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My friend has added a few thoughts to his first letter, starting at paragraph 8.

I received this letter from a friend who retired from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1998. Last year he was called back to active duty. Please pass this on to your US congressman and US Senators.

Thanks,

Gil Tercenio aka Muley Gil

I’m sitting in relative safety and relative security in Camp Fallujah. I say relative safety because a few days ago a rocket hit a couple of hundred yards away. However, it happens so infrequently that it’s almost not worth noting. The recent incident with the AAV (Assault Amphibious Vehicle) indicates the real hazard in Iraq and is just one of the reasons why travel outside any Camp is done only when necessary.

There is disheartening news beyond the obvious tragedy of the number of Marines that were lost. The unit that lost the people is a reserve unit. In this case it was 3d Battalion, 25th Marines. The battalion has lost more than 20 people in the last few days. The regiment as a whole has been bloodied as bad as any active duty unit. It’s disheartening because the “reserve” Marines are being utilized exactly the same as if they were an active duty unit, yet the compensation they receive reflects a 1960s mentality. While on active duty their compensation is the same as any full time active duty Marine, however, once they return to reserve status everything changes. Those that manage to survive, and decide to stay in the Marine Corps reserve, can probably look forward to future combat deployments after this one. If a reservist manages to make it to retire at 20 years, he must wait until age 60 to collect his military pension.

This is a holdover from the old reality that reservists only did one weekend a month and two weeks a year. In those days it didn’t seem unreasonable to make someone wait until age 60 to collect a “reserve military pension”. The hazards of combat as a reservist were more theoretical than actual. The new reality is that those days are long gone.

DOD and Congress are reluctant to change the system because it will cost more money than the current system. Additionally, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reportedly recommended against any changes because it would increase costs. NO KIDDING. When you are paying zero, anything different will cost more money.

In an open forum with reservists in Iraq, an official from the reserve affairs section of the Department of the Navy was asked a question by a Marine about the chances of modifying the reserve retirement system. The reply was essentially, “It’s very expensive; in order to pay for that we’d have to buy less planes and less weapons systems”.

This is not a surprising statement. After all, DOD has mimicked a very popular cost saving method that retailers have used for years, i.e. hire fewer full-timers (active duty) and rely heavily on part-timers (reservists) during peak hours. The part timers get fewer benefits and are cheaper in the long run. That seems to work OK when you’re selling “Big Macs”. It seems less OK when you are riding in the back of an armored vehicle praying that you don’t hit a landmine. Some of these reserve Marines have a tour in Afghanistan and a couple of tours in Iraq. Some reserve units have more combat time than some active duty units. For DOD and Congress to look for the cheap way out is reprehensible when you consider what they ask of these Marines.

The reliance on the reserve forces has dramatically increased since the fall of the Soviet Union. Apparently, the world was supposed to be one big happy place after the “evil empire” was gone. All of the active duty forces took personnel cuts. The Army, being the biggest, took the most cuts. The reserve and the National Guard were increasingly tasked to handle “spikes” in operational commitments. The fact was that the active component didn’t have enough people to do what needed to be done.

DOD has justified lower personnel levels in the military by stating that our technological edge reduces the need for as many troops. We have increased our reliance on modern technology to defeat the enemy. Our “shock and awe” campaign demonstrated how valuable that technology can be. We can drop a smart bomb down the airshaft of a command and control bunker, we can fly a cruise missile through the front door of one of Saddam’s palaces, and if, push comes to shove, we can use good old dumb bombs to carpet bomb the Republican Guard. That was the idea. The official DOD thinking process seems to reflect “So, who needs troops.” However, a JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) can’t patrol the streets of Ramadi, a cruise missile can’t prevent the looting of the Iraqi national museums, and a F-117 aircraft isn’t going to be able to man a an entry control point outside Fallujah.

The second reason DOD doesn’t want an increase in manpower is because it costs “big bucks” in long term dollars.
They initially viewed the Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) mission as a “temporary spike” in manpower requirements. DOD thought that they could cover this “spike” with the reserve and the National Guard. Nearly 40% of the forces in Iraq are reserve or National Guard and the “temporary spike” has now lasted about 2.5 years. If all goes well, the new Iraqi government will be in place by the end of the year, however, it’s unlikely that our military commitment will end then and we may hit the 3 plus year mark in Iraq.

