Skip to main content

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.

Boehner: Far right has lost credibility
Pelosi to Democrats: Embrace the suck

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT