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The Bottom Line - The Military/Civilian Divide

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January 16, 2014

By Col. Mike Hayden, USAF (Ret)

The recent passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) was trumpeted as a bipartisan, two-year, sequestration-alleviating budget deal. 

But, in reality, the budget deal was a backroom, eleventh-hour pact that was rushed through both the House and Senate before the holidays, bypassing the committees of jurisdiction and highlighting a growing military/civilian divide that fails to recognize the necessary sacrifice that comes with two decades of service.

Even though the budget deal would help ease the harmful effects of sequestration for two years for the Pentagon, doing so on the backs of servicemembers who serve our nation for more than 20 years is disgraceful.  

Fortunately, several members of Congress — now that they have seen the harmful effect of the change — have introduced more than 17 bills to repeal some or all of the COLA provision.   

But there are still critics, including many members of the press, who are supporting the COLA cut, calling it exceedingly modest to “a military pension plan that is already far more generous than private-sector equivalents.” 

What has caused these critics to believe the military pension is out of line? 

It started when our own uniformed and civilian leaders within the Pentagon created the perfect storm, providing political top cover to slash pay and benefits with their repeated, alarming, and false claims about “exploding” personnel cost growth.

The Pentagon’s current rhetoric on exploding personnel growth has emboldened some in Congress to consider making drastic changes to the military benefits, compensation, and retirement system in the name of fiscal responsibility and without fully understanding the unintended consequences of their actions, the immediate impact on morale, and subsequent effect on retention.

Congress, the press, and the American people should not take for granted the sacrifice and service (and retention) of our all-volunteer force by equating it to civilian careers. Sustaining the all-volunteer force cannot be done on “the cheap,” and equating the benefit package to those in the civilian workplace devalues and trivializes the very nature of career service in uniform. 

The men and women in uniform cannot say “no” when presented with orders they don’t like. They, unlike civilians, are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And in order to earn the retirement benefit, servicemembers must make it through an up-or-out personnel system or potentially face being separated or discharged. 

The entire military family makes tremendous sacrifices on the road to potential retirement. Military spouses seldom establish their own careers because of frequent and involuntary separations and relocations, and because of frequent moves, rarely do military couples spend enough time in one place to gain any equity in a home. 

Military children, on average, will attend six to eight schools during grades K-12. Their young lives are also peppered with extended separations from their military parent. Along the road to retirement, many will decide the personal sacrifice is too great.

And some critics are the first to point out military retirees leave in the 40s or 50s and immediately find gainful employment. But not all military skills translate well into civilian jobs, regardless of what some pundits say. And the reality is two incomes are necessary to reach the standard of living to maintain a household and send their kids to college.    

But what is most disturbing is equating military service to the private sector. We’ve seen the service and sacrifices our men and women in uniform and their families have had to endure over the past 12 years of war — and they are far from civilian-like. 

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, USA, stated in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in October 2011 that the military retirement program “needs to be fundamentally different than anything you can find in the civilian sector.”

The bottom-line: Until you can adjust the conditions of service for those in uniform to be more “civilian-like,” stop trying to compare the two.


Copyright Military Officers Association of America. All rights reserved.

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  • KISS..I spent three years in combat,wounded twice..Killing people became a game! Inf,Abn Inf, Special Forces, Project Delta..Took little blue pills for several years in an effort to become normal,,,did not work. I guess that when I retired, I could have gone to work for the mob? Although I have a feeling that their retirement program sucks?

  • Having been through the massive cuts following Vietnam I see the same disease affecting Congress and the US today. Back then it was called "The Peace Dividend". It lead to hollowing the military and turning the country into a paper tiger. To a limited extent I could accept part of the reduction in the DoD budget, but only if it was applied to reducing the debt and not to expand spending in social programs.
    Right now with our All Volunteer Military we have less than one percent of the population wearing the uniform and to sustain that capability we have to use enlistment bonuses and expensive benefit incentives just to get warm bodies to enlist. The starting pay has to be competitive and this is in a time of high unemployment. I don't have an answer, if I did I wouldn't be just another retired soldier but would be running a major think tank.
    With what I'm seeing in the news the future does not look good. The soldier and retiree are going to see more reduction in benefits. It will not be pretty. Assuming this is the way it will play out Congress and the political leadership in the Administration must come forward and explain to the public why they are abrogating the contract with those who are career military, both active and retired, and what they intend to do for the future.
    The American people made a commitment through their elected government to the men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us and our way of life. The least that can be done is to Honor the Promises we have made to them.

