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Congress double-crosses military retirees

By Rebekah Sanderlin
updated 12:54 PM EST, Fri December 13, 2013
Army Spc. Michael Fashion holds his daughter Malia, 5, upon his return home last month after a deployment in Afghanistan.
Army Spc. Michael Fashion holds his daughter Malia, 5, upon his return home last month after a deployment in Afghanistan.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rebekah Sanderlin: Congress' budget deal would cut pension cost-of-living raises for retirees
  • She says military retirees will lose from $83,000-$124,000 each from promised pensions
  • Sanderlin: Some suggest military families are overpaid, but this is hardly the case
  • She says troops can be called to war, work anytime without extra pay, always get uprooted

Editor's note: Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, Military Spouse of the Year finalist, and a writer who focuses on military issues. She, her husband and their three children are stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. She is an advisory board member of the Military Family Advisory Network.

(CNN) -- My coffee wasn't even cold before the e-mails and Facebook messages started rolling in. "Did you see this editorial?" they asked, forwarding me "Putting military pay on the table," an op-ed in The New York Times that argued service members may be overcompensated.

Collectively, we sighed and each of us, in homes spread across the country and all over the world, looked around, trying to find signs of opulence among our damaged furniture and broken dishes, casualties of previous moves.

Rebekah Sanderlin
Rebekah Sanderlin

"Are we overpaid?" we wondered, mentally scanning our circles of friends -- solidly middle class, all of us. That is, those of us who've managed to climb that far.

On top of that editorial, we learned the Ryan-Murray bipartisan budget deal would cut pension cost-of-living raises by 1 percentage point for retirees who aren't disabled and not yet 62. The compounding effect is what would hurt. A 1 percentage point cut could result in much more than a 20% cut in retiree pension over the course of 20 years. This means military retirees will, on average, lose between $83,000 and $124,000 each from the pensions they were promised.

These so-called "working-age retirees" are exactly the same troops who were given these promises in exchange for fighting the longest war in our nation's history, and who received repeated assurances from President Barack Obama and others that any changes to their pensions would affect only those just entering service, not those who have already served.

There have been no proposals to cut military pay -- yet. But the suggestion in the Times editorial that military pay should be put on the negotiating table implies the services my husband and others provide are not worth the expense and that our lavish lifestyles are draining the federal budget. Problem is the facts are rarely provided in context.

Cyril Bullard, retired from the U.S. Army, plays the trumpet at a Veterans Day ceremony last month in Florida.
Cyril Bullard, retired from the U.S. Army, plays the trumpet at a Veterans Day ceremony last month in Florida.

Citing a Congressional Budget Office study from last year, the editorial noted that "cash compensation for enlisted personnel, including food and housing allowances, is greater than the wages and salaries of 90% of their civilian counterparts." Who are these civilian counterparts, my friends and I wondered. Civilian military contractors, perhaps, whose jobs most closely resemble those of service members? But those workers tend to earn much larger salaries.

The cap on the amount of compensation that contracting firms can charge the federal government stands at $763,029 per person per year -- though the Ryan-Murray deal aims to lower that cap to $487,000.

By comparison, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who oversees every aspect of all 1.5 million of America's fighting forces, earns a base pay of just $152,402 a year. While a nice living, is hardly commensurate with compensation for civilians whose jobs carry a similar load. For example, the CEO of Lockheed Martin makes nearly $6 million a year, overseeing a workforce one-tenth the size of Dempsey's.

Clearly, the CBO study didn't compare service member salaries with those earned by civilians who do, even roughly, the same job under the same conditions, but with people doing a similar job under vastly different conditions and with extraordinarily different requirements.

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All service members, even those who work relatively low-risk jobs, can be sent to a war zone for months on end. They can, and often are, called into work in the middle of the night, and on weekends and holidays, with no extra pay or comp time.

They are required to maintain a high level of physical fitness. They are not allowed to quit their jobs or call in sick or even to style their hair as they choose. And they are ordered to move, on average, every three years, uprooting their families and leaving established support systems, also known as friends, behind.

Military families aren't immune to the problems faced by the rest of the nation, either.

Our home values plummeted with everyone else's and, with orders saying we had to move, we sold at a loss. Or we don't sell at all and pay for two homes, and typically do so on just one salary because employers don't like to hire military spouses. A 2010 study by the Rand Corporation showed that military wives are 42% less likely than other married American women to be adequately employed.

And with a budget crisis so bad as to inspire military and political leaders to suggest breaking the pension promises made to troops in exchange for fighting a 12-year-long war, one wouldn't expect to find that individual wealth -- much coming from government contracts -- has exploded in Washington during the past decade, adding more people to America's top 1% of earners than any other city.

Yet those same think tanks and contractors point their fingers at troops making $27,000 or $35,000 a year when trying to decide who should sacrifice. In fact, the Ryan-Murray deal, which raises the spending caps imposed under sequestration while reducing the amount military retirees receive, amounts to a bailout of the defense industry on the backs of veterans.

With its budget cuts, sequestration and government shutdown, this year has been more trying for military families than the worst of the war years. I'm afraid that after all that my community has given in time, tears and lives, the country we served might be trying to skip out on the check.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rebekah Sanderlin.

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