"I want to be absolutely clear: We cannot, and we must not, balance the budget on the backs of our veterans, and as commander in chief, I won't allow it."
— President Barack Obama
"It is absolutely essential to honor the commitments we have made to those Americans who have voluntarily chosen to serve their country ... I promise you, for as long as I remain in office, I am dedicated to make sure your needs are America's priorities."
— Sen. John McCain
Words like these have flown freely from the lips of elected officials for at least the last decade. But as many veterans are learning, words are cheap. The president's fiscal 2013 defense budget proposal slashes the earned retirement benefits of military retirees — veterans who served in uniform at least 20 years.
Those proposals have outraged and disappointed retirees who gave their careers in service to our nation. So did Senator McCain's proposals in a letter to the budget-cutting "supercommittee" last fall, endorsing health benefit reductions for veterans. It turns out their words of praise are nothing but lip service. Tragically, other politicians in both parties are doing the same thing.
For military retirees, this is a betrayal of what they believed was guaranteed to them. Until at least 1991, personnel enlisting in the military were promised free health care for life at military medical facilities if they would serve at least 20 years. The purpose of those health care and retirement benefits was to enable the services to recruit and retain quality personnel.
But when multiple base closings in the 1990s prompted significant reductions in the number of military hospitals, access to the promised free health care disappeared for most retirees. That's when Congress created the TRICARE health care programs.
However, the TRICARE systems have never been "free." There are either enrollment fees and deductibles paid out of pocket, or beneficiaries must pay for a private supplemental policy to pay those deductibles. Retirees over 65 must enroll in Medicare Part B and pay that enrollment fee each year.
Unfortunately, whenever the subject of military retirement benefits appears in the press, high-ranking officers are usually quoted. Yet 69 percent of military retirees are enlisted personnel, and the average retirement pay for all enlisted personnel is about $20,000 per year. Many do not have other retirement income, other than Social Security. Raising health care costs for these individuals is simply unconscionable.
This is especially outrageous given the fact that the Department of Defense cannot account for where it spends much of its money. The Pentagon has the largest departmental budget in the federal government. It defies reason that there aren't millions — even billions — of dollars that could be saved if they could first be properly accounted for. Before health care costs are raised for retirees, the Pentagon should be held accountable for where it spends its money.
A military career is dangerous and strenuous. Military personnel spend more time away from their families than do most other Americans; many times, their families fall apart while they are gone. There is a reason only about 1 percent of the population has volunteered to serve in the military during the last 10 years of conflict.
Yet military retirees' families have been a reliable source for new military recruits for decades. For many, the military has become the "family business" and they are responsible for encouraging their own children, and the children of others, to join. That alone has saved the Pentagon countless dollars in recruiting fees. To break faith with military retirees now, which is what these proposals would do, will mean much more money spent on recruiting and retention, especially once the economy picks up.
We recognize the need to bring the federal budget into balance. But doing that in large part on the backs of those who have already given much more to the nation than most other citizens is outrageous.
Sen. Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, has it exactly right when he says that our government made "a moral contract with the people who serve that goes well beyond anything you see in written law."
When the all-volunteer force was inaugurated in the 1970s, the American people were warned that it would cost more than a conscripted force. If the nation wants to keep its all-volunteer military, there is a price to be paid. But those who have already served shouldn't be the ones paying it.
Arthur Cooper, a Gambrills resident, is national president of The Retired Enlisted Association. Larry Madison is legislative director of TREA and retired from the Maryland Air National Guard. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Both are retired military noncommissioned officers.