On behalf of a grateful nation ...
These simple, powerful words are spoken at military funerals when the American flag is presented to the next of kin. You may have heard this phrase during television dramas, or you may have heard these words at the funeral of a loved one. This is just one official expression of appreciation by a nation that relies on volunteers to secure its freedom.
Other informal expressions have become almost reflexive in polite conversation.
Since 9/11, it is common for strangers to thank military men and women for their service. Nevertheless, deeds speak more loudly than words, and last week Congress and the president have shown their lack of gratitude to veterans with the latest budget legislation.
The current budget bill will reduce cost-of-living adjustments by 1 percent per year to veterans younger than age 62. According to the Military Officers Association of America, the legislation would reduce the lifetime retirement earnings of an Army Sergeant First Class by approximately $80,000. These cuts are to benefits that have been promised to veterans for their uniformed service of 20 years or more.
The military retirement system may seem odd, because it is an all or nothing system. If you don’t serve at least 20 years, you don’t receive any retirement compensation. Military members know this when they take their oath. They are also aware of the sacrifices required during a military career. They know that they may be called upon to pay the ultimate price. Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen forgo many freedoms to secure the freedoms of others. Most of them never anticipated that the nation would not honor its promises to them after 20 or more years of service.
Changes to the military retirement system have been made in the past, but they always grandfathered existing retirees and those serving at the time. The military retirement system was viewed as a promise that could not be broken.
Unfortunately, now our fiscal irresponsibility has brought the nation to the point where it jeopardizes long-standing traditions. This is just another example of the effects of Keynesian economic thinking that insists that federal deficits don’t matter.
Congress and the president now view the military retirement system as just another budget line item to be managed like other spending priorities. This is not surprising, since the number of congressional members with military service has been declining for years. Currently only 20 percent of Congress has served in the military. In the 1971-72 session, 73 percent of Congress had served.
What few in Congress seem to realize is that they have damaged military readiness and national security for years with this proposal.
The effects of this budget deal go well beyond current military retirees like me. Even if the proposal is later modified, the nation has just signaled to everyone in the current and future military that military pensions are not sacrosanct.
Why would people continue to serve 20 years when it is clear the pension agreement can be changed on a whim? People may choose to serve for a few years out of a sense of duty to the nation, but they are not likely to commit to a 20-year career when that sense of duty is not reciprocated by those they serve.
The largest effects of this proposal will be to the backbone of our armed services — mid-level officers and NCOs. These professionals provide critical skills and leadership in times of war. A lack of faith in the retirement system will result in an exodus of mid-level personnel and a loss of knowledge and experience. This proposal will hurt military retention for years, because a trust broken is not easily restored.
Those serving now and in the future must know their service is valued and will be honored. The current budget shatters veterans’ trust in their nation. If our country treats military pensions as discretionary items that can be changed without notice, then don’t be surprised when we wake up one day and find that no one is standing guard ready to defend our freedom.
Michael R. Weeks is a retired Air Force officer and an associate professor of management at the University of Tampa.