Veterans: Military Pension Cuts Must Go

Hearing examines COLA cuts

Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.)
Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.) / AP
January 28, 2014

Military veterans testifying before Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday demanded full repeal of the pension cuts to retirees that "break the sacred trust" of promises made to men and women in uniform.

The nearly four-hour hearing examined the consequences of the 1 percentage point reduction in the cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) to military retirees under the age of 62.

"If we break faith with those who serve retention and readiness will inevitably suffer," said retired Gen. John H. Tilelli, Jr., who served two combat tours in Vietnam.

The controversial provision originated in the bipartisan budget agreement crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) could cost servicemembers as much as $124,000 in lost retirement pay. The omnibus spending bill, signed into law earlier this month, left the vast majority of the cuts in place, but exempted disabled retirees and survivors.

"We believe the partial deal breaks the sacred trust with the rest of the retiree community and their families," Tilelli said. Tilelli, who now serves as chairman of the board for the Military Officers Association of America, said the cuts must be fully repealed immediately.

Retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, who served more than 36 years in the Army, defended a generous military retirement system as necessary to keeping a vigilant force.

"This compensation was designed to encourage a career of service in the all-volunteer force," he said. "This force has performed magnificently over the last several decades, and certainly the last 12 to 13 years in active combat."

"And by the way, without the support of their families the thing would have fallen like a deck of cards," said Sullivan, now the president and CEO of the Association of the U.S. Army.

"I think we need to pay particular attention to their families and their role in all of this and the children, who have seen their mothers and fathers come and go to serve this country, and they need to be taken care of," he said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.) pointed out that a sergeant first class who enlisted at 18 and retired in the past two decades was likely to serve multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ayotte asked Adm. James Winnefeld, Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to explain the strains unique to military careers.

"I’d say regardless of whether you’re serving in Afghanistan or Iraq or around the world that one of the facets of our life in the military that we accept is that we don’t have the opportunity necessarily to set some roots down," Winnefeld said. "As the son of a Naval Officer, I don’t even know what roots are." 

"It’s even more than that," he said. "It affects the spouse’s employment, many of them face severe disruptions as they move from place to place, we’ve gotten some help from Congress on that, but it’s still very hard for a spouse to move from one place to another and jump right into the same job."

"So let’s be clear: a military retirement is very different," Ayotte said. "In terms of the sacrifices that are made than your average civilian retirement, in terms of the sacrifices made by your family, in terms of the opportunities that you lose in income, in terms of the opportunities you lose to put roots down because of the sacrifices you have made for our nation."

Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox testified that the Pentagon was not consulted for the change in the budget deal. She said the DOD supports cutting compensation for military retirees, but prefers a gradual change where current servicemembers are grandfathered in.

Fox recommended not making any additional changes to retirement benefits until the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization (MCRM) commission, which is reviewing the pension system, issues its final report in February 2015.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) said that waiting to restore pensions for all the military leaves the opportunity that the cuts will never be repealed.

"We’ve told military members you do your side of the bargain, you sign up for worldwide duty, you place yourself in assignment to regions where you’re in harm’s way, and we’re going to keep our promise to you, and last month we broke that promise," he said. "And now we’re being told let’s just wait 13 months before we fix that. I really—I can’t go along with that."

"We need to go ahead and act," Wicker said.

Retired Master Sgt. Richard J. Delaney, USAF said people view the military as an "easy target," allowing the cuts to get through.

"We’re a small group," he said. "And they say, ‘OK, we’ll take some money from them.’"

"The last people in the world you want worried about that kind of stuff, those who are out there climbing into helicopters and airplanes and ships and jumping out of airplanes in the middle of the night whether they and their families are going to be taken care of," Sullivan said. "And I am troubled when I hear we are paying the troops too much and this is the reason we have to cut back on training, readiness, modernization of the force."

"At the end of the day the force is people," he said. "It is people. We’re talking about high quality men and women dedicated to their nation. And they are not the problem."

"America can afford the defense it needs," he said. "It is simply a question of priorities."