Hiring Veterans: Just what is a “Veteran”, anyway?

Hiring Veterans – a resource for Human Resources Professionals, Hiring Managers, and companies that want to hire and retain talented veterans.  

Part 1:  Just what is a “Veteran”, anyway?

This is the first in a string of posts to help demystify the complex world of veteran employment from the perspective of the employer.  There are literally thousands of articles, blog posts, and books about how to help veterans find a job, which is great.  There is a surprising lack of content out there, however, on how a company can best find, recruit, hire, train, and retain veterans.  That is what this and the following posts are all about –  helping hiring managers, Human Resources professionals, executives, supervisors, and the countless other people in a company understand how to bring veterans into their organizations and, more importantly, how to keep them. Veterans bring an exceptional set of technical skills to the workplace, and they have experience working with others, leading teams, accomplishing complex and time competitive tasks, operating under stress, exhibit inherent flexibility, and myriad other abilities and talents that any company would greatly benefit from.

Unfortunately, successfully hiring veterans is not that easy.  Depending on where your company is located, you may have difficulty finding a pool of veteran candidates with the skills that you need.  Are there any military bases close by?  Is there an active community of veterans that you can reach out to?  Do you know what skill sets veterans have?  These questions and more can prove to be very challenging for a hiring manager.

There are some very compelling reasons to hire veterans.  In addition to the skills and dedication that those who have worn the cloth of the nation bring, there are financial and tax incentives at the federal and state levels that can add up to tens of thousands of dollars in grants, tax credits, or other benefits for employers.  We’ll address those in a future post.

For companies holding government contracts there are explicit affirmative action requirements concerning veterans, including a ruling that was released in 2013 that broadened the definition of veteran status in terms of employment.  Known as the Affirmative Action and Nondiscrimination Obligations of Contractors and Subcontractors Regarding Special Disabled Veterans, Veterans of the Vietnam Era, Disabled Veterans, Recently Separated Veterans, Active Duty Wartime or Campaign Badge Veterans, and Armed Forces Service Medal Veterans rule, it is an update on previously existing regulations comes from the Department of Labor’s Office of Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP).  The rule establishes a veteran hiring benchmark of 8% (with the intention of having a contractor’s roster of employees mirror the population of veterans in the nation’s workforce) and levies an extensive list of data collection and reporting requirements on firms with government contracts of more than $100,000 and/or more than 50 employees.

The best place to start is to begin by defining what a veteran is in terms of employment, and how it impacts a company’s Affirmative Action Plan. Simply serving in the military is enough to earn the title of “veteran”, but the title alone does not provide any advantages in terms of meeting a company’s affirmative action requirements.  To be able to meet the benchmark objectives set by OFCCP for compliance a veteran must fall into the “Protected Veteran” category as defined within the ruling. While the rule is a thrilling read (which you can download from the Federal Register here), to help get straight to the point here is a quick breakdown of the requirements to be considered a protected veteran along with examples of documentation which proves eligibility:

1.  Disabled Veteran status.  A disabled veteran is one who is entitled to compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.  A Special Disabled Veteran is one with a VA-assigned disability rating of 30% or greater (or 10% – 20% in case the veteran is determined to have a serious employment handicap) or was discharged or released from active duty because of a service-connected disability.

Documentation:  The Department of Veterans Affairs provides a Summary of Benefits letter to the veteran which denotes his or her disability rating.

2.  Veterans who served on active duty during a war or in a campaign or expedition.  In terms of this regulation, the last war was World War II, although active duty service for more than 180 days between August 5 1964 and May 7 1975 counts to establish protected veterans status as a “Vietnam Era Veteran” whether or not the veteran actually served in Vietnam.  All of the operations since 1945 are considered to be campaigns or expeditions, and to be considered a protected veteran a serviceman or servicewoman must have participated and received a campaign medal or badge as a result.  This can be confusing, but in a nutshell if a veteran served overseas in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Vietnam or Korea then that veteran is a protected veteran.

Documentation:  The Department of Defense provides the veteran with a Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty (DD-214), which contains the dates of service and lists all decorations and awards earned in section 13.  If a veteran has a campaign or expeditionary medal, then they are considered protected.  Service medals, except the Armed Forces Service Medal (below), do not count.

