By Rick Delaney and Larry Madison
This week TREA, The Enlisted Association, will hold its 50th annual convention here in Colorado Springs where TREA was born at the Ent Air Force Base NCO Club in 1963. The association's founders felt they and their fellow enlisted retirees had no voice in the corridors of power to stand up for their hard-earned rights and promised benefits.
Originally called The Retired Enlisted Association, the organization decided to change the name under which it does business in 2011 in order to allow it to more fully represent all enlisted military personnel.
As the largest veterans service organization in the nation, created exclusively for enlisted personnel from all branches of military service, TREA has made a reputation for itself in Washington, D.C., defending the promised and earned benefits of military personnel. That may be more important than ever this year because in the budget slashing atmosphere that exists in the Pentagon and in Congress virtually every promised benefit has a bulls-eye on its back.
From commissaries, to health care, to COLAs, to pay increases for active duty personnel, nothing seems to be sacred in the mad rush to slash defense spending. All this of course, as our nation is still engaged in the 11th year of the war in Afghanistan.
In order to comply with budget sequestration (the mandated cuts passed by Congress in 2011), serious consideration is being given to changing the commissary benefit, including closing all commissaries, closing those in large metropolitan areas, or raising prices - which would essentially negate the benefit.
The Pentagon leaders want to give active duty personnel a pay increase next year that is less than the inflation rate. That was made clear recently by the Comptroller of the Department of Defense when he said, "I think we will go after military compensation aggressively."
DoD planners also want to increase the cost of TRICARE medical care for military retirees, and they want to recalculate the COLA for military people in a way that would insure everyone's COLA would be smaller than under the current formula.
Yet so many of our elected officials continue to declare how wonderful our military personnel are and how much those officials honor their service. Except when it comes to doing the things that really help military people - then all bets are off. Sadly, support for these kinds of cuts comes from members of both political parties, although there are also members of both parties who oppose such mindless cuts. But the question is: are there enough?
There is no doubt the defense budget needs to be examined and ways to cut costs need to be found. But it is bizarre that when the Pentagon has no idea where it spends all of its money and has been unable to audit its books for years, one of the first places it seeks to make massive cuts is in the benefits to personnel that were promised in return for their service.
Military compensation - pay, retirement, health care - has long been recognized as critical in maintaining a quality all-volunteer force. We thought DoD officials had learned that the hard way back in the 1980s when Congress "reformed" the military retirement system by reducing retired pay, only to discover it was hurting retention and had to repeal the "reform" a decade later.
The reality is this:
1) Most military retirees are not getting gold-plated retirements. The largest cohort of military retirees are E-7s who average about $25,000 per year in retirement pay; 2) It has long been said that senior NCOs are the backbone of the military. The long-term well-being of the Armed Forces depends on an experienced senior NCO corps; 3) Military retirees are the best recruiters for military service.
If we want to keep the outstanding all-volunteer force we have today we'd better not start slashing their promised and earned benefits.
Rick Delaney is national president of TREA: The Enlisted Association. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Larry Madison is legislative director of TREA. His email is LMadison@treadc.org. Both are retired military noncommissioned officers.