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Fight over military pension cuts to continue

Thursday - 12/26/2013, 12:14am  ET

In this Dec. 19, 2013, photo, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel takes questions as he briefs reporters at the Pentagon in Washington. Veterans groups are fighting part of the new budget deal signed into law Dec. 20 that curbs annual pension increases for military retirees under age 62. After a barrage of protests from the military community, lawmakers said they'll review the cut next year and possibly reverse it.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

PAULINE JELINEK
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Pentagon's top civilian says it's time to tame burgeoning military personnel costs, but he's facing a test of wills with the nation's powerful veterans groups, which want no cut in their benefits.

Veterans groups are fighting curbs in annual pension increases for military retirees under age 62 that are part of the new budget deal passed by Congress last week and awaiting President Barack Obama's signature. After a barrage of protests from the military community, lawmakers said they'll review the cut next year and possibly reverse it. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that reform of military compensation can't be avoided.

"We all know that we need to slow cost growth in military compensation," Hagel told a Pentagon press conference. "We know that many proposals will be controversial and unpopular. ... Tough decisions will have to be made."

Retirees want the belt-tightening done elsewhere.

Here's a look at what members of the U.S. armed forces get now and the debate:

WHAT TROOPS EARN

Due to pay and benefit boosts in recent war years, officials and military analysts say compensation is competitive with the civilian sector -- and well above it when comparing people with similar education and experience.

For example, an Army private with fewer than two years of service and no dependents earns on average about $40,400 annually, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Defense Department spokesman. About two-thirds of that is base pay and the rest a housing allowance and a food allowance, with no taxes paid on the two allowances. An Army captain with six years of service and no dependents averages $93,800 annually.

Active duty military members also get all of their health care for free. Their spouses and children get free care at military treatment facilities. If dependents use a private doctor, dentist or pharmacy, they get the care through the department's TRICARE system, paying no premiums and no co-pays, said Austin Camacho, a system spokesman.

The force also gets what the Pentagon calls "quality of life" benefits, like help paying for continuing education, separate schools in some places for their children, commissaries where they buy food at an estimated 30 percent below retail prices and exchanges where they buy other deeply discounted goods like clothing and household items. Greatly discounted day care is available through the department's child development system, which officials say has grown to serve the largest number of kids daily among the nation's employers -- now that more than half of the 1.4 million-member force is married and they have 1.2 million children.

While serving, some are and some aren't able to build much of a retirement nest egg on their own. There's a savings plan, though there are no employer matching funds, and moving every two or three years due to reassignment can affect the service members' ability to build equity in their homes and the spouse's ability to build a career that brings in a good second income.

WHEN THEY RETIRE

The military retirement system is unfair and costly. Only 17 percent of service members -- those who serve 20 years -- get pensions, the Pentagon says. Most people don't stay that long, meaning 83 percent who serve less than two decades get no retirement pay.

But someone who enters the military at age 18 and stays 20 years starts drawing pension checks worth half their base salary immediately at age 38 -- rather than having to wait until their 60s -- and gets the payments for life. It's a practice without parallel in the private sector, though some government agencies such as city police departments do it.

Critics say 40 years of pension for 20 years of work is overly generous, but retirees say they deserve it for doing risky jobs that are tough on them and their families and that the overwhelming majority of Americans don't volunteer for.

A Navy Chief Petty Officer who earned $80,000 a year, is married and served for 20 years can immediately get a pension of about $2,200 monthly that would grow with cost-of-living increases. He or she can get free health care at military facilities on a space-available basis and can continue using commissaries -- the latter two benefits being a reason some retirees like to live near military installations, officials say. Those who enroll in TRICARE insurance for private sector care can pick between two plans, paying only $274 annually for an individual or $548 for the family for the standard plan, far below civilian insurance costs.

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