3.  Veterans who served on active duty and were awarded the Armed Forces Service Medal.  The Armed Forces Service medal is awarded for military operations that are not considered to be campaigns or expeditions, which essentially means non-combat or non-hostile operations.

Documentation:  As listed above, if section 13 of the DD-214 lists the Armed Forces Service Medal then the veteran is considered protected.  This is the only service medal medal that meets the requirement (the National Defense Service Medal and Global War on Terror Service Medal do not count).

4.  Recently discharged veterans.  Veterans who have been discharged for three years or less, regardless of whether they meet the requirements of 1, 2, or 3 above.

Documentation:  The DD-214 lists the date of release from active duty/discharge.

Those requirements are all pretty straightforward.  But what about people who served in the National Guard or Reserves?  That is where things get complicated. While those who serve in the Guard and reserve are veterans of the service, they may not fall in the protected veteran category.  Here is a breakdown of eligibility for Guard and reserve:

1.  Traditional service.  Guard/reserve personnel who serve out their obligations by only performing their weekend drills and annual training requirements are not protected veterans.  Even though they serve on active duty during their initial training periods, this service alone is not enough.

2.  Activated or mobilized for Federal service.  Guard/reserve personnel who are ordered to active duty are considered to be protected veterans if they deploy in support of a war, campaign, expedition or an operation that qualifies for the Armed Forces Service Medal.  If they are placed in federal service and do not deploy as listed above then they are not protected veterans.

Documentation:  Section 13 of the DD-214, which lists the medals that the veteran was awarded, just as with regular active duty veterans.

3.  Disabled veteran status.  As with active duty, Guard/reserve personnel who are entitled to disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs are considered to be protected veterans.

Documentation:  The same as for active duty – the Department of Veterans Affairs provides a Summary of Benefits letter to the veteran which denotes his or her disability rating.

Hopefully this helps human resources professionals and hiring managers understand how veterans are defined under the new OFCCP ruling.  If you have any comments, please do let me know!  Next we’ll dive into incentives for hiring veterans…

 

 

Helping New Jersey’s Veterans Find Jobs: Recareering Event at Excelsior Medical on May 13th

New Jersey has over 463,000 veterans in the state, and unfortunately it has the dubious honor of having the highest unemployment rate for veterans in the country. According to information released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the state had an unemployment rate for veterans of 10.8 percent in 2013.

Fortunately, there are some great companies that are eager to hire veterans.  Not because of a sense of pity, but instead because they recognize the remarkable value that someone who has served in uniform brings to their ranks; someone who will show up on time, knows how to lead and how to follow, how to effectively function in diverse and challenging environments, and the dozens of other traits that every veteran or transitioning military person has inculcated through their service.

Excelsior Medical is one such company.  On May 13th they will be hosting a daylong recareering workshop for transitioning military and veterans.  There is no cost to veterans and meals and parking are included.  The event will include one-on-0ne mentoring with veterans who already work at the hosting company as well as human resources experts and hiring managers who will work with the veterans to improve their resumes, refine job-seeking skills like interviewing and effective social networking, and to interview qualified veterans for jobs. Space is limited to 20 veterans at Excelsior Medical on May 13th.

To register and reserve a seat at the event, follow this link  http://www.mvpvets.org/mvpvets-event-interest-form or go to the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program website at www.mvpvets.org and follow the “Mentor and Veteran Workshop” link under “events”.

How Ethicon and Johnson and Johnson are helping veterans find new careers

I spent yesterday in New Jersey, where Ethicon (a Johnson and Johnson company) partnered with the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program (MVP) hosted 15 veterans in their Somerville headquarters. The veterans were paired with mentors from a half dozen supporting companies, and were able to participate in a full day of industry familiarization, job seeking skill building, resume review, social media branding, and networking.

The CEO of Johnson and Johnson, Alex Gorsky, and the President of Ethicon, Dan Wildman, both took time from their incredibly busy schedules to address the participants.  As if that were not enough commitment from the organization to help veterans, the day culminated with the J&J Talent Acquisition team opening showing how participants could access the thousands of job openings across the J&J family of companies.  It was a testament to how the company is a leader in the veteran employment space, and it is the first of what will become an annual event.

