The Best Defense

A few words about military retirement 'reform' and social class in America

By Robert L. Goldich
Best Defense director of military personnel issues

Lately there has been more of the periodic talk that has gone on since shortly after World War II about the need to "reform" the military retirement system -- i.e., cut its costs by cutting the amount of money paid to retirees. It's interesting to note that of the dozens of study groups, commissions, committees, boards, task forces, and the like that have recommended making major structural cuts, only one such has been enacted into law, in 1986 -- and that was essentially repealed (i.e., its cuts made voluntary) in 1999, seven years before it would become effective. That alone says something.

There are lots of reasons to be against changing the basic paradigm for military retirement: allowing servicemembers to retire at the 20-year mark and immediately begin receiving retired pay, regardless of age, amounting to 50 percent of high-three-year-average basic pay (NOT total cash compensation), which usually means about 35 percent of the high-three computation base. But one that has not been talked about much is the way in which social class, which tends to be verboten in these here egalitarian, straight-talkin', straight-shootin' United States, is rearing its ugly head in all of this talk about retirement "reform." It's simply this: these retirement cuts are designed by study groups that are officer-centric, for audiences and relevant players who are primarily officers, and who speak almost always to officer retention. The "typical" retiree mentioned is always an officer in grade O-5, lieutenant colonel or Navy commander.

Well, the average retiree is NOT an officer. He or she is an NCO, in pay grade E-7, an Army sergeant first class; Navy chief petty officer; Marine gunnery sergeant, or Air Force technical sergeant. Now the life of an NCO in our armed forces is damned hard when compared to officers, particularly in the Army, Marine Corps, and the seagoing Navy. First of all, justifiably, they make a lot less money, and live in less elaborate quarters. All fine and good: those with more responsibility have always made more money than those with less. They move just as often as officers, but have lesser moving allowances. Perhaps most importantly, officers have breaks in 24/7, hard-driving assignments to line units or on board ship; they go to schools that are almost a year long; they get staff jobs at the Pentagon or elsewhere; they get more desk jobs in larger unit headquarters than NCOs. NCOs have few such breaks.  After 20 years, even in their late 30s (assuming they enlisted in their late teens), they are often physically and mentally worn out. And when they do get their retired pay, of course, it is 50 percent of high-3 basic pay and 35 percent of total cash compensation that is much less than that of officer retirees.

Our NCO corps knows all this. They are also the jewel in our military crown. A retired colonel friend of mine correctly pointed out that many of our NCOs wouldn't just be officers, or majors or lieutenant colonels in other armies -- they would be generals. Right now they stick around for 20 years because they know that the pot of gold at the end of the 20-year rainbow will be substantial and enable them to start a second career -- which they have to have, given that kids will be going to college and few men or women can actually live on military retired pay alone. Twenty-year retirement makes up with power what it lacks in subtlety. If we take it away as it stands, our NCO corps will hemorrhage. They will see correctly that the American people think their careers are no different than civilians who have an infinitely easier life. And one of the key factors in making our armed forces as outstanding as they are will be greatly damaged. The people who want to savage the current military retirement system are displaying appalling ignorance of the psychology and outlook of our sergeants and petty officers.

In 1895 Rudyard Kipling, in his poem The 'eathen, wrote that "the backbone of the Army is the Non-commissioned Man." Too bad that the businesspeople and quantitative analysts and managerialists, and some military officers, are supporting actions that would break that spine.

Robert L. Goldich retired from the Congressional Research Service in 2005 as its senior military manpower analyst. Currently he is consulting and writing a book on the history of conscription.

 

The U.S. Army/Flickr

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