Commentary - Faith and loyalty: Thoughts on retirement benefits

by Gene Kamena
Professor of leadership, Air War College

8/26/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Senior military and civilian leaders inside the Department of Defense have the difficult task of conducting prudent planning in anticipation of impending budget reductions. As is expected, high-end and high-dollar equipment programs either have already been cut or are being eyed for the chopping block. Discussions as to what a right-sized military might look like is being debated, war-gamed and staffed around the Pentagon. These actions are not new and are expected in times of post-conflict reductions.

What is novel is that for the first time, at least in my memory, trial balloons are being floated concerning revamping of the military retirement benefits, a mainstay of military service and culture. The concept of a 401(k) type retirement package, supported with some degree of matched funds, with allowed withdrawals after reaching retirement age is the most frequently touted package on the table.

The men and woman who defend this nation are members of an all-volunteer force. They are professionals who choose to go where others will not. The idea of treating those who defend our freedoms in the same manner as retail-store employees is disconcerting. What is not clear in the current plans is where the break-point will be, who will be grandfathered into the current retirement system and who will be rolled into the 401(k) plan.

Much is demanded from service members and their families. Therefore, much should be given. Compensation should be at least commensurate to the level of service and sacrifice required. Those who have not served in the military might speculate, "Why should members of the military be treated differently than workers in the civilian community?" I know few, if any, civilians (except, on occasion, police and firemen) required to leave their families for long periods, asked to work long hours unbounded by union rules or common labor laws and placed intentionally in harm's way as terms of employment.

My concern is not just centered on those who are serving their nation today, but also for those who might (or might not) follow in the future. How does a nation entice the best and the brightest to serve the nation when compensation does not match demands? In today's economy, recruitment in terms of numbers is not the issue, but attracting qualified people is and will continue to be in the future.

When the economy rebounds, why would a young person commit to a life of sacrifice knowing the benefits are to a large extent on par with the civilian sector? Some people, even some present leaders, point to the virtue of selfless service as an innate quality to compensate shortfalls in compensation. To this I say, selfless service must never be taken for granted. Faith and loyalty are prerequisite before selfless service can pervade a professional force.

Selfless service is indeed based on the foundational principles of faith and loyalty. Characteristics of faith and loyalty flow in multiple directions. Reason also informs us that for faith and loyalty to be of real value, the levels of each must be balanced from lower to higher and vice-versa. The institution and leaders must show good faith and be loyal in the protection of service members, if service members are expected to demonstrate faith and loyalty not only to the nation but also to the institution of military service.

The current fiscal decisions are indeed a test of faith and loyalty for leaders in the Department of Defense and throughout our government. What makes the decision surrounding retirement benefits even harder is those who are affected most do not have a vote (except with their feet); therefore, the force waits and will see if their leaders will take a long view of the current fiscal challenge and if their leaders will pass a very significant test of faith and loyalty.