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.