The Mission & Military Compensation Reform

December 30, 2013

Sergeant Danny Vasselian died in Afghanistan two days before Christmas and outside the Trufant Real Estate office on Route 123 in his hometown of Abington, Massachusetts, there is a sign that says, “Semper Fidelis Sgt. Danny Vasselian. A true hero”.

Danny died at the end of a war that is ending slowly, and as it does end, many of us have found ourselves asking: “How will we look back?”

Will our struggle be relegated to signs like Danny’s that adorn quiet country roads and hang, tattered, from highway overpasses; or, will we go on to forge a path like our grandmothers and grandfathers did after the last shreds of confetti fell on Times Square in 1945?

With the din surrounding the Ryan-Murray Budget, I fear that the first seeds of our post-war history have already been sown.  The budget forged by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) includes a reduction to the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for pensions of retirees under age 62.  After age 62, the retirees will gain back what they would have earned during their working careers in a sort of one time catch-up payment.

Veterans have coalesced in anger over the reductions, and in the shadow of the post-World War I bonus army have begun to fight for their own cause.

In many ways, we have a right to be angry. The giant immovable apparatus that is the United States government finally has agreed on something and it turns out that agreement is cutting military benefits.  There’s a joke to be made there, but instead of a joke it has become a rallying cry that has turned our warfighters into daytime television pundits.

When I signed on the dotted line, I didn’t know what COLA stood for, and the GI Bill was a mystical piece of paper my grandfather built his farm with, not something I would later use to attend Georgetown University.

Call me ignorant, but I, like many of my brothers-in-arms, joined to go to war.  We thrived in harsh environments, and when we came home we honed the hardship experienced in combat into a drive motivating us to get jobs and go to school.  Combat became our varsity letter, a shroud of confidence we would use to get through days that might defeat those who hadn’t run towards the sound of the guns.

But, now we sit squabbling over the first budget passed since 2009.  While we should stand up and represent ourselves when, as veterans, we have been slighted, we also know that our benefits are the best in the world.  And, they will remain so despite any likely reforms that make their way to President Obama’s desk for his signature.

Today, our men and women in uniform are still dying in combat, and while our benefits are important, our rhetoric risks eclipsing the reason we have those benefits in the first place.  If we want to look back at this generation of service members with the firm belief that we did everything we could for our brothers and sisters in arms, the onus now should not be on our wellbeing, but on the missions that remains and the continued well-being of those fifty thousand people that remain fighting a war that our public is desperately trying to forget.

The world is not getting any friendlier; and if history is a guide, we are likely embarking on “another bloody century.”  Yet, the only way it will be another American century is if we, as the men and women who swore to protect this nation, continue to put our country before ourselves long after we’ve hung up the uniform.

As veterans we know, plans don’t last a minute under fire and that the motto “prepare for the worst; hope for the best” applies just as well to our lives after unformed service.  This setback is one of the first, and it won’t be the last.

So how will we look back?

The answer is we don’t.  Not yet.  The war isn’t over and many more will return like Danny Vasselian, with scores more needing rehabilitation, not retirement benefits.  There will be a time when we change far more than a cost of living adjustment and we step up to truly earn the moniker of “the next greatest generation”, but it doesn’t start with the Ryan-Murray budget.  It starts with Sergeant Danny Vasselian.

 

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a columnist at War on the Rocks. He served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion 6th Marines from 2007-2011 and participated in two deployments to Afghanistan. He is a student at Georgetown University and executive editor at The Hoya.

 

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dexter S. Saulisbury