Congress has proposed a budget that keeps retirement pay of military retirees at 1% less than the Cost of Living Adjustment until the military retiree reaches 62.  This will cost the average retiree between $200,000 and $ 600,000 in lost pay.  However, it isn’t just military retirees that are giving up pay or benefits.  The federal civilian personnel will pay 1.3% more into their retirement in one of the three tiers.  This may seem hard, but is it worse than the cut to food stamps or to unemployment?

I retired at 48 years old after 20 years of service.  I retired at 20 to allow for another full career as a teacher.  Part of the compensation package was lifetime medical insurance and 50% of my base pay for life. I make more in retirement pay than 50% of the households in the U.S. earn even without considering the medical benefits.  My retirement pay was more than the average professor at one university was paid. Since retiring I’ve worked for two universities as a nursing professor and in both cases my retirement medical insurance is better than what is offered by the university and doesn’t cost me $400 or more per month.  It was without question a consideration and did make it easier to follow my conscience and accept less from a faith-based university.

It sometimes amazes me the number of college professors that first served their country in uniform.  It seems as if that desire to serve, the need to be needed, does not go away after one takes off the uniform.  We are hired by all manner of colleges and universities, but are particularly attractive to small faith-based colleges and universities that can’t equal the compensation package of state universities.  Because we have a retirement pay and medical benefits we are generally willing to work for less and to follow our hearts and moral convictions rather than the money.  I owe the ability to work for less partially to my government retirement pay, but more because of the medical benefits.  I also owe it to the government that provided me a free PhD at the Uniformed Services University for the Health Sciences (USU) and arranged the classes so I could attend in the evening after work.

The policy decision that created a PhD in Nursing program at USU did consider that graduates would retire and then help address the faculty shortage by teaching.  Likewise, the decision to promote good pay and medical benefits was to encourage and support fully voluntary uniformed services in the U.S.  Since Vietnam not one person has been drafted.  This has not come without a cost to the taxpayer.  Yet, we must consider if the cost is worth the benefit.

Possible Consequences:

  • Fewer uniformed service retirees accept positions at colleges and universities resulting in their life experience being lost to students.
  • The money saved on salaries will be transferred to more unneeded planes, ships, and bombs and thus no actual cost savings.
  • A shift in the demographics in the uniformed services that is even less representative of the nation than the current military.
  • A less educated uniformed service because fewer are staying in for a full career.
  • Loss of institutional knowledge.

Possible Benefits:

  • A smaller uniformed service with fewer commitments to stay in for 20 year resulting in cost savings.
  • Service member leave younger with a commitment to continued work in public and community service and thus even more years to contribute.

I think we diminish what it means to serve one’s country when we complain about retirement pay that is more than 50% of people in the country earn working.  Granted all retirement pay is not equal. I know we made sacrifices.  I know that every move resulted in my husband giving up his job and starting over and earning less as a result.  I know we moved frequently enough that it was hard to buy homes without loosing money.  My concern is that when we make serving one’s country about money we risk attracting not the people who serve because they love their country, but people who see it as only a job and a good income. We risk attracting only those who want to get ahead and not those willing to risk displeasure for the good of the country.

When Congress votes on the current budget I hope they support the change to retirement pay, but I also think they need to add a provision to assess the impact it has on the number of retired officers and NCOs that choose to work for colleges, universities, and not-for-profit organizations.  If it found that it pushes these highly trained, efficient, and practical people away from these organizations and into the business world then I believe it will have a long-term negative impact on our social fabric and should be revised.

I loved getting up in the morning, putting on the uniform, and knowing that I worked for an organization that was bigger than me. I would have gladly taken the oath and given the country 20 years with fewer benefits because it wasn’t about the money.  It was about service to my country, caring for the poor and suffering, and being part of the mission to protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of the Nation.  I carried that commitment with me into my teaching and think it would be a huge loss if one of the adverse consequences were that fewer retired service members are willing teach after retirement.  One John Hopkins professor that came to work for us when I was still with the government said if he knew then (teaching) what he knows now (putting policy into action), he would have taught in a different way.   Likewise, what I have learned since I’ve been a college professor is that professors work harder than most people think and they do it for significantly less than the average officer.   More importantly, I’ve learned that we serve for the greater good and not for financial reward; and, in all we do we are teaching students the importance of service and leading by example.

Let us not be drawn into the greed demonstrated by those who do not understand service and do their job primarily for the financial reward.  I hope that most service members accept this spending bill with grace, knowing that we are and will still be well compensated for our service and have been given much by the taxpayers that fund our salaries and our retirement benefits.  We only need to look at those that are homeless, unemployed, disabled, or immigrants to remind us of how fortunate we are.  By our sacrifice there may be less sacrifice ask of those who have little.  We need to ask ourselves if we served for love of God and country or love of money.

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