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Military advocates to commission: Be careful with pay, benefits changes

Nov. 15, 2013 - 02:49PM   |  
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A number of prominent associations that support the military and veterans communities urged a commission tasked with recommending ways to overhaul the military retirement and compensation systems to tread carefully in making any changes.

Be careful about making changes to pay and benefits, a variety of witnesses told members of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.

“I’m nervous about substantial changes to pay and compensation that would propel us into another cycle in the wrong direction for our uniformed members,” retired Adm. Steve Abbot, president of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, told members of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission at a Nov. 13 hearing.

NMCRS provides emergency financial assistance to about one out of every eight or nine sailors and Marines over the course of their careers, Abbott said.

Junior service members are often the ones most in need, he said. Some recruits come into service with pre-existing debt, they don’t make a lot of money in the lower ranks, and an increasing number are entering active duty with families, Abbott noted.

Abbot was the only witness from the relief societies. The chief executive officer of Air Force Aid Society was scheduled to testify, but had to cancel because of a family emergency. Army Emergency Relief officials declined to testify, although they were contacted multiple times, said commission spokesman Jamie Graybeal.

“No one else has turned down the opportunity,” Graybeal said. “We certainly found it unfortunate we didn’t have the opportunity to benefit from their insights.”

AER spokesman Guy Shields said his organization did not send a representative to the hearing because AER’s purpose is to provide financial assistance to soldiers and families as a “safety valve” for short-term cash flow requirements such as emergency travel, emergency vehicle repair and rent deposits.

“Army Emergency Relief is not considered a part of military compensation because it is not in any way affiliated with DoD requirements to provide compensation to soldiers who earn pay and benefits as a result of the duties they perform,” Shields said.

A number of other organizations that are familiar with the needs of troops and families have testified before the congressionally-mandated commission during its initial hearings as commissioners gather input in their mission to study military retirement and compensation.

Abbot noted that NMCRS doesn’t have policy positions on a number of issues before the commission, but he offered his personal perspective after a combined 50 years of following pay-and benefits issues as an officer, and then in his second career after retirement.

“I’ve seen the [compensation] system managed and mismanaged in cycles that have produced real crises that I lived through as a commanding officer on ships” that were at risk of not being operated safely because their crews weren’t properly qualified, he said.

When he retired in 2000, he added, the military had fallen “very substantially below the private sector in terms of compensation.”

Other association witnesses argued that benefits should be further enhanced, particularly for the National Guard and Reserve communities, which Pentagon officials have indicated could be relied on more heavily in the future as the active-duty force is trimmed.

After 12 years of high operational tempo, recruiting and retention has remained high in the Guard and Reserve, even though these troops know they will most likely deploy, said Al Garver, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the U.S.

But he noted that while relying more on the Guard and Reserve is more cost-effective for DoD, the reserve components are still being compensated under an older model designed when they were still considered a rarely used “strategic” backup force.

Garver recommended reducing the age at which reserve component members can begin drawing retirement pay to 57 from the current 60 for members who complete at least 30 years of service.

He also suggested implementing a 50-percent subsidy under the Tricare Retired Reserve program for “gray area” retirees — those who have accumulated enough service to qualify for retirement benefits but are not yet age 60, when they can actually begin using those benefits — and creating mid-range premiums under the the Tricare Reserve Select program for drilling reservists.

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Andrew Davis, executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, also urged the commission to look to the reserve force for more missions as way to reduce military compensation costs, noting that they cost about one-third of what the active force does.

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