The event is one of six that MVP will be conducting with Life Science companies this year.  The next event is scheduled for May 13th, where Excelsior Medical will be hosting up to 20 veterans at their headquarters in Neptune, New Jersey.  Other events will be held in Chicago, San Diego, Minneapolis, and Boston, so if you are in any of these areas please consider attending!  The events are free for veterans, and each company will be sharing job opportunities as a part of the event.

For more information about upcoming events and the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program, go to http://www.mvpvets.org and scroll down to the upcoming events section of the landing page.

If you would like to participate, sign up!  We are looking for veterans to participate in every event, and the opportunity to learn about the life science industry and how companies operate is an opportunity that is very different from a job fair or career seminar.

I hope to see you at one of the events!

The Drawdown Hits Home

Yesterday I had the great fortune to run into a Marine that I had the pleasure to work with while I was still on active duty.  The young sergeant, who had served honorably and faithfully for eight years and through three wartime deployments, shared with me that despite his overwhelming desire to stay in uniform and continue to serve the nation that he was being forced out of the Marine Corps.  Not because of anything he did – in fact just the opposite.  He was forced out because he loved what he was doing, but because of his success and the successes of countless thousands of others in uniform the need for so many Marines (and Soldiers and Sailors and Airmen) has diminished.  With the end of our active wars overseas comes the end of the need for the large military that had fought them, and with then of the need for so many uniformed military men and women comes the need to shrink the force.

That need is why such a talented, motivated, professional, and dedicated Marine NCO is being shown the door.  Along with thousands and thousands of professionals just like him.

Earlier in the week I attended an event in which LtGen John Toolan, the Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, shared his personal dilemma in regards to the downsizing of the military.  His command, which has been on the absolute tip of the spear in Iraq and Afghanistan (having had elements ranging from platoons to divisions deployed to both theaters), is facing the practical realities of a contracting military.  He had over 4000 re-enlistment requests sitting on his desk (not really sitting there, but awaiting action from his headquarters) from Marines who want to continue to serve.

He only had the authority to approve 400 of them.

The effect of the reduction in forces is that one in ten Marines who want to stay in and continue to serve are able to do so.  The other nine are headed out the door to a future that does not include the career that they had anticipated.  Those nine are headed back into the society they served, and they will all need jobs once they arrive.

Josef Stalin once said that one death is a tragedy and one million is a statistic.  In the context of a career that is cut short by a shrinking military his words are strikingly relevant nearly a century after he uttered them.  One serviceman or servicewoman whose career is ended because of the vicissitudes of DOD force structure is indeed a tragedy because of the unfulfilled future to which they had dedicated their lives, but the tens of thousands who are being pushed out the door are just a statistic.

Edmund Burke also observed that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.  If those of us who inhabit the society in which those in uniform will return simply look at the statistics and shrug them off, then we are guilty of failing each and every new veteran and allowing the evil of unemployment and underemployment to befall those who have ensured that our society remains free and unfettered by the shackles of tyranny.

So ask yourself: is the drawdown a cascade of individual tragedies that we can collectively help avert or a statistic that we will collectively ignore, or is there something we can do to make sure that the careers that they were not fulfilled in uniform can be created once they hang up the cloth of the nation?

 

A few thoughts on job and career fairs, part 3: Industry sponsored events

Job and career fairs are not all the same, and this is the third in a string of posts about the different types of transitioning military and veteran job and career fairs.  In the last post we explored fairs that focus on open events held on military bases, and in this post we will shift from military bases to industry sponsored events in which a specific company, group of companies, or an industry hosts an event that focuses on their specific area.

Industry specific opportunities are usually centered around providing insights for veterans and transitioning military into what businesses within the industry specialize in, such as manufacturing, oil and gas production, financial services, and healthcare.  They are usually held outside the realm of military bases at either a hosting company’s facility or a hotel or conference center.  There is usually no cost for transitioning military or veterans to attend, and often there are industry-centered orientation an training seminars offered during the event.  Since the seminars are hosted by companies or groups of companies, there are usually hiring managers present with job opportunities in hand that they want to fill with the veterans who participate in the seminar.

