This Memorial Day, Let’s Talk About Professional Compensation for a Professional Force

The “fix” is in to give military members LESS, not MORE for their sacrifice and service.

The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee recently passed a major overhaul of the military retirement system in a $612 billion defense policy bill. The sweeping changes would eliminate the current 20 years or nothing pension plan, and replace it with a complex 401(k)-style system available to all new recruits. Those who choose the pension would receive 20 percent less than current U.S. military members.

Congress needs to hear loud and clear that a professional force requires professional compensation.

Maybe we should start with what Congress gets. What is it, lifetime pension after serving five years? Sounds good to me.

Alex Burgess gets emotional while visiting the gravesite of an old friend who was killed in Iraq, in section 60 at Arlington Cemetery, May 27, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. For Memorial Day President Obama layed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, paying tribute to military veterans past and present who have served and sacrificed their lives for their country.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Alex Burgess gets emotional while visiting the gravesite of an old friend who was killed in Iraq, in section 60 at Arlington Cemetery, May 27, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Lost in translation are the pensions for National Guard and Reserve members, who currently are not eligible to receive pension payments for 20 good years of service until after they reach the age of 60.

As a retired U.S. Army Reserve officer with nearly two and a half years active duty for deployments between 2001 and 2005, and 22 years of overall service, I’m not even considered for a pension until I reach about age 57 ½.

My active duty brothers and sisters draw retired pay the day after they retire with 20 good years. I miss out on 13 years of potential earnings. My earnings would reflect my once per month and one month per year Reserve and National Guard service as well as my nearly two and a half years of mobilizations, a fraction of what a full time soldier in the active duty would earn.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining, either about my smaller pension or about my brothers and sisters at arms who earn more. It’s a fair system. My beef is with the timing of the payout.

Was my life less valuable than that of an active duty soldier who may never have entered a combat zone? Did we take a different oath? I’m not looking for the same pay, or to take anything away from my active duty colleagues, I’m looking for what I earned given on the same time table.

The politics need to be removed from this attempt to overhaul the military retirement system.

Some say the 20 years or nothing pension is not fair, especially considering only about 17 percent of military members stay for 20 or more years.

There needs to be incentives for experienced and high performing members to remain in service in order to maintain a high level of professional military readiness, especially now when we are becoming more and more involved in operations against the Islamic State around the world.

Is reducing overall pensions by 20 percent for those who stay beyond 20 years an incentive?

Is a 401(k)-style system, in which a member may receive benefits after incremental years of service an incentive?

Although the normal course for pension replacement in the private sector, 401(k)-style pension plans are vulnerable to market fluctuations. Like many of my fellow investors in mutual funds, it took me over five years just to get back what I had pre-2008 market crash.

Wall Street is Las Vegas without the lights.

Military members just signing up for 401(k)-style plans will be convinced to invest in the highest yielding and most risky funds. This exposes them to unguaranteed returns and the potential for leaving service with nothing at all. More conservative portfolios would not yield enough to be an incentive for members to remain in service for long, especially considering the higher pay for similar civilian jobs.

Two women hold up signs thanking the troops as members of the US military veterans' Rolling Thunder bikers group ride past in Washington on May 26, 2013 as the country marks Memorial Day. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Two women hold up signs thanking the troops as members of the US military veterans’ Rolling Thunder bikers group ride past in Washington on May 26, 2013 as the country marks Memorial Day. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

So who is kidding whom? Why is Congress going cheap and unreliable on the American military member, just when commitment to an oft misused and maligned force is facing pre-9/11 draw down levels?

One would think, especially as we approach Memorial Day, that Congress would want to incentivize remaining in service, especially for those who have weathered the storm of nearly 14 years of constant military operations.

An experienced soldier is more effective, and therefore more valuable in a business we cannot afford to become second best in.

The death benefit for spouses, currently in place for retired military members would be eliminated. Is this, as Abraham Lincoln extolled in his second Inaugural Address, how we should “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan?”

Would the 401(k)-style plans be transferrable? In other words, would single military members be able to name a family member or significant other to receive their pension benefit or 401(k) should they die before receiving it all? No to the pension benefit, yes to the remaining 401(k) money.

I’m sure many retired military members would say, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

The only thing broken about the current system, beyond my Reserve/National Guard gripe, is the fact that those who don’t make 20 years, especially through no fault of their own, leave with only a G.I. Bill and/or personal savings. The new system addresses that, but only with a retirement fund approach with far from guaranteed money.

One of the things military service taught me was commitment. I write a blank check to the American People for everything up to and including my life, and in return I am guaranteed certain payments and benefits, that, should I need them, help sustain me or my family should I die or become disabled due to my service. It would also provide for a decent portion of my retirement needs should I serve 20-plus honorable years.

I’m sure we can all agree that the pay and benefits for retired military personnel were earned. Why is Congress then willing to sell short all future service members for a little current political gain?

If Congress is sincere about how great their new system is, I think they should adopt it themselves. Let them know how you feel about it before it’s too late.

Montgomery Granger is a three-times mobilized U.S. Army major (Ret.) and author of “Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior.” Amazon, Blog, Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter: @mjgranger1

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