The man who nearly broke the military…


“They really overestimate our patriotism.”

That’s what a friend, a soldier, told me several weeks ago when news first got out that Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, had hinted that he was considering changing the military retirement plan to one that more closely resembled the Thrift Savings Plan. Specifically my friend, like service members and their spouses everywhere, bristled at the idea troops would only begin receiving retirement pay when they reached age 65, and not immediately after retiring from active duty, as they’d been promised.

The upset was sparked by a nonbinding recommendation from the Defense Business Board, the Pentagon’s private sector advisory panel. A draft report was issued by the board in late July recommending the later age for receiving retirement pensions, among other thing.

Here’s the rub: The board members come from big businesses backgrounds, not military backgrounds. Their expertise, according to the Pentagon, is in executive management, corporate governance, audit and finance, human resources, economics, technology and health care — which is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. They bring valuable gray suit perspective to a building that tends to be a little green suit heavy. But they don’t seem to understand military life, particularly that the benefits have to be better in the military because the demands and risks are so much higher than in the civilian world.

I heard from soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen — and their spouses — on this issue and the feeling, at least according to my unscientific survey, was universal: Hell-to-the-no.

One idea Panetta dangled does hold some promise, the idea of creating a tiered retirement system that would allow some benefits for troops who serve less than 20 years. That’s a good idea. In the civilian world you’re usually allowed to contribute to your employer’s 401 K program after a year or so of employment. Troops who serve less than 20 years should be allowed to gain some retirement benefits for their years of service that fall under the magical 20 year mark. But, by promising some eventual benefits for those who serve less than 20 years and no benefits until after age 65, Panetta in nearly one breath was practically inviting all mid-career troops, even late career troops, to pack up and leave. And many of those I heard from said they would do just that if the plan was put into effect as proposed.  I heard the words, “I’ll drop my packet tomorrow,” quite a few times.

But the remark that caught my attention most was the one I started this entry with: “They really overestimate our patriotism.”

Business people understand the concept of sweat equity. Some partners put in cash while others, often those who don’t have the cash, put in work. So you’d think that panel of business giants would have considered the sweat equity contributions of the military when they turned their steely green eye shades on the military benefits package. You’d think they would have seen that, when asking everyone in the nation to make sacrifices to solve the budget crisis, they had no right to ask for more from the people who’ve already sacrificed more than everyone in the nation. In this last decade of war our service members and their families have put in not just sweat equity, but blood, sweat and tears equity. And that ought to be worth something — actually, it ought to be worth a lot.

The soldier who told me that the nation overestimates the patriotism of the military followed that statement with several others. He said, “Don’t get me wrong. Patriotism will get you into the recruiter’s office and it may even get you to sign your name. But benefits are why you re-enlist. I served my country in my first four year enlistment. I could have left after those first four years knowing that I’d done my part for America. I re-enlisted for the benefits. Take away or change the benefits and I’m gone.”

Panetta, likely heeding the furious shouts of military family members all over the country and around the world, has backpedaled recently. Now he promises that any changes to the retirement system will not affect those currently serving, that everyone on active duty right now will be grandfathered into the old system. And that is very good news.

But some irreparable damage has already been done. Panetta may be promising now that he will not “break the faith” with the military, but now we all know that he once considered doing exactly that — and knowing that is bound to make some early to mid-career troops pause and ponder before re-upping.

Two heroes

I’ve met a lot of heroes these last eight years I’ve been a military wife. The first few months I lived in my Army town I remember looking around and being amazed on a nearly daily basis by the people I met, people for whom words like “honor” and “duty” really meant something — and I’m not only talking about the service members, but their spouses, parents and kids, too. Many days I felt like I’d been transported back a few generations — I hadn’t known people like this still existed.

Eight years later I haven’t changed my mind. I am still amazed almost every day by the people I meet in the military community and I consider myself very, very blessed to call these people my family. Today, with the recent Chinook crash on all of our hearts and minds, I want to introduce you to two of these “family” members I’ve met this summer while working on the country music PSA project for Blue Star Families.

Autumn Letendre’s name was already familiar to me. I’d heard her story and her music a few years ago and had even written about her on this blog, calling her my new hero then, but I got to actually meet Autumn herself and her adorable son Dillon in June. Guess what? She’s still my hero.


Autumn is a country singer. She is asked to play events all over the place and, because she lives in Indiana, is often called on to sing at racetracks. First Lady Michelle Obama even lifted up Autumn as an example to us all in a speech. She’s got a powerful voice and some powerful songs, too. Her voice has a haunting quality that’s a bit more folk than twang even reminds me a little of Dido. (Bear with me, I’m not a music writer – just a music fan.) You can watch  a video for her song “Raise Your Flag” here:



Autumn’s story is just as powerful as her music and the way she’s handled her difficulties is just as beautiful as her lovely face. Autumn’s husband Capt. Brian Scott Letendre was killed in action in Iraq in 2006. Turning personal pain into heart-stirring music is a long tradition in the country world and Autumn has done just that. And, through her music and through The Golden Star U.S.A., a foundation she started to assist military families through deployments and the pre-and post deployment periods, she has provided comfort to many service members and their families in the process.


