When It Comes To Cuts, Pentagon Claims An Eye On The Future

The Pentagon responds to backlash about the veterans pension cuts included in the proposed congressional budget deal. The cuts, which extend to survivors' benefits and special compensation for combat, have riled veterans groups and several lawmakers.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about the Pentagon's view on cuts to military benefits. And Tom, we just heard from Quil that retirees feel the military is essentially breaking faith with those who served. But what do Pentagon leaders say to that?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, I spoke with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey earlier this week and I asked him about these pension cuts and here's what he had to say.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Look. I have one sacred obligation to the young men and women who serve and only one and that is that if I ask them on behalf of the president to go to places like Afghanistan or some other conflict, they must be the best trained, best equipped and best lead force on the planet. And I don't want to win, you know, five to four. I want to win 50 to nothing.

To do that, we've got to make the appropriate investments in training, readiness, leader development, modernization and manpower.

BOWMAN: So what he's saying is that these pay and benefits are crowding out everything else in his budget, money for training, better weapons, body armor and other equipment. And he said this will reach what he called a crisis beginning in the next decade.

CORNISH: So I'm getting the sense that this benefits debate is about more than just veterans. Is General Dempsey also talking about those still in uniform?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. And this cut in veterans' pensions is just the beginning. We're clearly talking about those in the military today who receive benefits, healthcare, education assistance, housing subsidies as well across the board.

CORNISH: So what does Pentagon actually plan to do? I mean, is it looking for more cuts to benefits?

BOWMAN: Well, General Dempsey wouldn't get specific. I asked him about that and he said, listen, the budget for next year hasn't been sent to Capitol Hill yet. It'll go up there in February. But he did say they're looking at things like smaller pay raises, for example, possibly higher enrollment fees for the military healthcare system called Tricare, and along those lines, maybe more co-pays or deductibles for healthcare as well.

And also things like housing allowances for active duty soldiers. They get, you know, a rolling amount of housing allowance depending on where you live. It could be higher in more urban areas as opposed to more rural areas. And that could also be trimmed, he said. Now, in all these areas, Dempsey said that's where the money is. And he also used the term slowing the growth of these programs so they become more manageable over time.

CORNISH: You know, Tom, in Congress there have been a lot of deficit hawks out there who have started to eye the military's budget much more aggressively. What are the prospects about getting any of these future benefits cuts through Congress?

BOWMAN: Well, they've tried this before the past couple of years. They've been unsuccessful. It's been known as dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. This is something a lot of lawmakers don't even want to touch. And one reason is, they don't want to break faith with the soldiers. That's the way they see it. And also, some of these veterans' service organizations are very strong at lobbying and they also see this as breaking faith with the soldiers.

So it's going to be very, very difficult, I think, to get through.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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