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WASHINGTON — Of the $259 billion in savings the Pentagon is carving out of the next five defense budgets, just over 10 percent will come from future military pay and retiree health care, a top military leader said.

The $29 million in hoped-for savings from personnel spending accounts for one-ninth of total proposed spending cuts over the next five years, though personnel expenses are about one-third of the Defense Department budget, Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in an interview with Stars and Stripes on Thursday.

Still, veterans groups argue that DOD is looking for savings in the wrong places.

“Increasing [retiree] enrollment fees and co-payments while reducing services is a breach of faith with all military retirees,” said Joe Davis, public affairs director for Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Washington office.

Military retirees would start paying more for Tricare fees and co-pays at the doctor’s office, as well as higher drug co-pays. Health care for active-duty troops wouldn’t be touched, but pay increases would be curtailed starting in 2015, officials announced.

Additionally, Congress would study changes to the military retirement system, although Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta emphasized current servicemembers are exempt from any future changes.

Defense Department leaders on Thursday summarized the budget request that President Barack Obama will submit to Congress next month, but didn’t release line-by-line details. Though the personnel cuts were disproportionately small, planning for them was disproportionately difficult, Winnefeld said.

“These were the toughest decisions that we had to make as we went through this process,” Winnefeld said. “Because it’s about people who are fighting a war, it’s about families whose soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are overseas.”

But finding that money was crucial to meet the requirements of the national defense strategy — one designed to cope with nearly $500 billion in budget cuts over a decade — introduced by Obama at the Pentagon earlier this month, Winnefeld said.

“We’re hopeful that [veteran’s groups] understand what we’re trying to accomplish here, and that in terms of the defense budget itself, it’s big money that if we weren’t able to find would cause us to take real capability out that is necessary, we believe, to defend this nation,” he said.

But a veterans’ group official said that rather than putting the cost burden on military retirees, the DOD should first look to improve financial management and cut waste.

“Our charge, and our pushback to that proposal is that we’re asking Congress and asking DOD to look for other efficiencies, and other ways to save that money,” said Tim Tetz, American Legion legislative director. “There’s no reason to believe they can’t come up with a lot of savings within the Tricare program itself before asking retirees to pay more.”

Carrollc@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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