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Retired generals, admiral embrace pay reductions

Jan. 13, 2014 - 01:44PM   |  
Retired Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, a member of the Defense Business Board, has been outspoken about the need to slow the growth in military personnel spending to preserve readiness.
Retired Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, a member of the Defense Business Board, has been outspoken about the need to slow the growth in military personnel spending to preserve readiness. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Four retired general and flag officers with a collective 14 stars among them — including an outspoken advocate for military compensation reform — have expressed support for the 1 percent reductions in annual military retired pay increases approved by Congress.

In a statement released by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, retired Marines Gen. James L. Jones and Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, Air Force Gen. Chuck Wald and Navy Adm. Greg Johnson said the planned reduction to the annual cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees is “an important first step in tackling” rising military personnel costs.

They described the change, which will go into effect in 2015 for military retirees younger than age 62, as “much needed.”

“Although the bill is not perfect, its passage will bring stability and predictability to a budget process that has been without it for too long,” the officers wrote.

Jones is a former Marine commandant. Punaro is a retired Marine Corps Reserve two-star who has long been active in military policy issues in Washington. Wald is a former vice director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff. Johnson is a former senior military assistant to the secretary of defense and former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe.

The Bipartisan Budget Act signed by President Obama on Dec. 26 allows $1.012 trillion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2014, including $520.5 billion for defense. Savings are expected to total $85 billion, with the retiree COLA reductions contributing $6 billion of that.

But many retirees, active-duty troops and veterans’ advocacy groups said the COLA reduction breaks promises to military personnel who have served during the nation’s longest wars.

“These retirees and those who are currently serving have lived up to their end of the contract. Changing the back end of the contract after the front end has been performed/delivered is reprehensible,” retired Marine Lt. Gen. Jack Klimp, president of the National Association for Uniformed Services, wrote to Obama on Dec. 18.

Since the bill passed the Senate in December, several Democratic and Republican lawmakers have introduced numerous bills to repeal the change, either for all currently serving or retired or only for those who were retired for medical reasons.

Both bill architects, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said they will amend the law in 2014 to exclude disabled retirees.

But in a Dec. 22 editorial in USA Today, Ryan defended the reductions, saying responsible military compensation reform is needed to ensure readiness.

“For me, there’s simply no choice between responsible reforms of military compensation and making what our military leadership has called “disproportionate cuts to military readiness and modernization,” Ryan wrote.

But Ryan also raised doubt as to whether the proposed reductions will ever happen, given that the change was delayed until 2015 and a panel charged with making reform recommendations will publish its findings in the spring.

Ryan said the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees have agreed to consider the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission’s recommendations “and look for other ways to reform the system.”

“That’s why this reform does not take effect until the end of 2015. It gives Congress ample time to consider alternatives,” he said.

But if lawmakers crafted the legislation thinking it never would be enacted, it raises questions as to whether the bill is a bit of smoke and mirrors, experts said.

“We’re supposed to put our faith and trust in the same Congress to pass a law that overturns the COLA provision, when they were unable to fix it in the first place?” American Legion legislative director Louis Celli said at a recent news conference.

Of the four senior officers who back the COLA reductions, Punaro has been the most outspoken on military compensation and benefit reform. As a member of the Defense Business Board, Punaro was instrumental in issuing a report in 2010 pressing for a complete system overhaul.

And he continues to deliver what’s become known as the “ticking time bomb speech,” in which he says the Defense Department’s acquisition system, a bloated contracting system, general bureaucratic inefficiencies — and the rising cost of military health care, retirement and benefits — are corroding readiness.

“You do have to be fair, but keeping the faith does not mean you cannot ever change anything,” Punaro told Military Times editors and reporters last year.

None of the generals who issued the statement through the Bipartisan Policy Center would be affected by the change; all are older than 62.

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