Reserve and National Guard members today deserve a better “return on investment” for their frequent deployments and long family separations, and that should include improved health benefits and two ways to retire earlier than age 60, said Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, chief of Army Reserve.

In an interview in his Pentagon office Thursday, Stultz shared his thoughts on modernizing reserve compensation so it more suitably rewards members and families who are sacrificing so much during wartime operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He contrasted current missions for an “operational” reserve with those assigned to the Cold War-era “strategic” reserve.

“It was one weekend a month, two weeks in the summertime and we’re going to give you some retirement pay when you get to age 60. That’s a pretty good return on investment for me as a soldier,” Stultz said.

But today “we want you to leave your job, leave your family and risk your life once every five years,” or even more frequently until the Army is sized properly for current missions.

“So we have to rethink that [incentive] because I’m not sure if giving retirement at age 60 is an adequate return on investment,” Stultz said.

Reservists and their families, he said, are right to ask if what they’re giving today isn’t out of balance with what they’re getting back.

Stultz supports two concepts for improving reserve retirement. The first Congress already has adopted, lowering the age 60 start of reserve annuities by three months for every 90 consecutive days in a given fiscal year that a reservist is mobilized. But, for lack of funds, Congress applied this change only to deployment time after Jan. 28, 2008. Left out are thousands deployments by Reserve and Guard members since 9/11.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S. C.) has reintroduced a bill, HR 208, to extend this change to mobilizations since 9/11. “I applaud [those] who want to make it retroactive,” said Stultz.

Connecting earlier retirement to time deployed “makes a lot of sense,” he added, because it rewards those making greater sacrifices than reservists who enjoy a more stable lifestyle and less risky assignments.

The other retirement change Stultz supports, and has talked about with lawmakers, is to reward soldiers who to serve beyond 20 years, again by lowering the age at which annuities begin.

“For every year you stay beyond 20 you can retire six months early. That’s kind of the idea we’ve postulated,” Stultz said.

Stultz said he would like to see both provisions to lower reserve retirement age enacted and put to work simultaneously.

“You’ve got to cap it though,” he said. No member should be able to draw an annuity before age 55. “Then it becomes unaffordable,” he said.

For those who say the changes are too expensive, Stultz counters with figures of his own. “Let’s say I have a sergeant first class and when he retires from the Army Reserve he gets $3000 a month in retirement. That’s $36,000 a year. If he is able to get five more years of retirement, that’s $180,000, a significant amount of money.”

But then consider, Stultz said, “how much have I invested in that sergeant first class and [the] cost to replace him.” Given all the training and experience, he said, “we probably invested 10 times that much…So $180,000 is probably a pretty good return on investment if I’m able to get 10 more years of service out of that individual.”

Stultz acknowledged that many reservists who already have served 20 years, retired and await the start of retired pay and benefits at 60 will be disappointed if left out of these changes.

“That’s just going to have to be a fact of life,” he said. “There are a lot of things that happen in life where they pass a law and say, ‘from this point forward you can be eligible.’ There are a lot of people out there who say, ‘Geez, what about me?’ I don’t think you can make it that retroactive.”

First, no budget dollars were set aside to fund earlier retirement for reservists now gone from service, Stultz said. “But also, conditions have changed. And at some point you just have to draw the line…There are a lot of things my kids have available to them that I didn’t have growing up.”

On health care, drilling reservists need a dental benefit just to satisfy medical readiness requirements, Stultz said. With a strategic reserve, there was time to mobilize units and address dental problems at mobilization stations. With an operational reserve, members have to be ready to deploy. They can’t leave major dental work until they report for duty.

Active duty soldiers can visit base dental clinics anytime and get care at government expense. “It’s another thing to say [to reservists] go get your teeth fixed and it’s going to cost you a couple thousand dollars,” Stultz said.

He wants some sort of subsidized reserve dental insurance plan.

Families, meanwhile, need more stable health care. With every deployment, too many have to shift from employer plans to TRICARE and back again, switching doctors in an already stressful period. Stultz want the military begin to subsidize a portion of employer health costs for reserve families if companies agree to continue family coverage through deployment.

He illustrated with display board and grease pen how this actually might save money by reducing TRICARE transition benefits that overlap now with employer coverage and no longer would be needed for many families.

It’s unusual for a senior officer to get so far out in front of Defense Department policymakers, as Stultz has here. He’s not worried, however.

“Nobody’s ever going to call you on the carpet if you’re really trying to take care of soldiers,” Stultz said.

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