TIME Veterans

Are U.S. Veterans Selfish?

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As the Pentagon budget vise tightens, those who served complain over cuts

It’s an impudent question, but one that naturally surfaces given the outrage rolling in from assorted veterans’ groups as Congress and the Pentagon seek ways to trim government spending that sometimes affect those who have volunteered to fight America’s wars.

It’s also the predictable downside to enlisting only 1% of the nation’s citizens to fight, and possibly die, to strive to achieve national goals.

When presidents and congresses insist on waging war with no shared sacrifice, it should come as scant surprise that those who have done all the sacrificing squawk when their expected benefits end up on the chopping block.

But it is disquieting. It suggests that the nation is developing a military caste, separate and apart from the nation. It seems the military is in danger of becoming just another special interest group.

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Congress set off the latest fireworks when it proposed trimming the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for working-age veterans by 1 percentage point late last year. Then last week, a new storm arose when the Pentagon said it was considering cutting the subsidies it pays to military commissaries—on-base grocery stores boasting lower prices that are reserved for military personnel, including many veterans—that could force many such facilities to close their doors.

“This is yet another undeserved blow to our men and women in service—and their families—in the name of ‘necessary cutbacks’ to reduce an ungainly national deficit,” American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said, after learning of the commissary proposal. “Like the trimming of expenses to be made by reducing military retirees’ pensions, this is an inexcusable way of attempting to fix a fault by penalizing the blameless.”

The notion that vets are seeking more than their fair share upsets some of their leaders. “Vets are anything but selfish!” says Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America. “If anything, vets are too selfless. They are also idealistic…Vets are fair and therefore, they expect others to be fair.”

Recent veterans agree. “I don’t think veterans are any more or less selfish than the general public,” says Brandon Friedman, who served as an infantry officer with the Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. “However, I do think veterans are very vocal about protecting the benefits they’ve been promised.”

Alex Lemons, a former Marine sniper who served three tours in Iraq, is torn by the debate. “As a vet, I feel like we have made ourselves into a protected class and anyone else who isn’t in it can go to hell,” he says. “I took lives and watched lives be taken.” He says he’d prefer to see weapons cut before commissaries:

The commissary is where you bump into wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, children, chums and old vets, some of whom have family down range. They might ask you, `Will the guys in that platoon like this beef jerky or these potato chips?’ or `How have things been, emotionally, since you got back?’ Would anyone out there in the civilian world ask these questions? No. We don’t get the luxury of living in one house and in one community all our lives so places like this offer something else beyond cheap groceries. I know that won’t be popular amongst economists but this intangible stuff is what makes doing such a shitty job that much more manageable.

Besides, in the overall scheme of government spending, the veterans make a fair point: civilian entitlements, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have ballooned, while dollars dedicated to defense have shrunk markedly as a share of the federal budget.

But that masks the growth in per-troop compensation, which has increased by 60% since 9/11, not counting inflation. “Military compensation has outpaced civilian wages and salary growth since 2002,” the Pentagon’s most recent Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation said. The average enlisted person now earns, in all forms of compensation, more than 90% of his or her civilian counterparts; officers are paid more than 83% of civilians with similar education and experience.

Congress has routinely boosted military pay raises, which also increase pensions, beyond that sought by the Pentagon. More than four out of five veterans never get a pension because they have served fewer than 20 years in uniform, although they are eligible for health care and other benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Those who “make 20”—so-called “military retirees”—collect a pension worth at least half their basic pay.

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“Such cost growth is unsustainable, and the leadership of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all agree that the costs of benefits for personnel are starting to crowd out other important investments that support training, readiness and modernization,” four senior retired officers said in a statement in support of the pension trim issued by the nonprofit the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Such a change is much needed—but it’s only a first step. Additional reforms to compensation to ensure benefits are both fair and sustainable will be essential to slow the rise of personnel costs and to ensure the military is able to make the necessary investments to maintain sufficient capability to fight and win wars.”

It appears likely that Congress will reverse course on the veterans’ pension cut. The fact that lawmakers can’t make a minor trim to a benefit enjoyed by a minority (retired veterans under 62) of a minority (once again, less than one in five vets is eligible for a pension) doesn’t bode well for the wholesale revamping that the World War II-era military personnel system needs.

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But this slugfest comes as no surprise to anyone who has been monitoring the defense-budget debate in recent years:

– Former defense secretary Robert Gates, in his new book, Duty, views much of Congress as little more than scavengers, plucking carrion from the U.S. Treasury to keep wasteful military spending pouring into their districts. “Any defense facility or contract in their district or state, no matter how superfluous or wasteful, was sacrosanct,” he writes. “I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department as inefficient and wasteful but fought tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district.”

– Over the weekend, as if to prove Gates’ point, boosters of North Carolina’s Fort Bragg said they were readying to fight any proposal to shrink or close the post. As the Army’s most-populated installation, it’s not going to shut down. Congress, in fact, has recently barred the Pentagon from conducting additional base closings, even though the U.S. military has 20% more real estate than it needs. But it’s telling that Bragg’s backers already are preparing to preserve the post’s 70,000 soldiers and civilians, and are seeking even more. “In the past, we worked to keep what we have,” Greg Taylor, executive director of the Fort Bragg Regional Alliance, said. “This time, we intend to go after what we want.”

– Last week, William Hartung and the independent Center for International Policy said Lockheed Martin, the builder of the F-35 fighter, is inflating how many jobs production of the plane will create (Lockheed denies the charge).

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Lockheed has said the $400 billion program—the most costly weapons system in world history—will produce 125,000 jobs. “There’s just one problem with Lockheed Martin’s assertions about job creation,” Hartung says. “They are greatly exaggerated.”

Hartung says using job-creation yardsticks from prior Pentagon programs suggests the program is likely to create only half that number of jobs.

But look at the bright side.

For decades, contractors exaggerated the threats that they said only their weapons could deter. Today, they’re allegedly exaggerating how many jobs assembling their weapons will generate.

That shift in emphasis—from deployment to employment—speaks volumes.

With Congress. communities and contractors now focusing so intently on themselves, why shouldn’t veterans?

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