Pay period at hand in committee meeting

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Uniformed leaders of America’s Reserve and Guard components have urged Congress to eliminate a host of “inequities” that mobilized troops face while serving alongside active-duty forces in the war on terror.
Compared to active duty brethren, deployed Reserve and Guard members see smaller and fewer re-enlistment bonuses, are ineligible for critical skill bonuses, face tighter payment rules on monthly special pays and, by law, can’t be offered bonus contracts while overseas, which denies them a tax advantage many active duty prize while in a war zone.
During hearings last Wednesday before separate panels of the Senate and House armed services committees, reserve component leaders, all three-star officers, acknowledged recent improvements in benefits, particularly expansion last year of pre- and post-deployment health coverage.
But deployed reservists, they said, still seek “fair and equitable treatment” with active-duty peers. That begins with pay parity between service members of equal rank and identical skills, when one is active duty and the other is an activated Reserve or National Guard member.
“There shouldn’t be a difference,” said Lt. Gen. James E. Sherrard III, chief of Air Force Reserve. Yet reservists are limited to one small re-enlistment bonus in their careers versus multiple bonus chances for active-duty enlisted. Reservists in some critical specialties have found they aren’t eligible for specialty bonuses paid to active-duty members in the same jobs.
Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, chief of Army Reserve, said he had consulted staff lawyers before telling reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan that if they re-enlisted they were eligible for a new $10,000 Army bonus. He had 11 signed contracts before he learned the program did not apply to Reserves.
The gains these officers seek for their troops represent a kind of middle ground on this year’s spectrum of possible Reserve and Guard benefit enhancements. Other witnesses pushed at opposite ends of that spectrum.
The most cost conscious was Thomas F. Hall, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. Representing the Bush administration, Hall advised the committees not to approve new, costly entitlements, specifically not initiatives to lower, from 60 to 55, the age at which reserve retirement pay begins. He also advised they not open TRICARE, the military’s triple healthcare option, to all drilling reservists who pay a modest premium.
Analysts for RAND, the defense think-tank, are studying how changes in reserve retirement would impact recruiting and retention, Hall said. Preliminary results suggest lowering the threshold to age 55 would cost $7 billion over 10 years without a significant gain in recruiting, retention or readiness.
Much of the earlier benefit would go not to reservists deployed for war today, Hall said, but to more than 100,000 reservists who have decided to retire and are no longer serving.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chairman of the military personnel subcommittee, questioned whether RAND had considered the expense of losing experienced reservists at mid-career for lack of a better retirement.
Hall said the Guard actually could lose valuable civilian technicians in lowering the retirement age because some of them already serve beyond 55.
The Senate’ 2005 budget resolution includes fiscal headroom for the armed services committee to vote this year to authorize TRICARE enrollment for drilling reservist and family.
That would not be “the wisest” use of defense dollars, Hall said.
“We only have a certain amount of money to spend,” he said. “We need to target it toward those serving and bearing the brunt today.”

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com