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5 questions: Cutting benefits for military retirees

Jun. 10, 2014 - 08:30PM   |  
(Cpl. Randy L. Bernard/Marine Corps)
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Retired Army Lt. Col. Tom Slear has touched the third rail of military and veterans’ issues with an opinion piece arguing that a “very small decrease in pay” for military retirees would be reasonable, considering the need for the U.S. government to cut spending.

Slear wrote in the Washington Post that his retirement benefits are extremely generous, especially considering that he was never deployed to a combat zone. He pays $550 a year for family medical insurance under Tricare, while the average family paid $4,565 in 2013 for private health insurance.

“Budget deficits are tilting America toward financial malaise,” Slear wrote in the June 6 piece in the Washington Post. “Our elected representatives will have to summon the courage to confront the costs of benefits and entitlements and make hard choices. Some ‘no’ votes when it comes to our service members and, in particular, military retirees will be necessary. We can afford it.”

In his op-ed, Slear noted that although he spent more than five years on active duty in the 1970s as an Army infantry officer and another 23 years in the Army Reserve, he never fired a weapon other than in training, and spent no time in a combat zone. He returned to active duty for five months in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, but was assigned to the Pentagon.

And he said he is hardly unique, noting that despite well over a decade of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly half of the 4.5 million active-duty service members and reservists over the past decade were never deployed overseas — and among those who did go overseas, many never experienced combat.

In a series of emails to Military Times, Slear explained what he hopes people take away from his argument — and what people may have misunderstood.

For starters, he notes that he did not have a hand in writing the provocative headline that appeared above his op-ed: “I’m an Army veteran, and my benefits are too generous.”

Q: To be clear, do you feel that benefits for service members are “too generous”?

I believe Tricare is very generous. A 10 or even 20 percent increase in premiums is reasonable. Retired pay is generous enough that the proposed 1-percent cut in the [annual] cost-of-living adjustment for those under 62 is also reasonable.

Q: Do you feel that service members who have been in combat are also getting more than they gave?

The true combat veterans, those with [Combat Infantryman Badges], Purple Hearts, etc., certainly deserve more than the rest of us. But implementing a two-tier system of benefits would be very difficult.

Q: Are you willing to pay for private health insurance rather than use Tricare to save the government money?

I am not in favor of eliminating Tricare. But Tricare premiums are one-eighth of civilian health insurance premiums. In these times of perennial federal budget deficits — when all federal programs need to be scrutinized — there is no reason why Tricare premiums shouldn’t be subject to 10, 15, or even 20 percent increase. Tricare premiums could double and they still would be just one-fourth the cost of comparable civilian insurance.

Q: Would you also be willing to take a reduction in retirement pay?

I would be willing to take the 1-percent reduction in the [annual] cost-of-living adjustment as proposed in the budget agreement last year. I would be willing to take a larger reduction as long as it’s part of a reassessment of all federal pensions and social security.

Q: Based on the feedback you have received, what do people misunderstand about your arguments for compensation reform?

The common misperception was that I’m for taking a meat cleaver to military benefits. What I did say was that military benefits aren’t sacrosanct — they should be part of the discussion about reducing the federal deficit.

Answers by RallyPoint

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