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Military pay and pension reform panel hears concerns in San Diego

Laura Paquian, a retired sailor and veteran student coordinator at University of San Diego, and Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael Hill, region career counselor, Navy Region Southwest, speak to the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission during a public hearing Wednesday in San Diego.

SAN DIEGO — The last time the military pay and retirement system saw a significant reform, Truman was president and gas cost a quarter a gallon. Since then, the demographics and culture of the military have changed dramatically, and many have proposed changes to the compensation and benefits system, but none have taken hold. Yet.

Now, an independent commission appointed by Congress is examining everything from recruitment to retirement, paychecks and housing allowance to health care, and will make recommendations early next year on how best to bring those systems into the 21st century.

First, though, the nine-member Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission is traveling the country, and talking to troops, veterans and spouses about what they want and what they don’t.

The commission was not responsible for rolling back the cost of living adjustment cap for retirees under 62, or any of the other pay-and-benefits-related proposals in the fiscal 2015 budget, said commission chairman Alphonso Maldon Jr., a former assistant secretary of defense for force management and policy. But that didn’t stop several veterans from taking the commission to task about some of Congress’ recent actions.

As a moderator passed a microphone around to some of the three dozen people in a Carlsbad hotel conference center Tuesday evening, a retired Army veteran stood to say he takes exception to statements by Rep. Paul Ryan that younger military retirees don’t live off of their military pensions.

The man said he had a very difficult time finding a job after he retired, and he bused tables while he went to night school to support himself.

Infantrymen, he said, “live a hard life, a dirty life.” But they look forward to the fact that they will have a retirement plan and health care guaranteed for life, he said, and if Congress “messes with retirement,” troops will leave.

The wife of a man who has served 39 years in the military said she also believes Congress must keep its promises to troops and their families. Young military spouses should not have to stand in line at the food bank to keep their families fed, she said, and families should be better compensated for the high costs of moving every few years.

Other active-duty and retired troops also offered suggestions for the commission to consider, including a 401(k) plan or guaranteed retirement account with matching funds, which could be used by troops who leave the military before the 20-year mark.

Still, the commission stressed, any changes in the retirement system will not affect current troops; active duty and already retired veterans are grandfathered into the current system.

On Wednesday, the commission hosted three Congressional hearing-style panel discussions at a hotel in San Diego.

One spirited discussion started with questions from commissioner and retired general Peter Chiarelli, the former vice chief of the Army.

Chiarelli said he went through a very extensive retirement physical at Walter Reed as he was leaving the Army, but when he arrived at his first VA appointment — in a city 50 miles from the city he lives in — he was told that the doctors there could not access the records of the physical and would need him to reschedule his appointment and bring in the paper copy.

“The medical records don’t talk to each other,” he said. “If you’re going to have a seamless transition, it needs to be truly seamless.”

Local VA and Navy medical representatives said the VA and military medical systems work together well in San Diego, but commissioner Christopher Carney, a former congressman, said that is not the case in other areas.

The system should just work without requiring ad hoc fixes like those here, he said.

The VA system “seems to be where we’re not keeping faith with the troops,” Carney said. “But the problem is so insidious that troops don’t even know it’s a problem.”

In another panel, military leaders agreed that retirement plans are not high on the list of concerns for recruits and young servicemembers, though they appreciate it later in their careers.

“I don’t think most people start thinking about retirement until they’re past the halfway point,” said Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman III, commander of the Navy’s surface forces. What keeps sailors in the service, he said, is job satisfaction, engaged leadership, opportunities for advancement and being able to get the training and equipment they need to do their jobs well.

However, he said, the commission should consider a retirement system that rewards troops extra pay for the time they served deployed. Right now, troops who have deployed six and seven times get the same retirement pay as those who never left the United States. An increase for time served away would reward what the military values, Copeman said.

The commission also should consider fixes to smoothe the transition from the military world to the civilian sector — for retirees and for those who leave before retirement, retirees and active-duty career counselors said.

Patricia Reily, director of the Troops to Engineers program at San Diego State University and a retired Navy officer, said she has been able to place every one of her students in paid internships and jobs after they graduate. But, she said, most are not able to get any college credit for military training in their fields because of the way the military courses are designed.

Veterans and servicemembers in other fields echoed that sentiment, saying that certifications earned in the military rarely transfer for civilian jobs.

Additionally, Reily said, the way the promotion and education system is set up now actually discourages some troops from following their passions. Servicemembers know they have a better chance at promotion if they earn a degree, so they are apt to seek out the fastest and easiest programs, rather than those that might be more useful in the long-term, she said.

And many servicemembers don’t want to stay in the same field when they leave the military, but aren’t sure what path to take, said Maurice Wilson, president of National Veterans Transition Services, which offers three-week workshops for troops transitioning out of the military.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael Hill, the region career counselor for Navy Region Southwest, said the military system should take a life-cycle approach, perhaps making changes at the recruiting and retaining stages so that troops are better prepared when they leave the military, whether it’s after four years or 40. Additionally, he said, troops need more transition support, even after they leave the service.

Throughout the hearings, commission members said that they are driven by a desire to improve the compensation and retirement programs, not simply to pinch pennies.

“The purpose of this commission is not driven by cost-cutting,” Maldon said. “We know how important this is to our military members and their families … we’re looking at this in the long term.”

The commission was appointed by Congress last year and held its first town hall meeting in November. Commissioners also have met with active-duty troops, spouses and servicemembers getting ready to transition out of the military, and are conducting a worldwide survey of troops and their families. The commission will submit an interim report next month and a final report by Feb. 1, 2015.

Dov Zakheim, a commissioner who served as DOD comptroller during the George W. Bush administration, said he hopes the group can find ways to update outdated programs and improve what needs improving.

“The parts that aren’t broken, we won’t mess with,” he said.

And once the report is complete, he said, “we’re going to make sure that this thing gets seen and heard” and actually considered, he said.

The commission will hold its next public hearings at Fort Benning, Ga., in April. The public can leave comments for the commission at mcrmc.gov.

Hlad.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @jhlad

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