One example is the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program (MVP), which conducts recareering seminars for veterans and transitioning military that are sponsored and supported by companies within the life sciences industry.  These events are held at sponsoring company headquarters or training centers, and offer an inside view of the hosting business and the larger industry, along with skills building training and mentorship.  MVP will be conducting two such events in New Jersey during the next two months, the first of which will be held at Ethicon, a Johnson and Johnson company on April 29th, 2014.  For more information, follow this link to the press release for the event, and it is republished below as well:

MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program Announces New Jersey’s First Veteran and Transitioning Military Re-careering Seminar

SOMERVILLE, N.J.April 2, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — On April 29th, the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program(www.mvpvets.org) will host its inaugural re-careering event for transitioning military and veterans in New Jersey.  Military personnel in transition from service and honorably discharged veterans are invited to apply for the opportunity to participate in this free one day seminar that will include active one-on-one mentoring, industry specific training, eLearning enrollment, and personal engagement with hiring managers seeking to employ program participants.

The event brings veterans and transitioning military together with mentors from the medical technology industry while they participate in active sessions that include resume review and refinement, job interview training and rehearsals, creating a professional online presence in social media, and networking. Hiring managers from companies strongly desiring to hire transitioning military and veterans participate in the program as mentors, trainers, and interviewers.

The event on April 29 will be hosted by Ethicon, Inc., a global leader in the medical device industry, at their Somerville facility.

Participants will be able to submit their resumes for review and editing the week prior to the event so that they can be thoroughly prepared for submission to hiring managers. Additionally, each participant will be provided with personal business cards for use in networking and job-seeking.  Capacity for this event is 30 people maximum.

There is no cost for participating veterans and transitioning military.  All materials, breakfast, lunch, and parking are provided free of charge.  Transitioning military and veterans interested in participating in the program can apply at the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program website (http://www.mvpvets.org/public-events/mentor-and-veteran-workshop-new-jersey/registration.html)

About the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program (MVP):
The MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program is a nonprofit organization with the mission to bring 5,000 veterans and transitioning military into the Life Sciences by 2018.  Co-founded by  Abiomed (www.abiomed.com) and Zero Boundaries Global (www.zbglobal.com), MVP brings active mentorship together with an integrated collaborative online portal and eLearning from the Life Collaborative in a concerted effort to help those who have served the country in uniform re-career into meaningful and impactful careers in the MedTech, MedDevice, BioTech, Pharmaceutical, BioFuels, and Wireless Medical Technology sectors across a variety of corporate functional areas such as project management, supply chain, quality, and many others. http://www.mvpvets.org

 SOURCE MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program

(In the interest of full disclosure, I serve as the Chief Operating Officer for the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program, which is a 501(c)3 fiscally sponsored nonprofit organization that aims to recareer 5,000 veterans and transitioning military into the life sciences by 2018)

A few thoughts on job and career fairs, part 2: Open events held on base

I have attended literally dozens of career and jobs fairs, and along the way I have learned a great deal about how they operate.  They are not all the same, and this is the second post in a series about the different types of transitioning military and veteran job and career fairs.  In the last post we explored fairs that focus on a specific niche of veterans, and in this post we will go in the opposite direction by looking at the broadest type of job and career fair: open events held on military bases.

Although these events are not limited to military bases, the vast majority of these job fairs are indeed located on military installations.  Held in conjunction with transition assistance activities, their targeted group of participants is primarily transitioning military personnel.  I have never seen one that turns veterans away from the door, but it is important to recognize that the companies that are participating in these events are primarily looking to fill jobs that are entry level in nature.  These are also large events and tend to be well attended by job seekers and participating companies to the point of being crowded.  It is important to recognize that these events are great opportunities to go meet representatives from numerous diverse companies and organizations in order to learn more about opportunities and to see if there is something out there that you would like to pursue.  It is also important to recognize that it is not the place to start handing out resumes with the expectation that a hiring manager has been waiting all day for you to show up so that they can hire you.

These events are much more like going to a high school dance without a date; you can socialize with a lot of potential dance partners but you are not going to get married on the dance floor.  Unfortunately, I have had many people in transition lament that they handed out resume after resume at such an event and nobody ever called them back.  As a result, they become frustrated and cynical about job fairs.

That is too bad, because these types of fairs are great for those in transition to see what is out there.  If you recognize that up front, then you will have a great opportunity to learn more about companies, industries, jobs, and possible careers.  If not, then you risk missing a great opportunity to network.

