Douglas Cohn: Balancing budget on backs of military personnel wrong

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WASHINGTON — It was believed that someone who had served as an enlisted man in Vietnam would take particular care of the troops if he became secretary of Defense. Such a man is former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., but his proposed budget proves otherwise.

First, it must be noted that there are two tracks. One is a reduction in force; the second is a reduction in benefits.

The force reductions call for shrinking the Army to pre-World War II levels, cutting the Navy’s cruiser fleet in half while it is being modernized, and reducing the Marine Corps by five percent. Only the Air Force is dodging the budget bullet. It’s obsolete A-10 fleet is being replaced by F-35s.

Whether these cuts are reasonable or not will require more debate and solid assessments of potential threats and the military’s ability to meet them. However, at a time of rising tensions with China (disputed islands) and Russia (Ukraine), it is difficult to fathom the justification for reductions in force unless manpower is being adequately replaced by technology (drones, etc.).

It is in the area of benefits that no further debate is necessary. The cuts are unnecessary, irresponsible, and detrimental to morale, which is detrimental to national security. The Hagel proposal calls for limiting pay raises to one percent, freezing pay for generals and admirals, reducing housing allowances, increasing health-care costs, and reducing commissary subsidies. Further, Hagel would alter downward the formula used to adjust military pensions for inflation. This all adds up to two things: an across-the-board pay cut for America’s military personnel and a breach of faith for those who volunteered to serve.

The hypocrisy is blatant. Republican and Democratic politicians alike are effusive in their praise of the troops and wrap themselves in the flag when running for reelection. Yet, who among them believes the troops are overpaid or even sufficiently paid? Last year, 5,000 active duty families even qualified for food stamps.

If the nation wants to return to a draft military, where all able-bodied young people are subject to be called as a matter of duty, it would be reasonable to remove money as an incentive. Service to the country at nominal pay would be an obligation of citizenship. But America has an all-volunteer military in which only a small percentage of our citizens serve. For them, it is a career, and the nation is not going to attract or hold qualified people if they are underpaid, over-taxed, over-deployed, and left constantly in doubt of their financial future and the promises they were given when they enlisted.

In the end, if America continues to try to solve some of its budget problems on the backs of the people who are defending the nation, the nation will soon be at risk.

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