A fellow retiree recently asked me what I considered the most important retiree benefits.
It's not just an academic question. A lot of talk is swirling in Washington about potential cutbacks in benefits, and a number of emerging studies are focusing on possible benefits tradeoffs as the Pentagon seeks to control its personnel spending.
I think the most important benefit, hands down, is the system that pays a generous lifetime annuity immediately upon leaving service to anyone who has put in 20 or more years.
In second place has to be Tricare, one of the most robust, lowest-cost health care plans in the nation — a great deal for retirees in their 40s and 50s, and an even better deal for Medicare-eligible retirees age 65 or older.
I would put commissaries and exchanges next. If you retire within driving distance of a military installation, you could save hundreds of dollars a year by shopping on base.
Next is the Survivor Benefit Plan, a premium-based program that pays lifetime monthly annuities to surviving spouses and children to help make up for the loss of retirement income after a retiree dies.
Finally, I'd put the GI Bill on the list. Although used more often by veterans with less than 20 years of service, it's also a valuable benefit for retirees who never had time to complete their degrees while in uniform — or perhaps who now want to pursue a post-graduate degree.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill launched in 2009 fully covers the cost of tuition and fees at virtually any public school and most private schools, and it pays for books and a living stipend. Best of all, benefits can be shared with spouses and kids.
Leaving aside the Survivor Benefit Plan, which is designed to pay for itself, these benefits have something in common: They're all on the budget-cutting radar.
The retirement pay system is drawing intense scrutiny, with studies calling for its overhaul. The same is true for Tricare, with the Pentagon calling for big hikes in health care fees for retirees.
The commissary benefit also often comes under fire as a waste of taxpayer money. And the Post-9/11 GI Bill is already drawing concern about its rising costs.
The only way to protect these benefits is to let Congress and other policymakers know how important they are.
Tell me what you think is the most important retiree benefit and why. I'll run some responses in a future column.
Retired Command Master Chief Alex Keenan served 28 years in the Coast Guard. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.