Jonathan Rue: Thousands of veterans have problems going back to civilian life, but it will take more than money to fix the issues.
Esquire magazine caused quite a stir on Monday when it published an extended interview with the US Navy SEAL who shot and killed Osama bin Laden.
The shooter, his pseudonym throughout the 15,000 word article, recounts the raid in gripping detail, but it's his comments on his life and struggles after leaving the Navy that have provoked the strongest reactions. The shooter's struggles will shock readers, most of whom likely aren't familiar with the terms of military service and the benefits conferred after that service ends.
In September 2012, the shooter left the Navy after 16 years of honorable service. Over multiple combat deployments, the shooter racked up injuries, lost a lot of friends, and watched his marriage fall apart. He's struggled with suicidal thoughts and finding a steady job that doesn't require carrying a gun (i.e. private security contracting).
Regrettably, nothing the shooter has experienced makes him unique. Thousands of combat veterans, not just the special operations forces, have experienced these same problems transitioning back to civilian life. Coping with the tens of thousands of veterans who suffered mental or physical injuries and reintegrating them into society will be one of America's greatest challenges in the 21st century.
As Bronstein tells it, the US Navy and a grateful nation gave the shooter nothing upon leaving the military, "No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family". This also does not make the shooter unique: 83% of all military veterans separate from the military before serving 20 years, which means they are not entitled to a pension, nor to remain on Tricare, the military's health insurance. But, here's the thing: the shooter, like all service members, undoubtedly knew this when he made the decision to leave just four years shy of earning a lifetime of benefits for himself and his family.
Inexplicably, in the original online version of the story, Esquire omitted the fact that the shooter isn't completely without health care. Like all combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the shooter is eligible to receive five years of health coverage from the Department of Veterans Affairs. If he has service related injuries, which the article strongly implies, he can file a disability claim and potentially receive free care for the rest of his life.
Not even Esquire's print version of the story is correct, however, as medical care is also available to those of us without service related disabilities. In most cases, we simply have to pay modest co-pays for health services at VA medical centers. These co-pays are completely reasonable, but unlike equivalent civilian plans, veterans don't pay a monthly or annual premium. His family, however, will not be eligible for the same health coverage.
By virtue of his status as the man who killed the most infamous US outlaw, the shooter's story will garner a lot of attention and sympathy. It should also prompt Americans to pause and reflect after 11 years of war: What do we owe our veterans? Is the military a profession or a public service?
Answering these questions is a prerequisite to reforming the military compensation and retirement system.
The current trajectory of military personnel costs is unsustainable. One report succinctly describes the problem:
"If personnel costs continue growing at [the current] rate and the overall defense budget remains flat with inflation, military personnel costs will consume the entire defense budget by 2039."
According to the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), these expenditures have grown more than 90% – 30% above the rate of inflation – since 2001. Tricare has fueled spiraling costs. From 2001 to 2012, health care costsrose over 170% (pdf), from $19bn to $53bn.
In addition to paying 1.5m active duty military, the Department of Defense is also responsible for 1.9m retirees at a cost of $50bn per year. The military retirement system has not changed in over 100 years.
Unlike social security or Medicare, military retirees begin collecting their generous pensions immediately upon retirement. Because 76% of retirees leave the service in their 40s, most pensions are paid to people who likely will live for 40 years, twice as long as the service they rendered. But, 83% of service members, mostly those enlisted men and women who have fought hardest and endured the worst, will, like shooter and me, not serve long enough to get a pension.
We're operating an all-volunteer, professional military force using conscription era personnel policies.
Since 2001, support for the troops mostly has meant yellow ribbon bumper stickers, care packages, or well-meaning, if awkward, "thanks for your service" banalities from acquaintances and strangers. Our elected leaders didn't ask us to pay any price or bear any burden. Instead, they gave us tax cuts and encouraged everyone to go shopping while we sent some, but not all our sons and daughters to war, over and over and over.
So, what do we owe our veterans? Is the military a public service? Or is it a profession that demands compensation and benefits above and beyond what we pay civilians? Should we treat our special operations forces differently than other veterans? And what do we owe these brave citizens in retirement?
Maybe we should start by showing a bit more thoughtfulness when making decisions of war and peace; considerably more diligence prosecuting the wars we've decided to wage; and demanding an efficient, comprehensive system of care for those veterans who return injured.
Ensuring these things requires more than a war tax and a "thanks for your service" nod. While throwing money at the problem may assuage our guilt, it won't solve the problem.