Diet COLA: Murray-Ryan Budget Targets Military Retirees

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Photo by Gage Skidmore

On Wednesday, I received an email from the Air Force Sergeant’s Association (AFSA) CEO and in response posted this statement on my Facebook page: “Air Force Sergeant’s Association posted Paul Ryan proposed a cut of 1% in military retiree COLA pay each year until the retiree reaches 62. So, for me, that would be a 16% cut. I have never taken welfare or any other handout. All of my retirement is taken in taxes already. I’m interested to hear how much was slashed from the handout programs that didn’t require the recipients to give at least 20 years of their lives.” I received several requests to do an article and given the serious nature of this budget proposal and its devastating impact on all the military retirees that have served honorably and live on fixed incomes, I felt the need to heed that call.

From my earliest years as a child, I watched my father put on his Navy uniform and serve long hours to defend our nation, sometimes deploying to remote areas for several months at a time. Growing up on a military base instilled in me a desire to serve so I signed up for the Air Force while I was still a senior in high school. I joined when I was 18 years old and I gave 20 years and 2 months of my life to my country. In return, like my dad before me, I was promised a retirement benefit commensurate to my time in service and the rank I obtained which was Senior Master Sergeant (E-8.)

I joined the Air Force in April, 1986, and even at that time, Congress had their scalpels out and they were cutting benefits. One benefit that I missed out on by two days was having the 9 months of my delayed enlistment count toward my time in service. In 1990, the military changed the structure of the retirements and offered a buyback for those that served at least 15 years. Members were allowed to take a lump sum taxed at a 28% rate in exchange for a lower monthly retirement. I don’t know if that is still going on. A few years after that change, it was proposed to lower the retirement percentage from 50% of base pay after 20 years of service to 40% of base pay. But, in the past, these changes came with a grandfathered clause.

The Bipartisan Budget Act passed by the House on December 12, 2013, is the one put together behind closed doors by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan that will cut the retiree benefits effective 2015 with no grandfathered clause. Under their proposal, each year a retiree will lose 1% of the adjusted Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), an amount calculated to keep up with the Consumer Price Index, until the age of 62. At that time, COLA would be readjusted to the current level. What does this mean for the average retiree? A significant loss. With the exception of the Army, no other service allows enlisted members to serve until they are 62 years old. The average person will enlist between the ages of 18-25 years old. Typically, most career military personnel make it to the 20 year mark of their careers. Some, if they make their rank in time, may serve up to 30 years. This being the case, most people retire between the ages of 38-55. This proposal will have a serious negative impact on all of them.

The following bullet points were taken directly from the House website:

– We make sensible reforms for civilian and military retirement programs.
– On the civilian side, we ask future retirees to contribute a little bit more — still well below what’s common for state and local government employees—so taxpayers don’t have to pick up the entire tab.
– And for younger military retirees, we trim their cost-of-living adjustment just a bit. It’s a modest reform for working-age military retirees.

In an Air Force Times article, Retiree COLAs targeted in bipartisan budget deal, written by Rick Maze, he quotes the following: “To us, this seems like an odd time to decide we need to limit COLAs. Why do it now when you have a commission just formed to study retired pay and make recommendations on changes?” said Michael Hayden, government relations director of the Military Officers Association of America, referring to the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Committee that has just started its work on pay reform. Part of the commission’s order from Congress is to come up with changes in retired pay that do not harm anyone now in the military, with cuts aimed at people who enter service in the future, Hayden said. The budget agreement violates the spirit of grandfathering current service members and retirees, he said.

This budget is a direct attack on the military and its veterans and still manages to increase spending. And don’t forget, in addition to this, just three short weeks ago the Secretary of Defense proposed closing all stateside commissaries. So think about it retirees and future retirees, you’re supposed to give up retirement you’ve earned and a benefit that saves you 15-20% a month on groceries. For many of you living on fixed incomes, that can be the difference between eating and not eating.

Ryan defended the cuts. “We think it is only fair that hardworking taxpayers, who pay for the benefits that our federal employees receive, be treated fairly as well,” he said. That sounds good on the surface, but I regress to my first paragraph. My retirement is taxed and my retirement is not enough to live on independently. My husband is the primary provider of the family. At the end of the year, my entire retirement is taken back in taxes so I suppose and can just add 1% to that amount in 2015. Thank you so much Congress.

If you’re reading this article, you still have the chance to have your voice heard. This legislation will be voted on in the Senate next week and momentum is growing against it. This is your chance to make a difference, contact your Senators and let them know how you feel about the Bipartisan Budget Plan. Call the Senate switchboard and ask to be directed to your Senator’s office at 202-224-3121. While you’re on the phone with them, ask how much foreign aid was slashed. Remember, without our veterans who have sacrificed much, we would not have the freedoms we do today.
Julie Gillette is a retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant and disabled veteran currently living in Fairbanks, Alaska. She is active in Alaska state politics.