Begich pushing to restore veteran benefits

Photo by Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC.

Photo by Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC.

Veterans and military members in Alaska and around the country have been outraged at Congress since December, when lawmakers passed a budget that would trim their retirement benefits, starting in 2015.

All three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation voted for that budget, even though they oppose the military pension decrease.

Senator Mark Begich yesterday stood with a group of veterans before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and pledged to restore the nearly $6 billion decrease.

At first, the cut doesn’t sound like much. It would drop a retiree’s cost-of-living adjustment below the inflation rate until the veteran reaches age 62. But some enlistees retire and start collecting their pensions while still in their 30s, so this COLA cut could mean diminished benefits for two and a half decades.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says for some individuals, it adds up to an $80,000 sacrifice.

“But I think most importantly it’s a broken promise,” Rieckhoff said. “This is America breaking their promise to men and women in uniform, and it’s unprecedented.”

Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state, and they’re relatively young.  More than a quarter of them have served since 2001. It’s no surprise, then, that Alaska’s congressional delegation is getting an earful. Sen. Begich says he’s heard from more than 800 Alaskans objecting to the cut.

“I can tell you, the calls to me office are coming in 2-to-1, 3-to-1 over the next most popular issue, healthcare,” Begich said. “So this issue has taken front and center.”

Begich defends his vote for the budget containing the COLA cut, saying it was necessary to prevent another government shutdown. More than a dozen bills have been introduced to rollback the COLA cut. It’s a popular position in Congress, and Begich, running for re-election this year, sides with the veterans.

“When these heroes signed up and made the military a career, it’s what they were promised and what they expected, and they should expect no less now,” Begich said.

He isn’t proposing a specific way to pay for the rollback but says finding the money – $6 billion over 10 years – won’t be too difficult.

Some lawmakers are proposing to take it out of the Defense budget – exactly what the Pentagon fears. Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that something must be done to rein in personnel costs, which he says are unsustainably high. He says military compensation has been climbing since the 1990s and is now higher on average when compared to equivalent civilian jobs. Winnefeld says the growing cost threatens the Defense Department’s ability to prepare the troops.

“In the end, we believe the most important way we keep faith with the fantastic young men and women who volunteer to defend our nation is to only send them into combat with the best possible training and equipment we can provide,” Winnefeld said. “Controlling compensation growth in a tough budget environment will help us do just that.”

But even he says he can’t support the COLA cut that Congress passed.

Winnefeld says such a change should include a grandfather clause to exempt current retirees and service members.

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