The Mil Life: How defense budget cuts will affect military families

Aug 17, 2011

As lawmakers look for spending cuts to reduce the national deficit, the defense budget faces the chopping block. Cuts in defense could have "devastating effects" on national security, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday.

In this week's Mil Life chat, Col. Steve Strobridge, who lobbies on the Hill for the rights of military families, discussed what defense spending cuts lawmakers are considering and how the cuts could affect military servicemembers and their families.

Ask questions, get advice, share your own experience and weigh in on this military topic!

This chat is part of The Mil Life, an going chat series the Post hosts for military families. The Mil Life chats take place every Wednesday at noon ET.

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Hi folks.  Happy to be with you for today's chat.  My background is in military personnel, compensation, and benefit programs, but I'll be happy to try to address whatever questions you have.  If I don't know the answer, I'll tell you.  cheers, Steve.

Col. Strobridge, I realize the current military retirement system makes an attractive target for meat cleaver-wielding budget cutters, but I really don't think they've given proper (if any) thought to the second-order effects of going to a 401(k)-style system. I can't speak for the commissioned side, but I can assure you the professional noncommissioned officer corps as we currently know it would cease to exist. As it is, only 13% of enlisted service members stay at least 20 years (based on an AP story I recently read). A retired Army Senior NCO, I know I wouldn't have stuck around were it not for the current retirement system and I can honestly say I don't know a single one of my peers who would have, either. I also think the admittedly generous GI Bill would exacerbate the problem. It just makes too much fiduciary sense for a first-term service member to get out at the conclusion of his obligation, attend college on the taxpayers' dime and begin a career while still young. Only the promise of immediate retirement benefits, to include affordable health care, would induce enough to stay in for the service to have enough experienced platoon sergeants, first sergeants and sergeants major to function.

I couldn't agree with you more.  Congress passed some cuts to 20-year retirement in the mid-80s that were much less severe than those being proposed now, and those had to be repealed in the lat 90s because they were hurting retention and readiness -- in peacetime!  Delaying eligibility for full retired pay until age 57 while providing a new vesting option to people who leave would have far more serious effects.  Taking money from people who stay while paying more to people who leave.  What a concept!  If we'd had this system in place for the past decade of war, we wouldn't have enough people left to deploy.

How might these cuts affect housing assistance for military families?

I haven't seen any specifics on that, but I think we have to take leaders literally when they say "Everything is on the table."  I don't think leaders want to cut housing allowances, but if pressed to come up with options, they could consider things like changing the allowance standard to cover 90 percent of median housing costs rather than 100% of the median.  There are any number of options that could be available if pressed.

Could we spare the hyperbole of this Def Sec's statement - "devastating effects" etc.? The military is awash in money, much of it poorly administered contracts, redundant capacity or obsolete programs that continue on, zombie-like. There are a zillion places to trim sails, safely with no ill effects to families or security. Spare us the melodrama.

If it were that easy, it would already have been done.  Every SecDef has proposed whacking this program or that.  Almost every time, there's a contractor with a vested interest who manages to get the ear of key legislators for whom that contract means jobs in their states and districts.  

Mental Health support is lacking for military family members already - will these cuts impact that limited support?

I don't think we can assume any program will be wholly exempt from budget risks.  This is one I'm sure most leaders would prefer to protect.  But there's a great temptation to shave something everywhere.

Considering that military service is a choice, not an obligation...why should military personnel be treated any differently than anyone else whose jobs are affected by budget cuts in their offices? I know that it's a noble profession, but so are police, firemen, etc...and we are all subject to budget realities.

It's a choice....but it's a choice made based on certain promises.  If you change the promises, fewer people are likely to make the choice.  And then it becomes a matter of how important it is to America to sustain a top-quality career force capable of meeting national defense needs.  Most police and firefighters have 20-year retirement plans too, but they get to go home to their families at night, get to stay in the same community for their career, and don't have to be separated from their family to spend every second or third year in vacation spots like Iraq and Afghanistan...or lose spousal income and mess up kids' schooling by relocating around the country or the world every few years.  Tough to civilianize the compensation system when you can't civilianize the conditions of military service.

could service members who are not yet retired really lose their pensions or would any changes apply only to those yet to join the service?

I don't think anyone wants to see that happen.  But anyone who guarantees it won't is speaking beyond their capability.  We're only at the very start of this budget-cutting process, with several rounds to come over the next several years.  The country's leaders will face a lot of ugly choices.  Even at this early stage, there was one proposal to grandfather only people with 15 or more years, and another recently briefed to the defense business board would have switched the current force to the new system as of a specific date, grandfathering only whatever service was already rendered.  No specifics on how that actually would work.  But if serioius people are already talking about such options, it's hard to see how anyone can say they absolutely won't happen at any time in the future, when the budget crunch will get much tighter.

Col., What updates do you have regarding the reduced (i.e. reformed) COLA floating out there in congress?

Assume you mean the chained CPI, which would reduce the CPI (and COLAs) by about .27% a year.  I think almost everyone in a leadership position sees that as a very strong possibility.  MOAA doesn't like the idea, but when you look at the array of likely changes that may be on the table eventually, that may actually prove to be one of the less painful ones.

Is the current thinking that a "Grandfather" clause would include ALL current members of the military or would there be some arbitrary amount of service years and anyone below that would be shuffled off into the new (not better) system?

See my answer to the previous similar question.  There have been multiple grandfathering concepts of varying types.  We certainly think that will be essential.  But we're also concerned about the future force and future readiness.  Grandfathering the future force may be an excuse to do dumb things that affect future troops, and from a retention and readiness standpoint, that's equally bad for the country.  It just kicks the problem 10 years downstream for current leaders' successors to solve.