The best way to find out about these types of career fairs is to look them up at your local military base.  Every service has a transition assistance office, and they are the POC for upcoming events.  Here is a link to an event at Camp LeJeune on March 26th:  Job fair targets transitioning military  If you are in the area, check it out.  Just remember that it is much more of a networking opportunity than an onsite job interview opportunity.

In the next post we will look at industry-focused opportunities.

A truly insightful look into the 1st, 2d, and 3d order effects of breaking the military retirement promise

This is a repost of Tony Carr’s exceptional piece on the effects, both intended and unintended, of breaking the nation’s commitment to its military retirees.  The implications of changing the COLA for the military retirement plan go infinitely deeper than simply saving the taxpayer six billion dollars.  In my humble opinion this article is the best yet written on the COLA debate, and you can go to the original posting at John Q. Public.

Risk and Promise: Strategic Advice for Congress

Since 1973, America has relied on volunteers to fight its wars, and they have relied on America to take care of them when the fighting is over.

Led by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray but abetted by Barack Obama, Congress recently gambled with our nation’s future for an extremely modest short-term gain. In doing so, it was given aid and comfort by knowledge-starved pundits, axe-grinding editorial boards, and self-anointed armchair analysts everywhere, as it  left the military and veteran community standing with their jaws on the ground in despairing disbelief.  Exploiting pressure to strike a budget compromise, Ryan and Murray entered into an unholy alliance to reduce veteran pensions – including those already vested under previous covenants – by an average of $84,000 to $120,000.  They obscured this act, as often happens when attempting to mislead, by employing complex-sounding budget doublespeak to minimize the magnitude of the associated moral breach as well as the consequences to veterans and families.  In a way, this debacle can be seen as part of our nation’s continual inability to comprehend and bear the costs of being a global superpower with quasi-imperial interests secured by less than one-half of one percent of its population.  But the particulars in this case suggest something more disturbing lurking behind the standard wallet-grabbing Congressional milieu: a startling absence of strategic deliberation.  When such a deficit impairs elected leaders responsible for national security, potentially grave consequences attend.

Good strategists always ask of any potential course of action two key questions.  First, what will this do for us?  And second, what will this do to us?  Given the dearth of statesmanly impulse at the national level in modern America, it is perhaps unsurprising that in crafting the recent budget, Paul Ryan and Patty Murray asked only the former question, leaving the latter for others to worry about.

The provision at issue retroactively renegotiated the deferred compensation of more than two million military veterans – including tens of thousands still serving in harm’s way — who did their duty in reliance on promises around which they structured their lives. The vast majority of these veterans endured historically abusive operational tempos. Most will carry with them the invisible scars of war for the rest of their lives, running up against psychological limits that in subtle but consequential ways – ways no one who hasn’t served could possibly understand even if veterans were immodest enough to attempt explanation.

Many transitioned out of military service (or will in the future) to find that their skills and capabilities did not translate well in the private sector.  This can slow earnings growth, making an earned military pension critical during the adaptation to civilian life in a down economy.  Those retirees fortunate enough to preserve their marriages have typically dragged spouses through a dozen or so relocations, never giving them a chance to establish professional footing.  This is key, not just in terms of the sacrifices rendered by military families, but in economic terms; in modern America, two incomes are now required to generate the same standard of living one income provided thirty years ago, and this is often beyond the reach of retired military families who have led very abnormal lives prior to retirement.

The All-Volunteer Force relies heavily on the 17% of its members who choose to serve for a career, most of whom are NCOs.

The shorthand employed by Ryan to sell his beloved pension cut envisions healthy, well-adjusted, fattened mercenaries stepping into corporate America to collect millions during the balance of their working years.  How he arrived at this vision boggles the imagination; most retirees struggle to integrate into a new workplace with skills that don’t directly translate while trying to keep pace with competitors roughly half their age.  73% of retirees are noncommissioned officers whose pensions are barely sufficient to keep them above the poverty line.  As a rule of thumb, these people are figures of sympathy rather than valid targets of the socialistic “they don’t need it anyway” notion behind Ryan’s sales pitch.

