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.”
For the next year, our sergeant was busy trying to keep warring factions apart and trying to bring a sense of normalcy to a region torn by years of bloody civil and ethnic war. On any particular day our sergeant had no idea whether behind the next door he would find someone intent on killing him or a young girl needing protection so she could go to school.
Complicating matters was the fact that, as a sergeant, he was now responsible for the care and welfare of several soldiers only a couple of years younger than himself. He and his men spent a long and exhausting year in Bosnia before returning to Germany. He had only a brief interlude of quiet, and then the next year he was back in Kosovo doing the same thing.
After three years keeping the peace in a part of the world that for years had seen little but war, ethnic cleansing, and institutionalized killing and rape, it was time to return to the United States. Our soldier’s next few years as a team leader, and later a squad leader, were spent back in the 24th Infantry Division, now renamed the 3rd Infantry Division. Although he was no longer in a conflict zone, the world remained a dangerous place, and the Army he was a part of had to remain ready to meet any challenge. Although his schedule was more regular now, he still spent over half of every year in the woods training himself and the soldiers in his charge. Even when he was at home, his days typically began at 5:00 a.m. and ended long after dark.
The second half of our typical infantryman’s career saw him promoted to Sergeant First Class, where he cared for and trained a few dozen soldiers, and eventually to First Sergeant, where he was responsible for an entire company of close to 150 soldiers. Still with the 3rd Infantry Division, he spent most of 2002 in Kuwait preparing for the invasion of Iraq. And then, early the following year, he again was part of a spearhead unit, the one that conducted the 21-day blitz from Kuwait that culminated in the thunder runs into the center of Baghdad.
Unfortunately, capturing Baghdad was not the end of our soldier’s involvement in Iraq. Over the remaining seven years of his Army career he would spend half of that time in Iraq, while many of his brothers had alternate tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout this period he never much concerned himself with the politics of our involvement. His focus was always much more narrow and visceral: What do I have to do today to help destroy a violent extremist insurgency and to take as many of my men as possible home safely?
Along his journey he has seen good friends shot, burned, maimed, and mutilated. He has unashamedly cried over young soldiers lost on patrols he led, and then mustered the courage and strength to lead another patrol on the same streets the next day. He has been in dozens of firefights, and witnessed more than his share of the destruction caused by “improvised explosive devices.” In fact he counts himself very lucky to have walked away from two vehicles wrecked by such explosions. Even as he fights a deadly enemy day and night, he makes time to help build schools, give medical care, and dig irrigation ditches. Even when he finally returns to the United States, there is no true rest from the war. Rather, his days are spent in endless hours preparing himself and those in his charge for a return to the war zone, often after only six months at home.
If he somehow managed to find time to get married and start a family, then his wife and children are sharing many of his sacrifices. His wife has raised two children on her own for three or four of the last six years. She does so even as she deals with the stress of not knowing if this is the day she will be told her husband has been killed or seriously wounded. This is a fear that is never far removed from daily existence. And it is a fear made all the more real when, several times a year, she forces herself to endure the terrible pain of comforting a friend whose husband has made the ultimate sacrifice. Yes, she has known the joy of her husband’s safe return from war. Once or twice her smiles have even been caught by local TV news cameras. Those cameras, however, never seem to be around to witness her fortitude as she helps her husband decompress from the stress of a year in combat, while she is also doing everything she can to keep her children’s family life as normal as possible. And there never seem to be any cameras filming her tears when she has to wake long before dawn for the drive to the airfield, where she will once again say goodbye to her husband as he heads back to war for the third or fourth time since she said “I do.” And only the other wives have shared the overwhelming sadness of that long drive home wondering if she has just hugged her husband for the last time.
What is truly remarkable is that all of the above is not a singular story. It is one shared to some degree by almost every veteran who has served in the last 20 years. Sailors and airmen may not usually share the intimate horror of close combat typical of the infantryman’s experience, but their sacrifice is also great. Consider, for instance, the young submariner who spends endless months under the world’s oceans, or the Air Force mechanic working in 120-degree heat for 18 hours a day to keep the aircraft flying. Even as our military has spent most of the last decade fighting two wars, soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors have also been called on to help millions of victims of natural disasters in Pakistan, Indonesia, Haiti, and right here at home after Hurricane Katrina. In fact, there may never before in history have existed a military force so brutally efficient in combat, and also so able and willing to turn on a dime and start helping rebuild shattered lives.
This nation asks a lot of its military, and they have given in full measure. One soldier captured it all when he said to me after finishing 20 years of service: “I have given the Army, my country, and my brothers everything I had. If there is anything left in me it is going to go to my family.” When he departed the service he took with him a retirement paycheck of less than $25,000 a year. It was promised to him. He earned it.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.