Cutting costs, breaking faith

Blame it on a tough economy. Blame it on my move to the politically charged environment of Washington, D.C. Blame it on bad news from my dentist. Blame it on me, because I am the one on the soapbox.

On the whole, I find little to complain of in my military life. I was born to it, still live it and love it for many reasons. For those reasons, I am increasingly dismayed by the erosion of our government’s fiscal commitment to those who live a life of military service.

A recent letter brought news that my family now has a new dental insurance carrier, resulting in larger out-of-pocket costs for dental visits.

Even to a Pollyanna like me, this sounds like the latest verse of an increasingly sad song and dance about support for troops and reductions in military health care. It’s a tune that starts out something like “Hail, The Conquering Hero,” then changes abruptly to “There’s a Hole in My Bucket,” accompanied by some political tap dancing.

The dental change is relatively minor, but it fuels my growing concern about the future of military health care, among other benefits important to my military family.

Current federal budget proposals could triple the cost of health care for some servicemembers who have served multiple deployments in two or even three wars. Hardly what they were told when they signed up for a lifetime of service.

Military members and families have long accepted the risks and challenges of our lives. Now this history of willing sacrifice is used against us, as political and military leaders assert that reductions in military medical care and troop numbers are absolutely necessary to the best interests of our nation. What can loyal troops say to that?

I add my voice to the chorus of those who ask whether our nation can maintain a strong defense force by shrinking benefits and simultaneously expecting servicemembers to do more with fewer personnel.

As the current force retires, how can we hope to replace them with the best and brightest recruits, presumably bright enough to see that promises are made to be broken and budgets to be manipulated? Military leaders are rightly concerned about recruitment and retention, as well as retirees.

The need for austerity is blamed on an unwieldy Pentagon budget, but defense spending is not the only culprit. While cuts are taken disproportionately from spending for the military, examples of waste and counterproductive funding are everywhere.

If our nation continues to shirk its fiscal responsibility to curtail spending, automatic cuts will require the U.S. military to shoulder another $500 billion reduction.

Congress seems unable to trim even the most ridiculous appropriations. Incredibly, our nation is still spending millions for the supposedly defunded “bridges to nowhere” in Alaska and sending aid to China, while China boosts its own defense spending.

Budget experts could easily point out holes in my spending logic, noting that such expenditures are a different color of federal money — and chickenfeed.

As has been noted on Capitol Hill, a million here, a billion there sooner or later adds up to real money.  It’s all green to those of us whose real money comes in much smaller quantities.

Culpability does not belong to one political party or branch of government. There’s plenty of blame to go around in a system that has asked so much of so few, and now appears willing to go back on so many assurances of support.

I hear our nation’s leaders rationalize: Out-of-pocket costs for military health care should be commensurate with similar costs in the private sector. I might agree if the levels of pay and risk to life and limb in military life were also commensurate with most private sector jobs.

Even military leaders are bending to political expediency. I was disappointed to read this statement from a DOD spokesman in Stars and Stripes a few months ago: “Health care benefits for military members, retirees, and their families are, and have always been, as provided by law, and the law has never promised free health care for life.”

I’m pretty sure this convoluted sentence is news for anyone who joined the military after speaking to a recruiter, not an attorney. If this is the latest in DOD policy, it should be framed and hanging in every recruitment office. Certainly, quality health care and secure retirement has been a tacit, if not always explicit promise to veterans and their families.

Military benefits have never been free, anyway. They have always been earned.

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