Ryan and Murray obviously weren’t thinking about these issues.  They also weren’t thinking about the fact that every veteran who has retired since the year 2000 made a decision upon reaching 15 years of service: either turn down a $30,000 career status bonus and retain an inflation-protected pension upon reaching retirement, or accept the bonus and also accept a 1% annual reduction in cost-of-living adjustment with a one-time “catch-up” at age 62.  Most veterans chose inflation protection, which ends up being worth far more in most calculations than the bonus. In summarily removing inflation protection from all military pensions, Congress breached the contract formed with those who turned down the 15-year bonus.  It did this without holding a single committee meeting or public hearing. In a clear signal it wasn’t thinking strategically, Congress did this in a back room not populated by the joint chiefs, who claim to have been surprised by the provision altogether.

But this all makes sense if Ryan and Murray were only asking “what will this do for us?” And it did a couple of things.  First, it bought them the public acquiescence of the service chiefs, who are desperate for funds given the limits of sequestration imposed without mission relief.  Their only option to preclude mission failure is to hold open the gate while others raid the pensions of the very people whose interests they’re charged to safeguard.  This perversely explains why they said nothing as a provision impacting the career decisions of every active duty and retired member of the military sailed through uncontested.

But what the provision really did for those who championed it was to lay the groundwork for a new funding stream to perpetuate pork barrel spending.  If this provision sticks, Congress will have retroactively renegotiated the compensation contracts of more than two million war veterans during a time of war.  If a promise of this magnitude can be rendered so cheap with so little effort, nothing is sacred. This will create broad legitimacy for further pension and benefit raiding, making this just the first of many breached promises and a lucrative source of cash by which Congress can purchase electoral advantage.  It does this by funding needless bases and infrastructure (to supply jobs in their districts), by acquiring and continuing to operate needless weapons (again, jobs), and by continuing to support the nation’s promiscuous involvement in wars of choice that are a boon for defense contractors and war profiteers . . . and therefore, a steady source of votes and contributions.  Footnote: this is an election year.

The Ryan-Murray pension-raid was not a “mistake” as some have claimed and as I’ve suggested elsewhere is a fallacious notion.  It was a calculated breach of the faith for short-term political advantage.  Ryan, Murray, Obama, Hagel, and the rest of those who pushed and supported this knew they were acting immorally, but were willing to accept doing so out of a rational calculation of what it would do for them.  What they didn’t ask is what it might do to them . . . or more importantly, what it might do to us, the nation they claim to lead.

In the modern age, politicians tend to be tacticians rather than strategists.  They’re interested in winning a series of short-term battles that supply them with talking points for use in the next election.  This is so because getting elected has replaced principled leadership as the contemporary political raison d’etre.  By extension, raising campaign funds has come to dominate the activity of elected representatives, displacing time and focus essential to strategic reflection. But in failing to take a sober, adult look at the future when making decisions, politicians assume huge risks on the behalf of the nation as they collect rewards that fall narrowly to them.  When it comes to the legal heist recently carried out against veteran pensions, the risks are enormous.

Alienating today’s warriors risks destroying the willingness of others to step forward in the future.  Military service is very much a family business; it’s difficult to find an active member who isn’t acting on the example of a relative or ancestor. Military service immerses individual warriors in a system of values rooted in honor, trust, and commitment.  This makes them particularly sensitive to moral compromises.  Ordinarily content to serve with quiet obedience, military members will not hesitate to sound off when they see an obvious moral wrong perpetrated (and woe betide us as a country if ever they became blithely accepting of such wrongs).  They’ve shown in the past few weeks that attempts to breach trust with them will not go unnoticed or unmarked.  The implication for politicians is clear: when you break a promise, you’re tampering with the delicate formula upon which the strength and vitality of the all-volunteer force is based.  The consequences to future American security could be severe, and should be studied carefully before risking even the perception of a moral breach.  Pension formulas were last disturbed in the mid-1990s, creating a retention crisis that sent the joint chiefs panicking to the Hill, where they persuaded Congress to restore a 50 percent, inflation-adjusted retirement package.  All we’ve done since then is ask even more of our volunteers, and nothing suggests they are today any less sensitive to these kinds of budgetary shenanigans.

Politicians claim a choice between readiness and personnel funding, but this is a false choice. Tampering with promised pensions could fundamentally injure readiness by hurting morale and chilling volunteerism.

