Last week the New York Times called the nation’s military-retirement program “another big social-welfare system.” This is a grossly unjust portrayal of what military retirement represents. It is not a government giveaway. Rather, it is part of a contract America makes with every service member when he or she enlists: If you give this nation 20 years of service, you will be able to retire at half pay at the end of that period.
As America’s two wars wind down and our national debt explodes, it may become necessary to take another look and make some adjustments to this contract. In fact, there are groups, such as the Defense Business Board, already making recommendations that are worthy of serious examination. However, anyone desiring to change the military’s retirement system must begin with the underlying understanding that it is not “social welfare.” Those receiving military retirement have earned it through sacrifices not demanded of any other government or private-sector employee. To see what I mean, it may be instructive to follow the path of a typical enlisted soldier who retired last year after 20 years of service.
Many of you are aware of the ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Any young man who enlisted as an infantry soldier in 1990 and retired in 2010 could be forgiven for believing that these words were aimed directly at him. Fresh out of boot camp, our typical infantry soldier was sent to the 24th Infantry Division, and was soon on his way to the Middle East as part of the force sent to evict the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Living under the most primitive conditions for months, our young private spends most of his time training. What free time he has is for writing home, repeatedly telling his folks to ignore the numerous predictions that at least 10,000 Americans will die if fighting erupts. Later, while lying under the stars and trying to ward off the desert chill, he wonders if he will be one of the 10,000, for he really has no reason to doubt the predictions. Finally, the assault begins, and our young private finds himself in one of the spearhead formations living through the fear and thrill of shredding several of Saddam’s much-vaunted Republican Guard divisions.
At the end of his first hitch, he reenlists and is promoted to sergeant, and is sent to Germany to join the 1st Armored Division. Our infantryman knows he is going to have to work and train hard. But, as the Cold War is over, he is also expecting a bit of downtime and a chance to see some of Europe. What he did not expect was to be ordered into the Balkans.
In late December 1995, the 1st Armored is sent to Bosnia to bring the long-running Yugoslavian violence to an end. For the troops to get to their destination, a pontoon bridge had to be thrown across the Sava River, which was experiencing its worst flooding in 70 years. Weather conditions were terrible all through the days of the bridge’s construction, and no better when the 1st Armored Division began its crossing. As our young sergeant led his armored vehicles across the makeshift bridge, a journalist asked a bystander, “What does this mean to you?” The reply: “It means peace. It is as simple as that.”