  • What is being forgotten that the fundamental premise of the AVF was salary and benefits. It was felt that would be the draw to get people to sign up. The Gulf War and the subsequent wars have shown that not to be the case. In order to get adequate manpower DOD was forced into accepting CAT 3 and 4 and lowering overall standards. That military service is not all things to all people is that recruiting and retention are never ending. Highly trained, skilled and dedicated people leave after the first enlistment or upon completion of required commissioned service. Unless there is an unlikely return to a draft or some sort of national service then the AVF only has pay and benefits to draw in the necessary personnel. Reduce, curtail or equate military service to working at McD's is a stupid argument and the Service Chiefs should stand up and say so. Except in times of war or crisis the military, regardless of country or time has always undergone rapid buildup and then equally rapid drawdown. But with the idea of the AFV that is a dangerous avenue upon which the rank and file must depend upon the leadership to speak out. This appears not to be the case now. But we dance around the issue all we want but again the AVF is based upon pay and benefits and now we are deciding that it too costly. So eat the seed corn and pay the penalty later. There are many associated issues and yet another is the continuing loss of training facilities to commerical interests and now we see that those companies which wanted to run on-base housing are deciding they do not want too. In any event the peacetime sprial has begun and the only question is how deep will it become?

  • Thank you, Colonel Hayden, for such a well-written assessment of the perception of the civilian population compared to the reality of military life and the permanent negative financial impact on personal wealth which is built in to servicemembers’ careers. I have become disillusioned with the civilian population and I am sorry to say that the current civilian attitude reflects a belief that servicemembers who are lucky enough to survive their military service should be grateful for receiving any sort of retirement or disability compensation for their service, and that we shouldn’t be hung up on actually being able to live on the retirement compensation. This is disheartening to me because it may also reflect an underlying belief that our servicemembers’ careers are not valued highly. If our currently serving military community and their families believe they are not valued, they will leave the service in higher numbers than is safe for our country.

  • Actually, "it started" when the anti-military sentiment coming out of SEA conflict turned into "ALL-VOL" Force! As many(!) of us "Lifers" and others who knew at the time WARNED, ALL-VOL would be proven to become unsustainable given the "short term memory" of the US populace when it comes our military, turning us from a "citizen soldier" to economically-unsustainable Mercenary force! "REAP WHAT YOU SEW!"
    Now, assuming something has to give politically $$-wise, AT MIN., to save any sense of Integrity/"Promise-Contract made & kept/"Sacred Trust," Congress-Pres. MUST at least 'Grandfather' current Retirees.

  • Well said and written, Sir! The DOD is not an advocate for the military community. They have painted us as the root cause of their budget woes while ignoring all other budget line items or programs, and our executive branch and congress is more than happy to let them do it.
    “In times of war and not before, God and the soldier we adore. But in times of peace and all things righted, God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.”
    ~ Rudyard Kipling ~

  • Sir, this is a wonderful article I am passing on to my Rep. I am not in the military but send my thanks to you on behalf of my son, Capt. Derek Argel, USAF CCT who was killed in action on Memorial Day of 2005. Thank you for standing once again for our military and their families.

  • An excellent assessment of our situation, very well said Colonel. I intend to forward it to my representatives here in Ohio.
    It amazes me when I hear the "stuff" coming out of D.C. and our media. I would love to know just how many of those who retire go on to "gainful" employment. I was able to get a job after my 31 years, but it certainly wasn't gainful employment when one considers the pay and benefits I received during my "gainful" employment period in the civilian sector.
    In my opinion, and I think it might be shared by many of us, our military will cease to be the best in the world if our Congress and government officials continue to work for us in the back room deals they think are helping to solve a problem that requires out in the open and honest discourse.

  • Since he writes much better than I do, I have forwarded Col. Hayden's article to my Rep, Peter Roskam. Those who have never served JUST DON'T GET IT!

  • Perhaps the old poem should be tattooed to every civilian bean counter in the pentagon:
    God and the soldier we adore
    In times of trouble - not before
    When dangers past and all things righted
    God is forgotten, and the soldier slighted
    (author unknown)

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