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Editorial Comment — April 2012

No Time for Upside-Down Thinking ...

You could be forgiven if lately you've wondered whether the world hadn't turned upside down one dark and foggy night, and nobody was any the wiser but for a few budget and policy makers. There's no doubt that a tough job awaits anyone tasked with trying to turn the country's deficit financials back in the right direction, but some of the proposals they are receiving, and passing along, are not only disturbing, but also “wrong side up.”

Perhaps some of these policy advisors have been bungee jumping. Or, if they were standing on their heads to increase blood flow for clearer thinking, it didn't work.

If you thought that it seemed like only a few months ago that the last regular “combat” forces left Iraq after more than eight years' service there; that to date, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) rages on in Afghanistan after more than 10 years; that U.S. forces around the globe, from the Horn of Africa to the Philippines and a number of places many people have never heard of, continue to venture in harm's way — you'd be on the right track.

And if you thought that servicemembers and their families who've made all kinds of sacrifices in that time, and continue to do so, appear to have been forgotten by the Budget Super Committee, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and many in Congress, you would also be right on target. And military retirees, you ask? The message they've all too often been sent when it comes to their relevance to the budget process is, “Thank you for your service, now buzz off!”

Outside of the military resale community and a few other pockets of deep gratitude elsewhere, it's been a long, painful, and largely thankless decade for the military. It has also been a decade of great danger since Sept. 11, 2001, and all that has followed. But the budgeteers seem quick to forget that during that time these dangers have been staved off largely thanks to the courageous efforts of those who have served, and those who have supported them, both on the home front and downrange.

But because Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and New Dawn (OND) have ended, it doesn't mean all that danger has suddenly gone away. When Chairman of the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said in recent Congressional defense hearings, “America remains at war today with a ruthless and committed enemy,” he was just scratching the surface. This enemy doesn't count in budget cycles, it bides its time; it counts in decades and centuries, if not millennia. And it doesn't require much of a budget, either — its currency is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of envy and ill will. One can only hope that OEF, OIF and OND have done their job in deterring further attacks on the homeland, but for now the threat remains high, and our men and women in uniform are the nation's first line of defense and response when all hell breaks loose.

Now, however, that fiscal matters in the nation's coffers have gotten out of hand, guess who has become the target of convenience? As the debt crisis deepens with every passing day, some would opt to shelve the nation's pact with the military and their families, ignore their service over the last 10 years — and for that matter, the last 236 years — and make them pay for the nation's financial troubles, too. The less-than-1 percent of the population who serve have now been zeroed-in on to pay, through cuts to their benefits, for a fiscal mess that was none of their doing.

That's what we mean when we say some people surely must be looking at the picture upside down. If sequestration rolls out unimpeded, the military will be in the crosshairs to take an enormous hit, one that will more than double the $486.9 billion in Department of Defense (DoD) budget cuts already planned over the next 10 years. That's in addition to the $100 billion in DoD savings that Defense Comptroller Robert Hale said is “pretty much gone with the Budget Control Act; a lot of that is now out of the budget.”

While on the subject of things in danger of turning upside down, it seems that no matter how one tries to rationalize matching capabilities with needs, recently planned force reductions of some 80,000 Soldiers and 20,000 Marines don't jibe with a force strength that frequently requires servicemembers to endure as many as five, and sometimes even six deployments. Try to explain to them and their families that their capabilities are now covered by new technologies — when they have been separated from their loved ones for 60 or more of the last 120 months! For all the military's modern sophistication, it seems that personnel — boots on patrol, pilots in the air, Sailors guarding the shores, and operations crews in the drone control room — are still A-number-one when it comes to military capabilities.

Another head-scratcher: why it is that retirees are typically the last to be thought of when store openings and closings are considered? They served full military careers; many endured the rigors of the theater of combat, and yet suddenly, when the budget is tight, does all of that no longer count? Now that they are on a fixed income, to treat them as a lower class of benefit holder is another example of upside-down thinking.

By now, we've all become pretty familiar with this set of paradoxes, but one that perplexes perhaps the most is the one that should make the most sense: when it comes to crafting a budget, it would seem logical to fix the things that are broke, not toss a monkey wrench into those that deliver a positive return on investment.

Exchanges are essentially self-sustaining and deliver a dividend to morale, welfare and recreation (MWR), and have always provided a vital and flexible source of employment to military spouses and other dependents. Commissaries continue to grow transactions and sales while providing upwards of $2 in patron savings annually for every $1 in cost, not including other benefits such as employment of spouses and individuals with disabilities, and support for Wounded Warriors and federal set-asides. Unlike other benefits whose costs have risen dramatically in the last 10 years, appropriated funding for commissaries has held its line with tenacious efficiency since the inception in 1991 of the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), which remains a model of fiscal responsibility and effectiveness for the DoD.

But as stubby pencils begin scratching away at proposals that seek to end or erode various servicemember benefits, in preparation for a sequestration process that shows no signs of dropping off the agenda, it's no time to let upside-down thinking about servicemember benefits make its way into policy. That's something that for the last 50 years this page has had no time for, and it's not something that's going to start now.

In particular, during this Month of the Military Child, we hope that those who make the ultimate decisions on policy and budget keep in mind that all military resale patrons deserve what they earned, and were promised, when they donned the uniform and signed that blank check payable to the nation with their lives.

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