Thank you all for your patience as I work through everything going on. I hope to be on here more, but it seems like every time I sit down, something else happens. So, here I am about to talk about my next topic - something that's on everyone's mind right now - at least those of us in the military.
What is and What Should Never Be
For those that don't know, Congress is proposing packages that are aimed at taking away benefits from us military folks to try to reduce our country's insane spending habits. It is a process that seems hazardous at best and detrimental at worst. To understand what is going on and what it means, we must start with perceptions and realities.
Perception 1. The military budget is ridiculously huge and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to break this country financially. It seems like politicians in the last few years have been throwing out a lot of stats talking about the military budget. Gigantic numbers are being used, and tactics like talking about how much the military spent on a hammer are trying to change public perception on how those tax dollars are being spent. Many politicians have tried to blame the military budget for our deficit spending.
Reality 1. The military budget is huge. We do sometimes spend money on stupid stuff. There are inefficiencies and things we could do better. The reality is, though, that when you put it in perspective, the military budget is not what is breaking this country. For those of you who read my "Your Kids are in Danger" post, you know that we are talking numbers that are ridiculous. Like along the lines of $120 trillion ridiculous. The military budget yearly is $600 billion right now. When the obligations we have coming up come due (2050), SSI, Medicaid, and Medicare will cost us about $1.4 trillion (inflation not taken into account). That is the annual projected budget for health care spending (according to the Congressional Budget Office). By 2082, it will be half of this country's annual budget. The military budget is pretty steady, and does not move that much. There are no projections for it becoming half of our budget at any time.
Perception 2. The retirement system in the military is broken and unfair and that's where the real spending is. I have heard this come out a couple of times, and I cannot believe that anyone is saying it, much less listening.
Reality 2. We spend approximately $50 billion per year on paying our retirees, and this includes those that were medically retired after being injured in the service. I don't know how that is causing all of our budgeting problems, but someone seems to believe it. Even with VA plugged in there, we spend $389 billion total. Not exactly a deal breaker here.
Perception 3. The current retirement system is unfair and changing it wouldn't change accession or retention rates. This is where we get into what should never be.
Congress is considering ways they can save money. That is a good thing. We need to be in that mindset if our country is to survive. We are looking to save money in the military. That is a good thing as well. We do have ways we could improve systems, make things easier, and save money all at the same time. We are looking to save money by taking benefits from those who protect us. Now there are issues.
Reality 3. The current retirement system is amazing. There is not a single person that I have met inside the military that in any way thinks it's unfair. Many people who sign up stay in because of retirement. We retain most of our experience and senior leadership because to the retirement. Take that away, and we have no incentive to stay in more than a couple of years.
For example: Say I am a fairly intelligent 18 year old kid who has no idea what I want from my future. I sign up for a 6 year contract with the Air Force. I go in as a RF Transmissions technician (I use this because I know that career path intimately - there are other career fields that end up getting you more). In less than a year, I have gained basic technical skills on equipment. In 2 years, I have a pretty good working knowledge on equipment and could work on it by myself. If I am a good study, then I could make my way into lower management by 4 years. I could easily have an associates degree by then. By the time I have finished my 6 year enlistment, I have a bachelor's degree. I have 2 years of management experience. I am a technical expert on several types of equipment. I have a security clearance. I could get out and get a job working with a company making 6 digits per year doing the same job I was doing in the military. So what is keeping me in if our retirement system doesn't reward me for staying?
The legislation that is currently on the table is trying to set us up on a 401k type plan where the military matches a certain amount of money that I put in. This makes it so that if I do my enlistment, I can get out without retiring, and transfer my retirement benefits to wherever I go. No reward for staying in until 20 years any more.
Also, when I ask new Airmen why they joined, I get one of three answers (the first two only if they are single): 1. Retirement. 2. Education. 3. Health Care.
The bill they are proposing wants to change retirement and education. The single people coming in don't care about health care. So, why join if you are straight out of high school? The education benefit they are proposing will still be better than 90% of what is out there. The retirement benefit is decent and probably better than other ones you would get right out of high school. But there is one question that will destroy all of those arguments.
The Final Debate
Those reading this may just think that I am upset about my benefits being taken away (which probably won't happen - there is discussion about "grandfathering"). They may think that I just want to cause a ruckus. But those who have been reading me for a while know that I just want to make sure that we are doing the right thing. I want to ensure that our military that protects our great country is able to be as big as needed and as well-equipped as necessary. So, with that, I have a question:
The benefits they are proposing are decent, but are they worth risking my life for? The reason we need to keep the big benefits is because the military is riskiest job on the planet. Even if you aren't killed or wounded, you have the stress of watching your buddies fall in combat. Or you may not see combat, but you must have your bags packed and ready to go see that combat. They could come to me today and tell me they need me to go halfway across the world to fight an enemy we barely understand. They could tell me that they don't know when I'll be coming back. And they could tell me that I'm leaving tonight. That has it's own kind of stress. I have worked 72 hours straight with almost no sleep. I have seen people who were coming back with some intense injuries. Not every military experience is the same, but there is a great deal of stress no matter where you go in the military. And it is a stress that is not associated with any other job. If you want to get people into that and retain those same people in that environment, then you better offer some good incentives.
This proposal has the potential to really mess up the way the military operates. I don't know exactly if it will completely cause problems or if it will just be minor disruptor. I think that it will cause some major issues with accession and retention. Not only that, but there are definitely many other areas we need to look at to save money before we take from the ones defending our country. There is much more money to be saved in other areas. If we can't find a way to get a long-term view for policies, then there will be some major issues ahead.
At least now, we are having a conversation, and that's a step.
Monday, September 5, 2011