Sir, I know it isn't something I have to tell another military retiree, but I hate the fact that almost every article about military retirement talks about "half pay" or "fifty percent of salary" or something along those lines. It may be a small matter, but I wish people realized it was base pay. It makes a difference.

Absolutely.  People don't appreciate that basic pay is only a fraction of currently serving members' pay.  And the fraction is significantly smaller for enlisted personnel, because housing and susistence allowances make up a larger share of their pay.  Not only that, but today's force is on a high-three-year average system, which cuts their retired pay value by another 8 percent or so.

How could the proposed changes to the retirement system effect the currently serving?

I sure understand the frequency and importance of this question.  Hope my previous answer addressed it.

What about other benefits: schools, commissaries and exchanges? Are they off limits?

They're certainly not off limits.  Last year's deficit commission expressly proposed ending the commissary subsidy and closing DoD-run dependent schools in the US.  Those issues have come up regularly for the past 20-30 years, and they're going to keep coming up.  In this budget environment, they're at greater risk than ever, in my view.

My understanding is that military bases started provided their own schools back when public schools were not desegregated. Since there is no longer a need for the military to provide this service, do you think it is something that would be considered in the budget cuts? I understand that these schools provide an excellent education that may not be available in the public school system near bases.

Yes, as I addressed in the previous question.  In fact, lots of DoD-run schools already have been closed.  Those that remain are there for a you state.  But reason doesn't always prevail in times of extraordinarily tight budgets when the big oxen are trying to avoid getting gored too badly.

What do you think would be a fair compromise in reducing health care costs for military personnel but still ensuring they get adequate service? I have heard ideas about raising copays or having veterans rely more on health care they receive from current jobs.

MOAA has never said military health care copays should stay the same forever.  We only want recognition that career military people pay very large up-front premiums of service and sacrifice over the course of several decades, and that in-kind premium can't be ignored in comparing what military and civilians pay for their care.  After all, anyone who wants that "great military health care deal" can get it -- if they can meet the entrance standards and are willing to pay the required advance premium for the next two or three decades.  Our view is that the percentage increase in military copays in any year should be capped at the percentage increase in their retired pay.  We think that would be fair recognition for the premium they've already paid in service and sacrifice.

Is DoD willing to release the power of service to a schedule of 20 years for service to market criteria embedded in a 401(k)? Military service is a matter of loyalty and selfless service to a nation. Under a 401(k) program a soldier can separate based on earnings. How do you see a 401(k) impacting retention tied to military values?

We think it would be devastating to retention and readiness over the long term.  the proposed deal would be great for senior generals and admirals who could serve until age 57 or longer.  It would be a much better deal for people who leave early and would have access to a vested retirement benefit.  But it would be a huge reduction in retirement and retention value for the vast majority of the career force who are required to leave service between age 38 and 52.  "Don't let the door hit you on the way out."  History shows that currently serving people are very astute about looking downstream and appreciating the risks they can expect.  MOAA believes strongly that there has to be a reciprocal commitment between servicemembers and their service.  If we're going to put no limits on the amount of sacrifice we demand from them (the last 10 years being a perfect example), it's pretty tough to argue that we ought to just treat them like any civilian on the compensation and retirement side.  That's a pretty raw way to treat those who have borne 100% of the nation's wartime sacrifice.

What can we do, as military families, to protect these benefits?

Great question!!

1:  Get involved.  Use MOAA's web site to send your elected officials a MOAA-suggested message

#2:  Stay involved and informed.  Sign up for MOAA's weekly legislative update by emailing  We can't keep you posted and alert you when action is needed if we don't know who you are.

#3:  If you're an officer, join MOAA.  For others, join MOAA's affiliate, Voices for America's Troops.  

We're doing our best to be the most effective dog in this fight....but the fight is going to be huge, and we'll need to be the biggest dog we can be.

Many civilian friends (and family) tell me how great a deal the military benefits are. Too generous, in many of their estimations. Yet when I tell them I also spent literally years in Iraq they tell me, "That's what you signed up for." Indeed it is. I also signed up for the benefits, too. You take away one you lose the other.

Exactly.   I constantly tell people that compensation isn't what you're paid.  It's what you're paid divided by what's required of you to earn it.   If we pay you 20% more and double your workload, that's not a pay (or benefit) raise.   If you dramatically cut the military compensation package, you'll find dramatically fewer people willing to sign up for a career in uniform.

It has been proposed that working age retirees pay more, which I do agree that rates need to be increased a bit. I am wondering if it has ever been considered to charge active duty dependents the same copay that retirees pay if they choose to not use a MTF?

Actually, active duty dependents who use TRICARE Standard do pay a 20% copay.  

Folks, I have to run to another commitment at 1:00.

Enjoyed your questions.  If you want to see more of what we've put out on the retirement reform and the implications for currently serving people, check out our recent articles on this topic here and here. 


In This Chat
Steve Strobridge
Col. Steven P. Strobridge, USAF-Ret., is the director of Government Relations at Military Officers Association of America, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that fights for the rights of military servicemembers and their families on Capitol Hill. Strobridge was elected co-chairman of The Military Coalition in March 2001. A native of Vermont and 1969 ROTC graduate from Syracuse University, he was called to active duty in October 1969. He began his career as a Basic Military School training officer and commander and as a military personnel officer. He subsequently served as a compensation and legislation analyst at HQ U.S. Air Force and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Director, Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management, with intervening assignments in Thailand and Germany. His final assignment was as Chief of the Entitlements Division at HQ U.S. Air Force, with policy responsibility for military compensation, retirement and survivor benefits, and all legislative matters affecting the military community. He is a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College and National War College.
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