“The problem that we have is most of our warriors come from the same family and if there is a break in trust in those families, you break the system.” Rep. Tim Walz (MN-1st), Command Sgt. Major, US Army (ret) HASC Hearing on Pay & Benefits (1:58:15, his entire comments are spot on)
I’ve spent the last three weeks listening to the reaction of many of those families; the active duty, the retirees, and the veterans, to the release of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission recommendations (MCRMC Final Report), which I discussed the week of their release: Sweeping Military Pay and Benefit Changes Coming.
Listening to those families, I have come away convinced that if we haven’t already broken the system, we’ve badly sprained it.
With the President having sent the Congress a proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), we stand on a precipice in which our nation is sending troops into battle with their “trust tank” running on fumes. The President, Congress and DoD would be smart to stop for a refill, especially for those who have upheld their end of the bargain as we head into yet another conflict.
Six Ways to Refill the Military Trust Tank
1. End Sequestration
The 2011 law that put it into place is the enemy, not military members and their families. Until the Congress and the President can undo those legislative shackles on our military, we will cynically assume comments about “taking care of our military families” are nothing more than political rhetoric.
2. Trust the Troops, not the Think Tanks
Don’t use your surrogates in the media, industry and think tanks to hawk your story about “gold-plated benefits”. It severely compromises the trust between our military leaders and our families, and it’s not helping anyhow. Two recent examples:
- Gen Jones, USMC Wants Cuts To Military Middle Class – Buys $3.7M Mansion
- Reform Military Benefits, Buy an Aircraft Carrier a Year
3. The Military-Industrial Complex is Toxic
Focus on the threat the military-industrial complex is to our nation’s defense. I couldn’t write better than either of these two authors if you’d like a quick discussion of the issue: The Triumph of the Military Industrial Congressional Complex and The Military-Industrial Complex is Real and Its Bigger than Ever.
4. Keep Your Promise
Transparently review the MCRMC findings, paying special attention to those items that would break the promises already made. Of particular concern to the people I’ve heard from include the GI Bill changes and increased cost for military retiree healthcare.
5. Just Make a Decision Already
Commit to the changes and then leave well enough alone. Military families need stability, not the year after year budget drama as the Pentagon attempts to cut pay and benefits every year. DoD’s attitude continues to be that military families should pay for their soldier’s training and equipment by cutting their pay, as reflected in this quote “Dollars we saved in pay and compensation … help balance out readiness and capability”, a position with little logical support for ensuring the overall strategic health of the force. The force has already weathered this attitude the past couple of years. Continuing to roll these statements out at every press conference and Congressional hearing is part of why morale is low.
6. Don’t Balance the Budget on the Backs of our Veterans
Commit to reforming the rest of the DoD and federal budget, as necessary to ensure long term solvency. Military families understand sacrifice and will be more supportive of changes to their pay and benefits if the rest of DoD and the country is also part of ensuring long term fiscal sustainability. As former Democrat Senator (and recipient of the Medal of Honor) Bob Kerrey noted,
“It would be unfair to identify military retirement as the big problem, because it isn’t. To address military retirement without going after Social Security and Medicare is basically saying we would balance the budget on the backs of our military retirees, and that would be the wrong thing to do and send a terrible signal.”
Today’s Military Family Concerns
Don’t think my anecdotal proof bears weight? Let’s take a look at some numbers. Last fall, in its annual survey, Blue Star Families, a military family non-profit, released some telling numbers indicating the top concerns of military families in 2014:
Granted, the numbers might have been inflated because the survey was taken shortly after the infamous retirement cuts pushed through Congress and signed by the President in the 2013 Budget Control Act; an idea for which there still isn’t parentage, An Immaculate Misconception; How Not To Make Defense Policy.