I’ve heard manpower people voice the concern that making reserve benefits “too much like active duty” benefits will hurt active duty retention. That’s an excuse; the real reason is that it will cost money to change the system.

Amazingly I’ve heard reserve manpower people voice concern that they need to do things to encourage reserve recruitment and retention. The increased reliance on the reserve forces requires that they be fully manned. These people need to talk to each other.

The government will spend millions and millions of dollars to send people to war. These Marines have gone because of a sense of duty and honor. However, when the job is done, and after these Marines have had their life dramatically changed, they then return to their reserve unit and try to reconstruct their civilian life. After facing the same hazards as their active duty counterparts, they are again “just reservists”

Imagine this. SSgt Smith is retires after 20 years in the Marine Corps Reserve. He doesn’t get promoted to GySgt because he’s in a military specialty that has very few GySgt opportunities; therefore he’s forced to retire. He’s been to Kosovo, and Afghanistan. He’s also been to Iraq three times. He’s got just over three years in various combat zones. He’s been wounded twice and has two Purple Hearts. The rest of his 17 years is regular reserve time consisting of drill weekends and two weeks active duty per year. Occasionally he does short periods of active duty for non-combat operations. He has seen more than his share of horrible things. He is now the ripe old age of 38.

The government in essence gives him the bum’s rush. He is now in the category of “Retired Reserve Awaiting Retired Pay at Age 60”; this is commonly called a grey area retiree. With the appropriate US Code to back them up, he has been told by the government that “you’re only a reservist”. He must now wait another 22 YEARS before he can collect his pension.

Generally, a reservist earns one point for each active duty day and four points for a drill weekend. It would not be unusual for someone in SSgt Smith’s position to have about 3000 reserve points (or about 8.3 active duty years out of his 20 years of reserve service). His pension will be computed based on the number of years of active duty.

For ease of computation I’ll use the old method which applies to people who entered the service prior to 1985. SSgt Smith’s pension will be based on 8.3 years of active duty x 2.5% per year, or about 12.5% of basic pay. However under current law he will not be able to collect it until at age 60.

Meanwhile SSgt Jones is in much the same position; however, he is on active duty. He has the same amount of combat time as SSgt Smith, also has two Purple Hearts. His remaining 17 years of military service is done at various bases in the US and overseas, with occasional non-combat deployments. So after 20 years he is also the ripe old age of 38. He also has seen his share of horrible things. He has 20 years of active duty x 2.5% per year and will start receiving 50% of his salary the day he walks out the door as a civilian.

The concern that a better reserve pension system would hurt active retention is questionable. Even if a reservist was able to collect his pension on the day he reaches his 20th year, he would never earn the same amount of money that an active duty Marine would earn. (12.5% vice 50%) The real reason the system won’t change is that the government saves a lot of money by delaying that 12.5% for 22 years. Additionally, there is a less obvious saving. The government takes advantage of actuarial statistics. A certain percentage on those Marines entitled to a reserve pension will die before the age of 60. The government doesn’t have to pay them anything.

There have been a few initiatives that pay lip service to restoring some sort of equity to the system. Most of them are red herrings and have effect in principle only. For example, the most common plan goes something like this. If you serve 30 years in the reserve/guard, you collect your pension at age 55; 28 years you collect at age 56; 26 years you collect at age 57; 24 years collect at age 58; 22 years collect at 59; and 20 years collect at age 60. It is implied that if a reservist “chooses” to retire earlier than 30 years, they he willingly accepts waiting for his pension.

The majority of reservists don’t have the opportunity to do 30 years. There are “time in service” limitations that can cut short someone’s service. A Major that doesn’t get promoted to LtCol must retire at 20 years. A LtCol must retire at 28 years if he doesn’t get promoted to Colonel. The enlisted rank structure has similar time in service restrictions. Reservists that depart with less than 30 years of service are very often not doing so by their own choice. They have no opportunity to take advantage of this “improved” system.

This is illustrative of the typical way that Congress and DOD do things. They announce some initiative to change the way the reserve retirement system works. It sounds good to the public. However, the politicians and the military both know that it will affect very few people. The politicians can toot their horns about the good things that they’ve done, yet in reality nothing has changed.

The heavy reliance on reserve forces in the today’s military is not likely to change. The existing system demands as much from reservists in combat as it does from the active duty component. However, when it comes time to “pay the piper” our government sends the following message loudly and clearly, “YOU’RE ONLY RESERVISTS.”

Tell that to the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines.
 
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