The benefits that lured so many troops into military service may not remain intact after sequestration and other budget cuts, the Pentagon chief said Thursday.
The military is considering cutting retirement benefits and charging more for healthcare and prescription drugs, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel while speaking to troops at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. Hagel is on the island as a part of his tour of the Pacific region, and solicited questions from the audience of troops based there.
The department's most recent budget proposal to Congress included increasing copays for prescription medication and fees for Tricare, the military's health care system.
"We are reviewing every component of our budget, and we have to look at personnel costs because they represent the biggest part," he said on Thursday. "We are looking at everything across the board, [such as] entitlement programs, in every way."
Cutting these benefits will have a crippling effect on maintaining a strong military force, according to one advocacy group.
"The DoD only has two carrots to entice somebody to stay 20, 30, 40 years in uniform, and that is the immediate receipt of military retirement pay, and reasonably inexpensive health care for themselves and their spouse for the rest of their lives," says Joe Davis, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Troops deserve subsidized benefits due to the taxing tempo of military life, he says. Constant relocation hampers earning equity on a purchased home, and precludes military spouses from developing a steady career. Service members reentering the workforce after decades in the military have less of an edge over younger civilians applying for the same jobs, he says. Raising these costs will take a toll on the military leadership at both the enlisted and officer levels.
"The impact is not so much recruitment, but it will impact retention," he says. "What you could have in the end isn't the best qualified, it's the last person standing."
Personnel funds take up over 30 percent of the Pentagon budget – at almost $142 billion – according to the most recent Pentagon budget. That portion should receive a higher priority, Hagel said, offering a line he has repeated since sequestration and the resulting furloughs first began: "You take care of your people."
"We still have the best benefits that I'm aware of anywhere in the world," he said. "We have to do things like that, or we won't be able to sustain the programs."
Hagel's comments come at a time when the Pentagon is still trying to meet budget cuts, and announced it would furlough civilian employees for 11 days starting in July as a part of the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.
The U.S. government coffers are strained to accommodate a growing number of veterans coming home from war zones who require medical assistance.