Photo by Edward F. Palm)

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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Palm on the Twenty-Year Military Retirement

"Major Palm, whatever possessed you to . . .?"
          I couldn't resist weighing in on the Defense Business Board's proposal to replace the military's longstanding twenty-year retirement option with a civilian-style 401-K-type plan that would require service-member contributions and which would not kick in until age 62 or 65.  The title above is a link to a shorter version that appeared in today's (August 21) Kitsap Sun.  --EFP

Recently, I have been reminded of an ugly exchange my stepmother “Betty”--an Air Force “dependent,” as we used to call a military family member—once had with a civilian wife.  This woman was bitterly complaining about the rising cost of living.  Betty tried to commisserate, but the woman was having none of it.  “How would you know? “ she demanded.  “You get everything for free!” 
            Something of that same spirit of jealous resentment, it seems to me, may just be animating the current closed-door discussions aimed at reforming the military’s longstanding system of early retirement.  The fact of the matter is that military families never got “everything for free,” and they still don’t.  They endure privations and sacrifices that are hardly offset by the option to retire at half pay after twenty years’ service.    
            The group responsible for the current initiative, the Defense Business Board, however, just may not be seeing it that way.  Shades of Robert McNamara and his whiz-kids of the sixties, these are a group of civilian business executives who would put the Department of Defense on a more-business-like footing with a 401-K system of voluntary contributions and pension payments that would not start until age or 62 or 65.
            At first glance, today’s all-volunteer force may seem to be very well paid indeed.  Base pay is higher than it used to be, and a large part of the compensation package still consists of tax-free allowances for housing, uniforms, and food.  Contrary to popular belief, these subsidies do not cover the total cost of such necessities, but the average military family would be hard-pressed to get along without them.  The kicker is that, upon retirement, the allowances are lost.  A twenty-year retiree merely gets 50 percent of his or her base pay, and that is taxable. 
            What we are hearing now, of course, is that the current system has simply become unaffordable, but the presumption that our Armed Forces enjoy unwarranted and undeserved benefits certainly predates our current economic crisis.  The current mania for supporting the troops notwithstanding, the civil-military relation in America has always been a strained marriage of convenience.  As essentially a socialized system that demands conformity, the military cuts across the grain of our cherished American mythos of rugged individualism, unbridled freedom, and limitless opportunity. 
            Personally, I suspect that many of the neo-conservatives who have been celebrating and promoting these same myths do not have nearly as much respect for the military as they profess.  As people who have realized the American dream on their own terms, many of today’s Tea Party patriots probably join liberals and media elites alike in looking down on the military as a haven for those who lack the talent and the ambition to make it in America, most of whom they consider to be expendable.
            Ironically, today’s neo-conservatives are the same people who like to remind us that “freedom isn’t free.”  True enough.  We have to continue to pay for it in many ways, the current twenty-year retirement included.  It is an entitlement in the literal sense of the word—something that a twenty-year veteran has earned and is indeed entitled to. --EFP

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