Military update: Reserve chiefs: Our people deserve better retirement
Reserve and National Guard members deserve a better retirement plan, one that pays an annuity earlier than age 60 at least for those willing to serve longer than 20 years, Reserve leaders have told Congress.
Reservists might deserve extended health care coverage too, also in recognition of their full operational role in Iraq, Afghanistan and future wars, said some reserve component commanders who testified Tuesday before the House armed services subcommittee on military personnel.
“My soldiers…are proud of what they’re doing,” said Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, chief of Army Reserve. “But they say ‘What are you doing for me? Are you going to do anything about the retirement age? Are you going to do anything about medical care? Because you’re asking more of me but I don’t see, in return, you giving back as much.’ That’s what I’m focused on.”
Current reserve retirement offers little or no incentive for members to serve past 20 years, Stultz said, because longer service doesn’t change the age 60 start of annuities. So it’s hard to persuade members or spouses that another hitch is worth the risk of returning to war or being separated, Stultz explained. He cited a recent conversation with a Guardsman whose skill, truck driver, is dangerous and in demand among units deploying for war.
“He said, ‘Sir, I’ve got 22 years in and there is no incentive for me to stay….I’ve got to go home and face my wife. If I tell her I’m reenlisting, she’s going to ask ‘What are they going to give you?’ I’ll say, ‘Nothing.’ She’s going to say, ‘Then you’re [just] volunteering to go back.’ ”
“There’s got to be…a reason to stay,” said Stultz, “once you’ve earned eligibility for retirement because we’re going to give you something. I think lowering the retirement age for staying beyond 20 [is] that incentive.”
A law passed in early 2008 does allow earlier retirement than age 60 for Reserve and Guard members with 20 or more years if they deploy for war or national emergency. For every 90 consecutive days they spend mobilized, reservists will see the start date for annuities cut by three months. But Congress made the change effective only for deployment time after Jan. 28, 2008, leaving out many thousands deployed since 9-11.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), ranking Republican on the personnel subcommittee, a retired Army reserve officer and father of four children now serving on active duty or in the reserves, has reintroduced a bill (HR 208) to extend last year’s reserve retirement change retroactively to cover mobilizations since 9/11. Another Wilson bill (HR 972) would allow Guard and Reserve member who earn early retirement to receive full TRICARE benefits between the time annuities start and 60.
It was Wilson and Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the subcommittee, who urged reserve commanders to share their views on enhancing reserve retirement or health care. The comments were surprising frank given that the Department of Defense had expressed long standing opposition to modifying reserve retirement.
The argument made often during the Bush administration was that there are more efficient ways to retain careerist than by enriching the retirement plan. Retirement reform bills of recent years have varied in design and costs. One simply would lower the annuity start to age 55. Another would begin annuities one year earlier than age 60 for every two years of service beyond 20 years. Stultz suggested the latter sounds right.
With a plan like that, he said, spouses of Reservists and Guardsmen could reason that “we are going to be able to do things earlier in life than what we planned because you’re staying. You’re staying at a risk of another deployment but there’s a reason.”
Other reserve component chiefs at the hearing agreed that either retirement or health care coverage should be enhanced to recognize that Reserve and Guard members aren’t the “weekend warriors” of yesteryear.
“The retirement piece is a very big incentive…not only for those we are bringing on but for those who are currently in,” said Lt. Gen. Charles E. Stenner Jr., chief of Air Force Reserve. “We are looking at alternatives that will allow them to bridge that time from [when] they have to leave the service until they have to feed the family with that retirement check.”
Vice Adm. Dirk J. Debbink, chief of the Navy Reserve, said “gray area” retirees – those who have served long enough to retire but won’t get retired pay until 60 -- should be offered coverage under TRICARE Reserve Select even if they must pay the entire cost of premiums, about $700 a month.
“That allows them the continuity of care so that once they go on TRICARE” during a recall to active duty, they can stay under TRICARE, in some form, and “that can take them through retirement age,” Debbink said.
Commander of Marine Forces Reserve, Lt. Gen. John W. Bergman, didn’t endorse a specific boost to the compensation package but indicated it needs to be more substantial and understandable. Every reserve component leader sitting before the panel, he said, wants to find a way “to increase the length of the careers of fine, qualified serving enlisted and officers.”
“Whatever the pay and retirement systems that they buy into should be recognizable to this generation of Millenials,” Bergman said. It should be perceived, he said, as a “personal finance bag” they can add to, and “set up in such a way that those who are serving very well should reap the benefits.”
Stultz said at every commander’s call he holds to talk with Army reservists, whether stateside or in war theaters, they ask if and when their retirement plan will improve. “It is on the mind of our soldiers,” Stultz said.
“I think it’s on everybody’s mind right now, sir,” said Rep. Davis.