I also got to meet and chat some with Ryan Weaver while we were filming several artists for the PSAs. Ryan is also a country star and, get this, is still on ACTIVE DUTY in the Army, though he’ll be getting out soon. And, as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, he hasn’t shied away from danger. Two of Ryan’s older brothers, Steve and Aaron, also joined the Army and became Blackhawk pilots. Prior to becoming a helicopter pilot Ryan’s brother Aaron was an Army Ranger and took part in the 1993 battle for Mogadishu that became the basis for the book and movie, “Black Hawk Down.”


However, despite surviving Mogadishu and other deployments, Aaron died in 2004 when his Blackhawk was shot down by enemy fire in Iraq. At that time Ryan was also deployed in Iraq as a Blackhawk pilot. Aaron’s death, as you can imagine, greatly affected Ryan as a brother, a soldier and a musician. He hasn’t wanted to fly since then and now teaches Army aviators at Fort Rucker. He also decided to make a real go at his music dreams.

Ryan’s music has the same sort of gritty, rootsy sound fans love from artists like Jason Aldean. Not only is he and his story inspiring for military families, but his musical abilities are bound to make his a name known by many.

Here’s how to help Chinook victims’ families:

The news is still raw for all of us, and it will continue to be raw for the families of the 30 Americans and eight Afghans killed in Saturday’s Chinook crash for months and years to come.

But in time those of us not directly affected by the tragedy will move on. There will be other tragedies and other urgent matters demanding our attention. Much as we hate to admit it, the tremendous loss suffered by our nation and especially by these families, will fade into our memories. We will move on — these families, however, won’t — not completely, anyway. Time will lessen the pain, but a child never gets over growing up without his or her father and a wife never fully recovers from the horrible shock of becoming a widow years before she’s even sprouted her first gray hair. And, despite our best intentions, those of us in the inner circles of these families won’t even know how to support them.

So now, right now, while it’s fresh all our minds and hearts, please make a donation to the United Warrior Survivor Foundation,

The United Warrior Survivor Foundation has worked since 2002 to assist the widows and children of Special Operations personnel killed in the line of duty since September 11, 2001 in their transition to a “new normal” way of living. The UWSF was founded by a Navy SEAL and it is THE ONLY organization dedicated exclusively to serving the families of KIA Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps Special Operations Personnel.




Every year the UWSF hosts conferences that bring these surviving spouses together so that those newly widowed can learn from those farther down the path and so that they all can draw comfort from each other and get advice from experts in a variety of fields. I have several friends who have attended these conferences and they have shared their wonderful stories and experiences with me. The UWSF also provides emergency financial and other assistance, counseling and transition assistance. But probably their most necessary and effective function is simply to bring these families together. It’s an amazing organization and I’ve been blessed to have worked with them, in various capacities, since 2004. I assure you the money you donate today will be spent wisely and will have a direct impact on the futures of these families who have made the greatest possible sacrifice for all of our safety.

There are, of course, many other military support organizations and I have yet to hear of a “bad” one. No dollar you donate to any of these organizations is a dollar wasted.

Thank you.

Bravery, grief and strength

This is one of those times when it seems like I should say something — something wise, something poignant. And yet, in the face of greatest single day loss of life in the 10-year history of this war, every word that crosses my mind is offensively inadequate.
How do I quantify, much less honor, such a significant loss of life? How do I put into words the 30 American and eight Afghan families who are living out their worst nightmares today?

Very early Saturday morning a Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan west of Kabul, killing 30 American and eight Afghan troops. The Taliban, of course, has claimed credit for crash, no doubt gloating in the knowledge that among the dead are members of Navy SEAL Team 6, the same unit that killed Osama bin Ladin.

I’m in Virginia Beach as I write this, which is home to many of the dead SEALs and their families, and I know that in houses just miles — maybe less — from where I now sit, utter devastation has settled and people’s lives have been forever altered in the space of just hours. I can’t even imagine their pain.

As military families we are reminded on days like this that there but for the grace of God go we; that we are never more than a deployment away from receiving that dreaded knock on our doors. I am so grateful for how lucky my family has been throughout this war but puzzled at the same time, wondering why other families haven’t experienced the same luck. And as an American I am so grateful for the brave troops and their brave families who continue to look this evil, this fear, this possible devastation in the face — and deploy again anyway.

Here today in Virginia Beach, just as at home in Fayetteville, I am honored to walk among families such as these knowing that, despite the considerable risks, there are people still willing to step forward and fight.

God Bless America.