In a more recent survey from last fall, The Military Times, in a series titled “America’s Military: A Force Adrift”, noted a significant drop in morale. Of the 2,300 service members surveyed,
- 27% felt that “senior military leadership has my best interests at heart”, and
- 15% “approve of the way President Obama is handling his job as commander in chief”
both significant drops since 2009 (53% and 45%), None other than Senator McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated,
“Everyone interested in strengthening America’s national security and the well-being of our military men and women should be alarmed by the new Military Times survey finding a ‘worsening morale crisis’ in the U.S. armed forces…The growing dissatisfaction among the all-volunteer force during this Administration is cause for grave concern and requires immediate attention and action by the Commander-in-Chief, senior Defense Department leaders and the U.S. Congress.”
Weapons vs. Waste, not Benefits vs. Bullets
The “Pentagon benefit battles” of the last five years have created such a raw wound for our military families that advocacy groups are having to remind them “You Are Not The Problem”; commentary more reflective of the post-Vietnam era than the post-Desert Storm era. Thankfully, I don’t think that attitude extends into most of America; ironically it seems to be an attitude held inside the beltway on parts of Capitol Hill, at DoD, think tanks, and much of the media.
Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat (CA-14th) on the House Armed Services Committee and ranking member on the HASC Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee, recently told her colleagues it was time to “man-up” and implement the MCRMC recommendations, commenting that it will only cost a “Starbucks latte a year”. We hope she has the same fortitude when it comes to DoD weapons programs, Medicare and Social Security (but we aren’t holding our collective breath). In response to Rep. Speier, Tony Carr, a retired Air Force officer and author/owner of John Q Public, said,
“It is tempting to look for common ground in what Rep. Speier is saying. But at this point, no one trusts that ‘a Starbucks latte’ is really the price being exacted or that it won’t lead to demands for a dozen more lattes next year. Why do folks pretend this is the first moment of the conversation, and that trust hasn’t been fractured by previous attempts to defraud and retroactively renegotiate things that were promised? Personally, I could also live without the “man up” comment. It doesn’t feel honorable when applied to people who’ve been kicked in the teeth for 14 years and now feel looked upon as little more than a regrettable obligation.”
Troops Have Lost Faith With Their Leaders
Let me reiterate the problem. Whatever faith we as a group of people once had in our elected and senior leadership has been degraded or lost. We feel like no one, except the handful of veteran and military service organizations, speaks for us. The new Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, has a chance to surprise us, lead from the front, and change the tone surrounding these discussions. His tone and temperament and more importantly his actions on this issue will be critical to restore our faith in our leadership.
To the military and veteran families reading this, do you hear that sound? That’s the sound of the train leaving the station, as indicated by significant bipartisan praise after the first round of hearings, Commission Ideas Draw Bipartisan Praise on Capitol Hill. I’m afraid it may leave without us. As of the 16th of Feb, the Senate and House hearings on the MCRMC recommendations have been watched 572 and 577 times respectively (probably the same people). I realize everyone is busy, but that’s a pretty poor showing on an issue of this importance. Even with the understanding that those video views are only an indicator of involvement, I believe we must do a better job of informing military and veterans and their families about these potential changes.
Three weeks ago I mentioned that sweeping changes were coming to the military as we know it. You can seriously consider this independent commission’s goals and provide feedback on these conclusions to your elected representatives, or you can do nothing and watch as DoD continues to “nickel and dime our people to death” for the foreseeable future. Either way, you have to decide what action you will take.
In the end, many of us may differ on what the final military pay and benefits package should look like…what I want more than agreement is your involvement. Sitting this one out isn’t in yours or our nation’s best interest.
About the Author: Jeremy Hilton is a Navy veteran, Air Force spouse, author, and advocate. He helped repeal the COLA cuts in the 2013 BCA as a #KeepYourPromise cofounder and is currently working to reform military pediatric healthcare as a “TRICARE for Kids” Champion. Jeremy has written for Time, Huffington Post, Military Spouse magazine, USAA, and Exceptional Parent magazine.