Some of you may have been so caught up with the Duck Dynasty scandal that you may not have noticed some arguably more important news: Congress has reached a budget deal—weeks rather than the accustomed hours before the deadline! As today’s meme suggests, however, a lot of people are not so happy with this deal. In fact, you might say that they’re enraged with sadness.
Is the rage justified? Did DEMOCRATS really VOTE to GIVE the retirement benefits of young disabled veterans to ILLEGALS so they can have FREE WELFARE?
If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably guessed the answer is, for the most part,“No.”
It turns out that this meme is based on one lie, one half-truth, and one clever manipulation of the definition of a key word. This is an important issue for Alaskans. Since our state is home to more former servicemembers, per capita, than any other, this is worth examining.
Let’s dispatch with the easy stuff first. As you can imagine, the lovely folks at AR-15 Gun Owners of America, who brought us this meme, love the Democratic Party about as much as they love the proper use of apostrophes and hyphens, and that’s who they’re blaming.
Did DEMOCRATS vote to do this terrible thing? Well, yes. But so did most Republicans–more House Republicans voted for it than Democrats. In fact, the most clearly-laid out argument in favor of reducing the benefits package for military retirees came to us from Chairman of the House Budget Committee, the Honorable Gentleman from Janesville, WI. You may remember him from such failed presidential campaigns as Romney-Ryan 2012.
The big lie: the money saved by this budget deal is going to ILLEGALS so they can have FREE WELFARE.
Needless to say, the money is not specifically earmarked to provide welfare to undocumented immigrants—we don’t even have a citation for that, because how do you even disprove such a bafflingly absurd claim? Maybe it’s just that wingers are up in arms because military retirement benefits were cut while “welfare” was not? Except, SNAP (often referred to as “food stamps,” and unquestionably a form of welfare) was cut, back in November. And undocumented workers are not eligible for SNAP—you’d think this was obvious, yes? But even legal immigrants make up only 4% of SNAP beneficiaries.
Now on to the trickier stuff: the use and misuse of the word “veteran.”
The word “veteran” has two relevant meanings here: someone who has fought in a war, and anyone who has served for any period of time in the armed forces.
When most Americans hear the word “veteran,” they probably picture something like this: a young American with PTSD, maybe missing a limb, who is having trouble finding or holding down a job after having returned from horrifying experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s a veteran in sense one. But a veteran can also mean a portly US Air Force colonel in the acquisitions corps, who has spent 20 years behind a desk helping the Air Force select the best new equipment—a job that’s important to the national defense, to be sure, but not exactly Restrepo.
So, yes, it is true that although all veterans are veterans, not all veterans are veterans. And, more to the point, not all veterans are retirees–and not all retirees are war veterans.
We’re about to get into some complicated terminology, so here’s a quick crash course: Retirees are people who have spent 20 or more years in uniform. When they leave service, they get a monthly pension equal to the average of their “high 36”: the size of their monthly paychecks during the highest-paying 36 months of their careers. They get this pension for the rest of their lives. The check is cut by the Department of Defense and comes from the DOD budget, as does payment for the health care services to which they are also entitled, through the insurance program called Tricare for Life (because it’s, well, you know). About 17 percent of former servicemembers are retirees. (Further details available here for those having difficulty sleeping).
Veterans are all of the millions of Americans who have served in the armed forces; they are (if honorably discharged) entitled to a modest but substantial package of benefits, such as assistance with college tuition, subsidized low rates on home mortgages, and some medical care for a fixed period after their service. If their service resulted in a disability—anything from losing a limb to an IED to having flat feet as a result of all that marching with heavy packs—they are also entitled for the rest of their lives to a monthly disability payment, the size of which depends on the extent of the disability. All of these benefits are administered by an entirely separate government agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA).
The budget cuts proposed by Representative Ryan do not impact any VA benefits. Disabled veterans will get exactly the same VA disability benefits as before, and every soldier leaving the Army after a three-year enlistment will also be unaffected.
The cuts only affect DOD retirement benefits. Prior to this deal, the pension was tied to inflation—if inflation grew by (say) 3 percent in a year, then the pension would increase by 3 percent. After this deal, the pension is still tied to inflation—but at 1 percent less. If inflation grew by 2 percent, the pension would increase by only 1 percent. Furthermore, this reduction in increase is only in effect before the retiree turns 62, at which point it goes back to matching inflation fully.
No one–certainly not Meme Killer–is arguing that serving in the military isn’t an important and often dangerous job, or that those who dedicate 20 years to serving their nation in uniform shouldn’t be well-compensated for their efforts, during and after their service. But what exactly is the scale of these cuts?
An enlisted soldier who retires after 20 years of service is most likely an E7, E8, or E9 (these are all military paygrades). In 2013 an E8 made $4848 per month in base pay; for simplicity let’s take that as his or her average high-36. For the next 20 years, this retiree will earn $2424 per month from the DOD pension–usually while working a full-time civilian job. Before the deal, this $2424 would grow to match inflation, which over the last decade has averaged 3 percent annually.
To sum up a long Excel spreadsheet: Over the 20-year-period affected by Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, this E8 would make very close to $600,000 (just from his or her DOD pension, which is in addition to any disability payments plus whatever other income they earn from their post-military careers) under the old system. With the new system? About $570,000. The loss of $30,000 over a 20-year-period is not trivial, but you’ll pardon us here at Meme Killer if we’re not seeing it as the moral equivalent of MacArthur opening fire at Anacostia Flats.
Behind all this moaning is a lobby group most Americans have never heard of, called the Military Officers Association of America. Although they bill themselves as an organization with a focus on “military personnel matters,” what they’re really interested in is preserving all the benefits that come along with being a retired military officer. And they defend these perks with all the tenacity of a beggar at the trough and in the precise style of a Soviet newspaper.
Have you ever heard of some proposed reduction to the defense budget referred to as “breaking the faith” with Our Nation’s Veterans or an unacceptable betrayal of “those who have borne 100% of the burden?” That was probably MOAA. Then their overheated pronouncements percolate through the wingosphere, feeding on pre-existing beliefs that Democrats hate the military and love immigrant welfare queens, and the end result is the kind of meme we have before us today.
In other words, here’s what’s going on: Rich (on base pay alone, military officers earn more than 90% of working Americans), mostly able-bodied middle-aged guys at the peak of their earning power are exploiting the tragic imagery associated with our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re relying on Americans’ natural and warranted sympathy for those who have served and suffered in those conflicts, in order to gin up outrage against a very modest reduction in gains to their comfortable incomes. Because they want even more of your money.
Don’t buy what they’re selling.