WASHINGTON: Career soldiers can retire at 42, get a great deal on Tricare health insurance, take home a pension, and get paid a good private-sector salary on top of that. That can’t continue to be the norm for the military and Congress must create a two-tier pay system, says Rep. Duncan Hunter, Marine Corps reservist and member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“It’s time for Congress to look at this,” Hunter said at the inaugural Defense One conference. The message must be sent that, “If you join tomorrow things are going to be different.”
Hunter was careful to argue that those currently in the military should still get the benefits promised them, but the next group must receive reduced benefits, because growing compensation costs will eat up a majority of the defense budget should they go unchecked. If a servicemember retires and gets a good private sector job — say as a defense contractor — then they don’t need Tricare, Hunter said: “You should have to buy into [private] healthcare and stop being subsidized by the American taxpayer.”
Congress, however, has been a big part of the problem, repeatedly increasing benefits over what’s proposed in the President’s budget and rejecting even modest increases in, for example, Tricare fees. “When a recommendation comes from the Department of Defense and then what comes back is a number higher than what was proposed, of course we have to pay that,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, the Army’s outspoken director of strategy, plans, and policy, at the conference this morning. “This is a challenge because the Congress has opted obviously in some cases to pay even more than we asked.”
But Hunter was hopeful about his colleague’s willingness — thus far completely absent — to grapple with the threat of being called out for being against the troops. “I think Congress will finally have the guts to face that in the next authorization bill,” he said.
While the senior civilian Pentagon leadership has repeatedly noted the enormous and growing financial burden of the current pay and benefits, there is clearly support for it in the uniformed ranks — if only to keep good people.
“First of all, with regard to retirees we need to retain … career servicemen and women that serve 20 years and beyond, we absolutely need to have that, and we also have to make it worth their while,” Maj. Gen. Frederick M. Padilla, the Marines’ head of plans, policies, and operations told my colleague Sydney this morning at the conference. “The current retirement plan that we have – and it’s been modified over the years – has resulted in a lot of folks staying in.”