Metro-East News

Roger That: Panel urges military to move to retirement system that includes 401(k)

Belleville News-Democrat reporter Mike Fitzgerald
Belleville News-Democrat reporter Mike Fitzgerald News-Democrat

Big changes could be coming to the way the Pentagon determines which troops get retirement pay and under what conditions, according to DefenseOne.com.

Congress is moving ahead with proposals connected to recent findings from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, a Congress-ordered group, which recommended earlier this year that the military switch from an inflexible defined-benefit plan to a blended retirement plan that includes 401(k) investment options for all service members.

Under the existing system, the commission found, 83 percent of men and women in uniform exit the armed forces without any retirement funds. Only those who stick around for 20 years are given the sweetest retirement deal — pensions for life. The commission concluded the current system is not fair to the rest of the military, hurts recruitment and doesn’t reflect the modern workforce.

Both the House and Senate versions of the defense authorization bill include language largely reflecting the commission’s recommendations. They would make retirement savings available to 75 percent of service members, excluding only those who serve less than two years.

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Nineteen years ago Thursday, terrorists bombed Khobar Towers near King Abdul-Aziz AB, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Air Force personnel and injuring 300 others. It was the worst terrorist attack against American military personnel since the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon. USAF personnel were in Saudi Arabia to support Operation Southern Watch.

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A senior Pentagon personnel official is spearheading a top-to-bottom overhaul of the way the military manages its personnel, as directed by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, according to Air Force Times.

Despite a “revolution” in civilian human resources, the military retains an antiquated personnel system, which Brad Carson, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, called "a Polaroid in the time of digital cameras, once the cutting edge, but now superseded.

“It is my firm belief that the current personnel system, which has satisfactorily served us for, well, for 75 years now, has become outdated,” Carson said. “What once worked for us has, in the 21st century, become unnecessarily inflexible and inefficient.”

Despite 66 human resources computer systems for tracking pay, the military does a poor job of gauging skills required for jobs and finding people who have them. Carson said the networking site LinkedIn is a better way to learn about troops’ career aspirations and skills than a standard officer record brief.

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The White House has taken away a major barrier long standing in the way of studies into the use of medical cannabis to treat victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments, according to Military.com.

The Health and Human Services Department has published in the Federal Register its announcement eliminating Public Health Service reviews of marijuana research projects not funded by the government.

“The significance is that the Obama Administration is making formal a decision that they made informally more than a year ago,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which plans to conduct a study whose test subjects include 76 veterans.

The Veterans Affairs Department estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from PTSD. For veterans of the Persian Gulf War, the estimate is 12 percent, and for Vietnam veterans, 15 percent.

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Women have always played a key role in the American military, and their role is likely to become more prominent than ever as combat jobs once open only to men become open to both genders, according to the book “Women at War,” the first book detailing what war does to the physical and mental health of the growing number of women waging it.

A story in Time magazine about the book and its co-authors, Army veterans Elspeth Cameron Ritchie and Anne L. Naclerio, notes that their book doesn’t wade into the controversy over whether women have the physical strength to accomplish the mission in a combat zone. Instead, it collects widely-scattered data about what combat does to women and puts it in one place to serve as guidance as the number of female soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines slowly rises.

Some 2.5 million women have served in uniform since the Revolutionary War, “Women are already in combat,” says Ritchie, a psychiatrist who earned three combat patches before retiring from the Army as a colonel in 2010.

“Given recent policy changes, by January 2016 it is expected that all military occupations, positions, and units will be open to women,” she adds, “thus ensuring that they will play even larger roles in future military operations,” according to a forward written by Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army surgeon general.

The number of women engaged in major U.S. combat operations is steadily growing. They climbed from 770 in 1989’s Panama invasion, to 41,000 in 1991’s Gulf War, to 300,000 in the post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. About 15 percent of U.S. troops today are female. They represented 10 percent of those deployed to Iraq between 2003 and 2011, and 8 percent of those sent to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2013.

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