Why the Man who Shot bin Laden Doesn’t Have Healthcare

The basic structure of military retirement has not changed in 100 years, leaving veterans worrying about providing for their families.

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Soldiers with Bravo Company 82nd Division Special Troops Battalion provide security during an air assault mission in 2009 in Parwan, Afghanistan.

Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

This month's Esquire and today's Washington Post highlight a tragic personal story—the Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden, known pseudonymously as "the Shooter," retired from the military 36 months short of the 20 year vesting time for benefits, and as a result lacks healthcare and worries about feeding his family.

This isn't an isolated story; paradoxically, it's why the pressure imposed by sequestration, though not the meat-axe across-the-board cuts themselves, is such an important tool to bring military benefits into the 21st century.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

It turns out "the Shooter" is the norm, rather than the exception—83 percent of military personnel don't make it to the 20 year mark. And the category of military personnel least likely to make it to 20 years—enlisted troops serving in ground combat units in the Army and Marines—are also those who have borne the brunt of more than a decade of frequent deployments and brutal wars.

What's the story? The Defense Business Board—an appointed group of for-profit executives who give nonbinding advice to the Pentagon on thorny management questions—notes that the basic structure of military retirement has not changed in 100 years. Never mind post-9/11, this is the post-Civil War structure we are dealing with. Of course, a few things have changed since then:

  • The enlisted men and women who do the hardest fighting are no longer conscripts but volunteers
  • Military pay is now comparable to civilian pay
  • Life spans have extended dramatically, and along with them, the cost of healthcare
  • Longer lifespans also mean that many retirees now pursue second careers in the private sector or government.
  • [Read the U.S. News Debate: Are Cuts to the Defense Budget Necessary?]

    The Defense Business Board, as well as the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, noted that this structure is financially unsustainable and unhelpfully inflexible for managing personnel needs, as well as unfair. Controversially, both proposed shifting to a defined contribution model in which the government contributes into a retirement account, to which servicemembers could also contribute.

    Similar proposals to manage healthcare costs by increasing fees and co-pays, and requiring retirees with alternate health coverage to use it, would save enough money to extend coverage to shorter-term veterans who needed it. These proposals have come from analysts across the political spectrum—and have been equally unpopular with veterans and active-duty personnel who enjoy the current system—and who were promised its benefits when they signed up.  

    Thus they are politically infeasible, even though reforms could keep faith with those who have served and benefit the vast majority of future soldiers—and American taxpayers. Perhaps, by putting a real face on the issue, "the Shooter" has provided another service to his country.

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