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No Brass Bands When Troops Return Home From Iraq

4 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
U.S. troops returning home from war may be greeted with pay caps and increased health insurance premiums, and could even lose their jobs -- if Congress no longer wants to keep on the payroll all the soldiers and Marines once needed to fight both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Among other benefits at risk, troops and their families could lose their local military exchanges and commissaries, the large Wal-Mart-type stores where military families enjoy convenient and cut-rate shopping right on base.

Previous generations of troops have come home to brass bands and parades. This time, thanks to the rising federal budget deficit of $1.6 trillion and a sagging economy, their welcome may be a little more sobering. The defense spending spree that began nine years ago with the 9/11 terrorist attacks may, according to defense officials and outside analysts, finally be over.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, saying he is "mindful of the difficult economic and fiscal situation facing our nation,'' has demanded that the military services cut $100 billion of "overhead'' over the next five years, in part to stave off even deeper cuts by Congress.

Normally, Congress is deeply reluctant to reduce troop pay and benefits, triply so in an election year. And yet the demand to cut deficit spending, heard from economists and Main Street alike, has become deafening. And with President Barack Obama declaring the end of the "combat phase'' of the Iraq war, the pressure to restrain defense spending may become irresistible.

"The budgetary and political tornado is well on its way,'' said Gordon Adams, professor of international relations at American University and a former White House national security budget director.

Read Our Other Iraq coverage:

- Republican Reaction to Obama's Iraq Speech: Mostly Negative
- Biden Gives George W. Bush Some Credit for Iraq Surge Success
- Obama in Oval Office Address: Iraq War Combat Mission Is Over
- Transcript of President Obama's Speech on Iraq
- Iraq Scorecard: The War So Far
- Jill Lawrence: What I Want to Hear From President Obama on Iraq -- Never Again

Gates and other Pentagon officials have said they will try to protect military jobs and benefits, especially the wide array of benefits ranging from college tuition to housing, day care, financial and child counseling and recreation programs offered to families. Last spring, Army Secretary John McHugh has vowed that "family programs will be sacrosanct. They will not be touched'' in any budget-cutting exercise.

But that was then. More recently, Gates has made it clear that all troop benefits, including health care, are on the table.

"In this effort there are no sacred cows,'' he told Pentagon reporters Aug. 9.

Gates already has his eye on military health care premiums, which have stayed at the same rate since 1995 when the Tricare program was set up. Military health care costs consequently have skyrocketed from $19 billion in 2001 to a projected $60 billion in 2011. "Everybody knows we're being eaten alive by health care,'' Gates said recently.

The Pentagon already is fighting Congress over a modest pay increase proposed by the Obama administration; Congress wants to raise military pay even higher, although military pay has risen 42 percent since 2002, 10 percent higher than comparable civilian pay. An increase of one half of one percent, which some in Congress want to add to soldiers' paychecks, costs about $500 million a year, accumulating for years and even decades.

How the Pentagon leadership feels about troops' pay was summed up over the weekend by the Pentagon's top budget official, Comptroller Robert Hale.

"Now, you can't pay enough [to] somebody to get shot at in Afghanistan'' he said Sunday on the TV program, This Week in Defense News.

"But unfortunately with the unemployment rate where it is, we have plenty of people coming in. We don't need that extra half percent. It costs about $500 million a year. And that's money that I could otherwise spend to train and equip this force ...''

The military's own internal strategic study, the Quadrennial Defense Review, has already proposed a "reform'' of pay calculations, by including in proposed pay increases the list of non-cash benefits such as tax-free pay and housing allowances. Such a change would skim billions off military paychecks, even with a pay increase. Taken together with increased health insurance premiums and co-pays could save $120 billion over a decade, the review said.

More billions could be saved by closing or consolidating commissaries and post exchanges, according to analyses by the Congressional Budget Office and Todd Harrison, analyst for the private, non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

The largest targets of budget-cutters, however, are the ranks of troops themselves. The ground forces, the Army and Marine Corps, grew by more than 95,000 after 9/11. Personnel – the costs of recruiting, paying, training and sustaining military personnel – and their families – is the largest single cost in the defense budget. "For any real savings on defense budgets to occur,'' Adams said, "end strength must shrink.''

Cuts in "force structure'' would mean that some who plan to make the military a career might not have that option. After the Cold War was over, the Pentagon and Congress cut the active-duty armed forces to 1.4 million from 2.2 million, leading to a decline in defense spending of more than one third. But it also meant that many service members were involuntarily separated – i.e., fired.

But troop reductions at some point, with no large land wars on the horizon, may become inevitable – an outcome that Defense Secretary Gates is already fighting against.

"My greatest fear is that in economic tough times that people will see the defense budget as the place to solve the nation's deficit problems, to find money for other parts of the government,'' Gates said Aug. 9.

Given the continuing threats to U.S. security from terrorism and failed states, he added, "I think that would be disastrous in the world environment we see today and what we're likely to see in the years to come.''

