed, the 18-20 hour day and the level of danger associated with the job?  
I used to tell my crew Lloyd’s of London called a carrier flight deck the most dangerous four and half acres on earth, but the crew reveled in performing their jobs both professionally and safely. (And, by the way, their average age on that flight deck was less than 21.)  Visiting school teachers used to ask where we got such men and women, while CEOs wanted to know how we retained the leaders among them.  Most were simply hard-working, patriotic middle-class Americans as opposed to simply those who could not get a job elsewhere, as many in the media would have you believe.

Over the years and thanks to many visionaries in the military and leaders in Congress, we had attacked the pay and benefit problems head on, which allowed us not only to attract and keep some of our brightest but also build a self-perpetuating machine of ever-increasing esprit de corps, leadership, skill and amazing professionalism.  

Soon, young men and women wanted to stay in, move up and increase their knowledge and responsibility in a healthy work environment where all where treated with respect as equals regardless of their gender, race, creed or background.  They were expected to not only excel but also advance, and they did.

During early training classes, I told our young sailors my job was not only to train them but also make sure they grew in capability and their ability to accept ever increasing responsibility, hopefully to remain Navy.  I also told them we’d do everything in our power to help them advance as high as they wanted (we had a Chief of Naval Operations who had started out in their shoes), yet also if they decided to return to the civilian sector, they’d be prepared to succeed there as well. All they had to do was be willing to work hard as a team, treat each other with respect, and show they could handle ever increasing responsibility.

The Navy in turn (and military in general) would take care of them and their families.  We couldn’t promise to make them rich, but if they grasped the challenge, we would pay them respectably and offer packages now meeting and in some cases exceeding much of the corporate world. We had restructured the GI Bill to mirror that of their grandfather’s generation and improved living conditions as much as we could in a 140-man berthing compartment where one has less square footage than required by law for a prisoner.  Most importantly, if they stayed in, we would help them through the rest of their lives with a reasonable pension and lifelong benefits, which brings me back to the crux of my story.

Military pay will never truly mirror that of the civilian sector in good economic times, or in many occupational fields even in bad times.  Some enlisted families qualified for food stamps in our not too distant past. Shame on us.

What we now had to offer in building and retaining our superb all-volunteer force was as mentioned: a restructured GI Bill, improved on-the-job educational opportunities, increased quality of life and support of the service member’s family though improved housing (nowhere near McMansion levels – simply modest  sized dwellings upgraded significantly from WWII), Ombudsmen, special needs programs, improved morale, welfare and recreation programs, a subsidized — not free — family dental plan while on active duty which mirrored corporate America, and for many most importantly, an improved family health plan subsidized into retirement.

Military leaders, planners and Congress had vastly improved the lives of our military personnel. Some would say it doesn’t mirror that of a UAW worker, but I needn’t go there.

So what is the Obama administration talking about even before Inauguration Day?  We are starting to see an attack on some of those programs many worked so hard to secure.  Maybe it’s all part of the wealth redistribution program.  You have it and worked for it, I haven’t but want it.  

Diminishing subsidized health care for our military retirees is simply starting back down the road to the days where the military had nothing special to offer above the civilian sector.  Sure, in bad economic times military pay may look awfully inviting to many who would not choose to serve otherwise.  If pay alone is your motivation, I’m not sure we or the American people want you to serve. However, once the economy turns, and it will, we must retain some benefits for a career of service to one’s country.  

In my conversations with foreign military leaders, our health care plan is one to be admired.  Just ask any Canadian how they like their national health plan.  Some could say this is all a sign of too few members in the halls of Congress with military service (but that’s another story). I say as we look to pay off the bailout mania brought on by today’s “a house for everyone”  (thanks in large measure to the failure and complicity of House and Senate committees that were charged with oversight) and “a chicken in every pot” scenario that has gripped our beloved country, leave the small percentage allotted for military benefits off the table, lest we return to subpar entitlements for those who have given so much:

1. The military is now somewhat competitive with corporate America in retirement benefits.  Some out there still have far better medical insurance and pension plans than the military. Don’t downgrade the few recent gains to some measure of equality by the military with the mainstream corporate workforce to institutionalize national healthcare.

2.    The majority of the military go into a second career after retiring, primarily because they can’t afford to live on their reduced income alone upon leaving the service.  The ability to remain on active duty after 20 years of service is wholly dependent upon the needs of the service, advancement and ones physical ability during the inevitable aging process.  Most in the civilian sector can remain with the same employer until retirement, be it at or near the age of drawing social security.

I get it.  Health care costs are sky rocketing and becoming an overwhelming bow wave in future year budgets for DOD.  The answer, however, is not in diminishing the benefit but rather in determining how better to control the costs through automation and technology. The people who joined our military expect to receive what they were promised when they joined.  The quickest way to break our armed forces is to break the promises we made to them.

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Written By

Rear Adm. Michael Groothouse graduated from the Naval Academy in 1975 and became a Naval Aviator in 1976. In more than three decades of service, Groothousen has served with several squadrons, staffs and a joint assignment with United States Space Command before becoming commanding officer of VFA-137 operating the FA-18. He has commanded USS Shreveport (LPD12), USS Harry S Truman (CVN75), Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, and Navy Region Europe. He holds the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (five awards), and the Bronze Star, as well as numerous other decorations.

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