Military service members might be given more options to save for retirement under proposals to reform the pay and perks offered to future generations of troops. But those changes also might cull the ranks of the Pentagon's most talented men and women in uniform.
A panel of White House-appointed experts mulled that problem in meetings Thursday with troops and families from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. More sessions are scheduled for Friday.
They're visiting the South Sound under the banner of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. Its nine commissioners will research and recommend adjustments to the Defense Department's compensation packages to put the Pentagon on more sustainable financial footing while continuing to attract people to an all-volunteer military.
It is not looking at any changes that would affect retirement plans for current service members or military retirees.
But it could recommend raising health care fees. It also could suggest changing a retirement system that gives veterans half of their pay if they stay in uniform for 20 years but nothing if they leave before then.
If Congress agreed, those adjustments would be offered to future enlistees, perhaps by requiring them to contribute a portion of their pay to a savings plan. Current service members would have a chance to opt in.
Under the current model, "if you leave at 14, 15 years in service, you're at a distinct disadvantage to your counterparts (in the private sector) who have had the opportunity to invest" in retirement plans, " said former Army Vice Chief of Staff retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli.
In some cases, commissioners also are looking to possibly reduce services the government expanded during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That includes popular programs such as commissaries and subsidized childcare.
"The generosity of this nation that we have seen over the war period is unsustainable, " said Col. Charles Hodges, base commander at Lewis-McChord.
Hodges addressed the commission in a morning meeting with two senior leaders from the 62nd Airlift, I Corps Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Ken Dahl and 7th Infantry Division Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Murphy.
The military leaders focused much of their conversation on potential changes to the retirement system. Last year, the military paid out $52.6 billion to retirees.
The Lewis-McChord leaders said the all-or-nothing model has been a powerful retention tool, helping them keep capable troops for 20 or more years.
Hodges said offering earlier retirement options could lead to an exodus of smart troops who are learning that the private sector values their experience.
"These are highly talented individuals with a lot of leadership experience that are very attractive to companies on the outside, " he said.
For the most part, the Lewis-McChord leaders suggested the military could afford to slow pay increases to troops while making changes that reduce some benefits they receive.
The 62nd Airlift Wing's senior enlisted soldier, Chief Master Sgt. Gordon Drake, said the pay must remain competitive with the private sector to retain airmen capable of working with advanced technology.
"I think we're compensated very, very well, " he said. "But I also think we deserve to be compensated well."
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com