The Fight After the Fight

Update: On December 18th, the Senate passed the budget compromise containing COLA reductions for veteran retirees (to include those medically retired from service), sending the bill to the desk of the President, where it will almost certainly be signed into law.  However, the fight is not over.  Several Senators have already introduced legislation to repeal the pension-raiding provision.  Let them hear your voice.  Here is a contact list where you can find your Senator’s information.

Also,  click below to read and sign a petition asking the White House to reject the Ryan/Murray  provision.

Posted December 13th, 2013

Every time America goes to war, it makes promises to people, and they go do its fighting.  Invariably, when the fight is over, there is a “fight after the fight” to force the government to uphold the promises it made. Breaking them generally involves saving money, which is every bit as electorally tempting as spending money to wage war was in the first place.  As the fight in Afghanistan slowly winds down, the fight after the fight is well underway here at home.

This past week, Congress passed a budget deal and set about patting itself on the back, proud to have (finally) done its job. But buried deep in the text of the deal is the fact that it reaches into the promised pensions of retired servicemembers starting in 2016, pulling out an average of between $84,000 and $120,000 per retiree.  The provision is really that simple, notwithstanding the massive jumble of words Congress used to try and obscure it.  The military is trying to put itself back together after being ground into a powder over the last dozen years.  Congress stands ready to say “thanks” . . . but wants to add “yeah, about that pension we promised.  We need some of it back.”  Wait, what?

If it passes the Senate, retirees will have their compensation reduced through a cute accounting tactic reflecting the shameful dishonesty of this proposal.  By adjusting retiree Cost-of-Living Adjustments at a rate 1% below the Consumer Price Index, Congress hopes to steal money out of the wallets of those who have fought the reckless wars it authorized, but seeks to do it in a manner surreptitious enough that each individual hardly notices s/he’s being pickpocketed.  This is an attempt to sidestep the legitimate outrage many would express if they understood what was being done to the pay they were promised, and what it might mean to the vitality of the All-Volunteer Force in the future.  As the son of a Vietnam draftee and the father of two teenagers, I am gravely concerned that we haven’t internalized, as a society, that the luxury of securing our interests without conscription is expensive, but critically necessary.  If we don’t pay now, we will pay later, and the cost will be an order of magnitude greater . . . if indeed it can be measured at all.

It comes down to this.  We have to act.  The Senate has to hear our voices. Congress passed this measure without so much as an Armed Services Committee meeting.  We can’t let the Senate sidestep the test of debate in the same manner.

So, whether you have a personal interest or not . . . if you value the security provided to this country through the dedicated service of our All-Volunteer Military, please consider visiting this link and sending an email to your Senators as well as President Obama repudiating the recent congressional budget proposal.  It takes about 2 minutes, and I’ve given you some text below to paste into your email if desired.

If you need convincing, check out the Op-Ed I wrote for Business Insider back in March. I was worried  then, based on internal discussions in the DoD indicating an inappropriate acquiescence to the notion of breaking promises, that this might come about. I remain worried that this is only the beginning, especially given that the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Service Chiefs have absented themselves from this discussion, signaling ambivalence if not approval of the gutting of personnel funds.  These senior officers may believe they’re doing the right thing by conserving funds to pay for weapons rather than keeping promises to those who have already done their duty.  But I contend that nothing — no weapon ever built — is as important to national security as the individual Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine willing to fight and die for this country.  They do it because they believe in it, and that belief grows in large part from the bond of honor formed between citizen and country.  If we break our promises, that honor is sullied and that bond threatened.  If we let Congress and the generals get comfortable breaking promises, they’ll break more.  And if they break enough promises to totally destroy the honor bond with our volunteer servicemembers, everything they fought and died to uphold over these difficult years will be diminished.  Oh yeah, and good luck getting volunteers in the future.

If you think military members are overpaid, I beg to differ. Read my thoughts here. 

For more than a decade now, military members have had an option, upon reaching 15 years of service, to either (a) maintain a full pension based on rate of base pay over the last 36 months of service, or (b) take a one-time $30,000 Career Status Bonus, but accept having Cost-of-Living adjustments reduced by 1% from retirement until age 62.  In other words, the deal congress has just attempted to make mandatory for everyone has been an option for a dozen years. Most turned down the $30k bonus on the assurance that we would receive full retired pay. In doing so, we acted in reliance on a promise Congress now seeks to break. If it turns out the government will reduce pay, then it follows logically that all who turned down the bonus are entitled to a buyout, with interest. Lawsuit, anyone?

Of course, for those who took the $30k, turns out they got easy money. And on that note, I encourage those of my colleagues who remain on active duty and have ~15 years of service to check eligibility and consider taking this bonus if eligible.  In this environment, a bird in the hand may be the only one you ever get. Read about the $30k option here, and spread the word.

Finally, if you’re looking for some text to paste into your email to Washington, DC, here’s what I sent earlier tonight to President Obama and my Senators.


“I’m writing to ask you to reject a provision within the Bipartisan Budget Act that threatens to significantly slash retirement benefits for current and future military retirees.

The FY 2014 budget proposal includes a provision that cuts the annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for uniformed service retirees by 1 percent each year until age 62.

The cuts will have a devastating and long-lasting impact. By age 62 retirees who serve a 20 year career would lose nearly 20 percent of their retired pay.

I’m asking you to reject this provision that breaks faith with current and future military retirees, and threatens long term readiness and retention in the uniformed services.

I’d like to add that voluntary reductions in COLA for retiring servicemembers have been elective in the past, with each member offered a $30,000 bonus at 15 years of service if we agreed to accept retired COLA adjustments at 1% below CPI. Those of us who did not accept that bonus acted in reliance on the promise of full retired pay by turning it down, and will thus suffer a financial loss if the provision inserted by the House is allowed to stand. This is unconscionable, offensive to justice, and will inevitably lead to litigation.

Please reject the proposal. It’s the right thing to do.”


Between now and when the Senate votes on this, we will likely have spent more money on a failed war in Afghanistan than this measure will save.  In other words, as little sense as the fight has made sometimes over the past dozen years, the fight after the fight is shaping up to be every bit as nonsensical, bitter, and ultimately harmful to the national interest.  But it is a fight, make no mistake, and if we don’t engage, we will lose by default.

You have two choices.  either act now, or tell me why I’m wrong.  No matter what you choose to do, I invite you to forward this post to everyone you know, and enlist them in this fight.

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