But there’s a deeper and more insidious risk already touched upon, and that’s the risk attendant to avoiding genuine reform of our defense institutions.  It’s true that current defense spending is unsustainable.  It’s not true that this is a result of personnel costs.  They’ve remained constant at about 25% of defense spending since 2001 (despite two manpower-intensive wars) and are down from 30% of spending since 1991.  Other elements of defense spending have grown explosively over the same period of time.  The nation has expensively fast-tracked new capabilities from scratch as a result of being caught strategically off-guard by 9/11 (this, in turn, is attributable in part to the recklessly rapid pace of intelligence downsizing in the prior decade, which afforded America reduced global awareness as the calculus of national security shifted wholesale). It has also fielded costly new weapons systems in an attempt to contend with an uncertain future, virtually all of them coming up short of expectations and over budget as a result of a dated acquisition process riddled with misplaced influence and needless red tape.  Meanwhile, unneeded bases remain open and their facilities remain operating due to Congressional obstruction, and no serious discussion concerning service roles and missions has been undertaken in nearly three decades.  As a result, the services are tripping over one another with duplicate weapons and capabilities, a bonus for defense contractors but an injury to taxpayers.

If Congress is once again permitted to step over dollars to save dimes and mask the waste lurking in defense spending, we’ll continue tracing along the path of unsustainability without addressing it.  Eventually, those masked costs will come due, and it won’t be Ryan or Murray who pay for it, but every citizen who loses security.  To be fair to some counterarguments, there is a real need to study military compensation and benefit structures and ensure they fit within our means.  But this should be forward-looking in order to keep the faith with those who already kept their end of the compensation bargain, and it should be preceded by a genuine attempt to address the structural reforms Congress is avoiding.  If Americans really want to see a drastic reduction in defense spending, they must encourage their representatives to stop obstructing a Base Realignment and Closure Commission and to charter a Roles and Missions Commission. Moreover, Congress should bind itself to the recommendations of both in order to avoid the political mischief that has characterized previous reform efforts and led to the current morass.  But even more than that, if Americans want to see drastically reduced defense spending, they should stop electing and emboldening politicians who send American troops into wars without fully advertising the costs of doing so.

This is the greatest risk of all — a risk potentially fatal to our national life.  We’ve developed a nasty habit in the modern age of waging war without paying for it, and that has set us on a long road to ruin.  We’ve yet to pay for the wars fought in the last 12 years, having pushed the costs off on future generations by borrowing against the national debt (save for the $6B pick-pocketed from those who did the fighting).  No raised taxes (in fact, tax rates are at a record low as Congressional conservatives who voted overwhelmingly to authorize wars and troop surges complain about the national debt). No war bonds. No draft.  No appeal to our richest citizens to finance an expedition.  We’ve been at war for a dozen solid years without asking Americans at-large to make a single material sacrifice. Now we turn to veterans and expect them to foot the bill.

Veterans understandably refuse to willingly do so, not only because it is unspeakably wrong for them to have been asked in the first place, but because they understand covering up the cost of war is dangerous to our way of life.  When war no longer carries even the faintest whiff of sacrifice for the vast majority of citizens, they will readily support it without rigorously considering its necessity or the manner of its execution.  This is a path to endless war, and when we have warred enough that our interests have become overextended and we’re bogged down with inescapable obligations we can no longer sustain (hints of which are noticeable already), national collapse becomes inevitable.  It’s not a new story historically, and we’re not so exceptional that we can avoid it.  Paying our veterans what we owe them is one of the ways we feel the pain of having supported going to war (and by extension, failing to prevent it), and for that reason more than any other, we must pay what we owe . . . even (and perhaps especially) if doing so feels inconvenient.

So as Congress returns to session, it seems like a good moment for some unsolicited strategic advice, even if it disturbs the self-congratulatory saccharine party Washington has undertaken in the wake of a signed budget. Congress, you can either have an honorable military, or one that accepts broken promises.  You can either have a cheap military, or the world’s best.  And you can either have an expensive but secure way of life, or something less.  Oddly, doing the morally right thing leads to the best outcome in each of these choices, proving that strategy and morality need not be misaligned. Reconciling the two is matter of considering not only what a course of action does for you, but what it does to your country.  Thinking about it this way should compel a swift amendment to restore the promises made to our veterans and their families.

Posted by Tony Carr on January 2nd, 2014.  You can view the original here.

Well said.