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35 Comments

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Don

I was against this war from beginning to end. We were purposefully lied to by Junior, Chaney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and the rest. I am for bring our troops home not only from Iraq but Afghanistan Korea, Germany, Japan and the other hundreds of places the are deployed. We can not afford to be the mercenaries of our "allies". But the American Troops did what we asked of them. They answered the call and honorably served their misguided political masters. They deserve brass bands and GI bills and veterans benefits and the thanks of a grateful nation. I lived thru the Vietnam era, when the troops most of whom were conscripted were blame for the war. I don't want to see that again.

September 02 2010 at 2:28 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
janedear9

Obama spent MORE of the U.S. taxpayers money in one year of office, then the entire war cost. Remember November.

September 01 2010 at 2:10 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to janedear9's comment
vobox3343

Spending and appropriating money are two different things.

September 01 2010 at 5:15 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
boredwell

Troops returning from the now-named "Forgotten or Unknown War" aka the Korean War suffered, too, from a lack of public recognition though 36,940 troops lost their lives and battled for 3 brutal years under extremely harsh conditions. The reasons for this, historians say, was that post war America was too busy and self-involved enjoying the fruits of the boom economy. Also, the nation was still suffering the lingering effects of "war (WW2) fatigue." Vietnam veterans were even mistreated and publicly abused by some members of the the anti-war faction upon their return. Both of these conflicts were undeclared wars. Both like Iraqi Freedom, did not end in a resounding or definitive victory. Even if we don't agree with the validity of Iraq Freedom, we need to honor the memory of those who fought and died as well as honor those who served and returned. Their sacrifices should not go unrewarded or unrecognized.

September 01 2010 at 1:11 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
lerwilhelm

news media and overly politicized people cause these men and women not to get their just rewards and thanks. It's dreadful.

September 01 2010 at 11:42 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
boju30

I bet congress is not looking at cutting their pay or pay raises, junkets that dont need doing. As usual words from a politician's or beaurocrat's that good job thanks and your out. we have to give money to those who don't work. TO ALL MILITARY THANK YOU!!

September 01 2010 at 11:11 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
thomasgregbrown

Doesn't matter what era of Veteran someone is, we were willing to lay our lives down for the United States. I'm not saying that we are better than those that weren't so willing, but our Troops coming home now deserve a helluva lot more than being foreclosed on when they get back. Stuff like this should outrage the public. But it won't and our heroes will continue to suffer. God bless ALL of America's Combat Veterans!!!!

September 01 2010 at 9:50 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
theherd1969

Just how bad were Vietnam Veterans treated? Answer: Even the VFW (VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS!)refused to recognize us as "equals." Its true! Back then that clique of mostly WWII veterans resisted allowing us to become members because "the U.S. never declared war against Vietnam."

August 31 2010 at 10:07 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply
northeasttclean

hmmm. Cutting security infrastructure because things "look good." Clinton did that in a post Cold War world. Cutting a lot of our capabilities and outsourcing other things to private companies which is a Regan idea. This however did create holes in our security and 9/11 was an example of that. Hindsight is 20/20 but he bears some responsibility along with the legislature and American public. Maybe we have looked at this economic crisis backwards. We try to stand up the corporate world which is only responsible for about 15% of the GDP, we do government stimulus which is another 15% but we are still missing 70%. Wait consumer spending is 70% of the GDP so we should have paid off peoples mortgages and then with that discretionary income people would shop and buy things and the economy would have a lifeline to jumpstart. Not having a mortgage is the best thing I love spending that money.

August 31 2010 at 7:35 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
bootscoot524

Previous generations of troops have come home to brass bands and parades... I guess I'm curious as to how Mr. Wood came up with this statement. There were no brass bands when Vietnam veterans came home. They were greeted with the words "Baby Killer" and were spat on, among other things. How sad that we put our military men and women in harm's way and if they are lucky enough to come home, their benefits get cut.

August 31 2010 at 7:04 PM Report abuse +20 rate up rate down Reply
angelfireblue

Since they want to cut everything then why should the soldiers fight for you!They already put soldiers and their families in homes that should have been demoloished years before they move into them.They support schools in terrible neighborhoods,in turn the kids end up not getting a great education.The kids become a recruiters dream!Some soldiers and their families live on food stamps,reduced lunch menues at school,and many other goverment help aids! What a shame that is!A soldier can't even get the proper medical care when they come back from war and have war related issues,them and thir families fall apart! You know messed up kids,divorce,war related illnesses!The goverment never keeps a promise for anything they do not care for the soldier and their families all tehy care about are themself.Selfish,Selfish ,Selfish They are simply selfish.A soldier may volunteer,but they are not the selfish one they are the ones who are truly in it to protect and serve the country including you goverment including you!! And this is how they are treated in return,how do you sleep at night!You should be ashamed of yourselves!!!

August 31 2010 at 4:27 PM Report abuse +20 rate up rate down Reply

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