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Proposed Defense Budget May Leave Behind Some Military Families

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“Personnel cuts aren’t the only cuts in store for military families. Service members also will face increased health care fees, deductibles and co-payments phased in over several years, although the Pentagon didn’t offer specifics. Military-age retirees who make more than $45,179 annually – a pension usually reserved for officers – will see their health care costs nearly quadruple, from $600 annually in fiscal year 2013 to $2,048 in 2017.”



Defense budget cuts hurt military families

The latest budget might have some military families on the run.

As discussed recently on these pages, the Department of Defense (DoD) is facing severe budget cuts in upcoming years. Events over the past few weeks have changed the nature of the discussion and solidified some of the unknowns (the “known unknowns”; sadly the “unknown unknowns” still lurk in the shadows). Here’s an update on the budget situation and how it affects military families.

On February 13th of this year, the DoD released President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal. Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta is quoted in the official press release as saying, “[The budget] is…a signal of the department’s commitment to our men and women in uniform and their families.”  A summary of the proposal released by the DoD may make families wonder if the Secretary has a different take on “commitment” than do they.

According to the DoD, the “Armed Services will be re-sized by 2017,” re-sized being a polite euphemism for “cut”. The Army is slated to lose 72,000 personnel (13% of their current number), the Marine Corps 20,000 (9.9%), the Navy 6,200 (1.9%), and the Air Force 4,200 (1.3%). Reserve and National Guard cuts are also scheduled.

While those numbers look disproportionate (because they are, nimrod, you’re thinking), if seen as a percentage of the services’ manpower today they provide a even starker picture:

The Army has 39.5% of the total current manpower, but absorbs 70.3% of the total cut, the Marine Corps has 14.2% of current manpower but absorbs 19.5% of the cut, the Navy and Air Force have 22.9% and 23.4% of the current force respectively, but each absorb 6.1% (Navy) and 4.1% (Air Force) of the total cut.

Sounds like a good time to wear blue, doesn’t it?

These disproportionate changes in manning reflect a new focus for the Department of Defense as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. As reported in Defense News, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefield said, “we made a very conscious decision … in August that we were not going to do what the department traditionally has done in a time when we were drawing down, and that is just hand out proportional cuts to the services.”

The article goes on to report “DoD officials levied specific cuts based on the results of a comprehensive strategy review, which puts more emphasis on military operations in the Pacific region and fighting on a contested battlefield.”

In an understatement worthy of Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde, Admiral Winnefeld is also quoted as saying “I believe intuitively that you’ll find the Air Force and the Navy probably did a little bit better proportionally and financially.” Whether the Admiral delivered this remark with a straight face is not recorded.

Personnel cuts aren’t the only cuts in store for military families. The Miami Herald reports:

“Service members also will face increased health care fees, deductibles and co-payments phased in over several years, although the Pentagon didn’t offer specifics. Military-age retirees who make more than $45,179 annually – a pension usually reserved for officers – will see their health care costs nearly quadruple, from $600 annually in fiscal year 2013 to $2,048 in 2017.”

A review of the DoD’s summary shows it has this to say on the subject:

“…the Department proposes changes in military healthcare – largely through increases in TRICARE enrollment fees, new Standard/Extra and TRICARE-for-life enrollment fees, and increases in pharmacy co-pays. None of the fee proposals in the budget would apply to active Service Members, survivors of Service Members who died on active duty, or retirees who retired due to disability. Basic pay raises will be slowed in the years beyond FY 2014, which will give military members time to plan for lower increases. Total savings in military pay and benefits amount to about $29 billion over the next five years…

Military retirement comprises another significant portion of military compensation. No changes are proposed in the FY 2013 budget, and both the President and the Secretary believe the retirement benefits of current Service Members should not be affected. However, the Department is recommending that Congress establish a commission to conduct a comprehensive review of military retirement.”

Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! Military families take note: the President’s budget proposal includes increases in health cares fees that appear to apply to dependents and veterans, cuts in future pay raises for active duty (and subsequently retired) personnel, and a proposal for a “comprehensive review of military retirement.”

This is worrisome for the military family. And I’m no expert, but “comprehensive review” sounds an awful lot like when my wife says, “we’ll see.” It sounds neutral, but it probably means something other than what I want… Also, although the proposals miss active duty personnel, no one stays active duty forever…

Senator Carl Levine and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta outside a Senate hearing in February.

Hopes of changes in the budget will likely come to nothing, in the opinion of the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith of Washington. According to Defense News, Rep. Smith said, “whatever rhetoric comes out of the armed services committee, Republican or Democrat, the House is going to pass a budget with these numbers. There is not going to be any debate in the armed services committee about what the numbers will be.”

Sequestration, a concern from our earlier article, “is not going to happen,” according to Rep. Smith. Representative Smith’s comments were later seconded by Senator Carl Levine of Michigan in a Reuters article. This reassurance of the end of the already-nebulous threat of sequestration will likely come as little relief to military families facing the concrete reality of the cuts on the table.

Of additional concern to military families, there has been additional talk in Washington about bringing back the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. Initially, pundits dismissed the suggestion as the Secretary of Defense playing politics with Congress, but the threat has materialized, and the lines appear to have been drawn.

In a Feburary 1st, 2012 article in Defense News, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey is quoted as saying, “If we’re adjusting the size of the force, we think we should ask Congress for a BRAC.” The proposal was attacked in no uncertain terms by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon of California.  “Kill it. That’s going to be our approach,” said Rep. McKeon when asked about the BRAC request.

Military families who are uneasy with the President’s budget have allies in Congress. “I consider this budget to represent unacceptable risk to our national security,” said Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as quoted by Reuters. The article continues: “Senator John McCain [Arizona], the panel’s senior Republican, charged Obama’s defense budget put ‘short-term political considerations over our long-term national security interests’ and expressed concern about cuts in military personnel, aircraft and ships.”

So, there you have it, a saga whose winners and losers have yet to be cast, although on first (or second or third) glance it doesn’t appear that the “winners” will include military families. So what can we do other than worry?

  • If you have not yet written your Senators and Representatives about these issues, now is a good time to do so. It is best for them to hear from you before they vote on legislation. You can find contact information for Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm and for Representatives at http://www.house.gov/representatives/
  • If you belong to any lobbying groups (the Military Officer’s Association of America, the Non-Commissioned Officers Association of America, the Navy League, the American Legion, etc.), make sure they know your views also.
  • Op-ed pieces and letters to the editor of your local paper will add your voice to the debate. If you’re active duty, remember to follow the rules about respect and political activity discussed in an earlier article.

We as military families can do little else. The machinations of the White House and the Congress are a bit above our pay grades. My advice from the last article was “keep calm and carry on,” but these budget developments are a big cause for worry for a large segment of our military family. Stay tuned to militaryfamily.com for updates on this still-fluid situation.