Military personnel who seek to extend their careers should stay in shape and stay out of trouble because the armed forces will strive to keep only the best through a post-war drawdown period, warns the new chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said his priority will be to improve quality of life for servicemembers, their families and veterans. But the 63-year-old lawmaker and retired Army National Guard colonel also recognizes that tight defense budgets and planned force reductions, particularly for Army and Marine Corps, are part of the new “realism” for the military.

Wilson said he’s not endorsing Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ plan to cut the active force Army and Marine Corps, starting in fiscal 2015. Army strength would drop by 27,000 and the Marine Corps by 15,000 to 20,000, Gates said, assuming ground force commitments in Afghanistan can be reduced significantly by then.

“I’m concerned,” said Wilson. “Our country is at war. We have an enemy that is very persistent and determined. And I do believe we have extraordinary instability with Iran and North Korea. We’ve made a mistake in the past by reducing the ground forces.”

Gates explained that, even after the projected cuts, which the service chiefs endorse, the Army still would have 40,000 more soldiers and the Corps would have 7,000 more Marines than when Gates took office four years ago.

Wilson said he already has had discussions at the Pentagon about the “extraordinary budget constraints” and the planned force cuts.

“I want to make sure every effort is made to be equitable and truly personnel-oriented” regarding “number of personnel who simply will not be able to be retained,” Wilson said. “I want a system where people know up front how important it is that they maintain their physical fitness, that they make sure there are no disciplinary infractions of any kind.”

The key to protecting careers will be to stay deployable, he said.

“I see a challenge and opportunity to enhance what I believe is the best military in the world,” Wilson said. Officials have assured him, he added, that the “many extraordinary people” who have been “on multiple deployments” will get the “highest consideration” possible in any drawdown.

“I do have faith in the Pentagon,” he said. He also is hopeful that involuntary force reductions can be largely avoided.

Wilson, now 10 years in Congress, ran for reelection last year as a tea party candidate, “as in ‘taxed enough already,’ ” he said.

He knows there are deficit hawks among them who want to roll back all federal spending. He also knows about debt panel recommendations, from late last year, calling for deep cuts in many federal programs including military entitlements.

Wilson said he and many other conservatives want to protect spending on defense, homeland security and on veterans, because there are plenty of enemies out there, and also America has obligations to those who served.

So, in the face of calls to slash federal spending and address the burgeoning national debt, Wilson said he still intends to fight to correct long-standing inequities in military entitlements. He wants to end the “widow’s tax” in the Survivor Benefit Plan (also called SBP-DIC offset), and to lower the age-60 start of reserve retirement to make the plan fairer compared to active duty retirement. He also wants some military retirement paid to all service members forced by medical conditions to leave service early.

That might sound unaffordable amid tightening defense budgets. But Wilson’s approach, he said, will be to achieve these goals in phases, making at least some progress on each of them every year.

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