October 11, 2012
By Col. Steve Strobridge, USAF (Ret)
You don’t have to be of the Vietnam generation to remember the Buffalo Springfield lyrics, “Something’s happening here … what it is ain’t exactly clear,” as it’s been replayed on radio, on TV, and in the movies for almost 50 years.
But if you’ve been observing military budgeting over that period, then it doesn’t take a flashback to see exactly what’s going on now.
As every war has wound to an end, there’s been a rush to gain a “peace dividend” by cutting the military — reducing forces, capping pay raises, closing bases, cutting benefits, and so on.
And whenever we’ve run into periods of national budget austerity, it’s been the same story.
Think of it as a roller coaster.
In the early 1970s, we moved to the all-volunteer force and plussed up first-term military pay. After the war, we whacked military people programs until retention crashed in the late ’70s.
Then we scrambled to fix that by plussing up pay and benefits in the early 1980s, only to resume capping pay raises, cutting retirement, downsizing forces (after Gulf War I), delaying COLAs, and kicking older retirees out of military health care over the next 15 years until retention problems cropped up again in the late 1990s.
For the past decade-plus, Congress has worked to redress those problems — restoring pay comparability, restoring military health care coverage for older retirees, and repealing the ill-advised retirement cuts for post-1986 entrants.
That sensitivity to military needs has been compounded because we’ve also been at war for the past decade, with the sacrifices of military service prominently reflected in every morning paper and evening news broadcast.
That empathy has led to a variety of additional major improvements, including dramatic compensation upgrades for disabled retirees and surviving spouses and major new GI bill benefits that can be transferred to family members.
So much for the past 50 years; let’s focus on right now.
Today’s troops and families have borne a vast burden of wartime sacrifices not experienced since World War II.
But from a compensation and benefits standpoint, most of them have known nothing but improvements — rather big ones, at that. They’re pretty happy with the current package and are mostly oblivious about the years of legislative battles it took to get there.
Even among older members with longer memories, enactment of TRICARE For Life, elimination of the retired-pay offset for more severely disabled retirees, and elimination of the age-62 benefit reduction for survivors now are mostly taken for granted. Many feel safe that Congress has recognized these benefits were hard-earned by their extended service and sacrifice in uniform.
If you’re among them, let me remind you the past decade has been the exception, not the rule.
The gains we’ve made are not safe, and those who think politicians aren’t likely to change their minds about funding them are naive. It’s happened multiple times before, and it’s more than likely to happen again.
Remember the roller coaster analogy?
The peaks of the early 1970s and mid-1980s were followed by the crashes of the late 1970s and late 1990s as wars ended and budget crunches changed national funding priorities.
Now with the troops home from Iraq, most Americans thinking we should get out of Afghanistan, and the nation facing fiscal problems far worse than those of the ’70s and ’90s, we’re again at the peak of the military funding roller coaster.
With stomach-churning funding cuts coming every 20 years or so, anyone paying attention to history can see things aren’t looking good for the “20-teens.”
If you think the military — or any other group of Americans, young or old, rich or poor — will be exempt from some pretty significant sacrifices over the rest of this decade, you’re deceiving yourself.
Does that mean we roll over and give up? Absolutely not.
But it means we’re going to have to pull out all the stops to avoid having military people hit with disproportional sacrifices. In adding up who has sacrificed what, the equation must include not only the extraordinary sacrifices inherent in decades of military service but also the financial sacrifices already incurred due to past rounds of budget cuts (such as forfeiting thousands a year in retired pay from having retired after years of depressed pay raises).
But it’s going to be an extraordinarily tough battle.
It’s no accident government leaders targeted the defense budget for half of the cuts under current sequestration law. Many in the country see military (war) spending as draining funds from other pressing needs and see the end of the war as the golden opportunity to do some reallocation.
And history shows clearly that all the people who felt “nothing’s too good for the troops” in wartime always start thinking “my gosh, look at those rich military benefits” when the next budget crunch comes.
So when the fight to do right by military families comes to a head (and it’s starting in earnest right now), are you among the 90 percent who seem to think “military leaders or Congress will take care of us” or “MOAA will win the battle whether I become a member or not”?
Or are you going to get involved — and urge your friends to get involved — to protect against being hit with a disproportional share of the major national sacrifices coming in the next few years?
We started with Buffalo Springfield, so we’ll end with The Everly Brothers:
“Wake up, little Susie.”
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