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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now a closer look at some spending that's driving up the deficit. The U.S. military is forecasting that the cost of taking care of its troops and retirees will keep growing, so much so that the secretary of defense says these costs are eating the military alive.

NPR's Tamara Keith has more.

TAMARA KEITH: Retired Major General Arnold Punaro gets a lot of hate mail, because he's talking about something a whole lot of people don't want to hear: the rising costs of military health and pension benefits.

Major General ARNOLD PUNARO (U.S. Marines, Retired): We in the Department of Defense are on the same path that General Motors found itself on.

KEITH: Punaro, a former Marine, is a member of the Defense Business Board, a group that advises the Pentagon on its financial operations.

Gen. PUNARO: General Motors did not start out to be a health care company that occasionally built an automobile. Today, we're on the path in the Department of Defense to turn it into a benefits company that may occasionally kill a terrorist.

KEITH: And Punaro's not the only one. Secretary of Defense Gates sees the problem, too, and flagged it recently before Congress.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): The Defense Department runs the risk of the fate of other corporate and government bureaucracies that were ultimately crippled by personnel costs - in particular, their retiree benefit packages.

KEITH: Here's what he's talking about: In the past decade, military health care costs more than doubled - $52.5 billion in next year's budget. Retiree pay: another $50 billion or so a year.

It used to be people worried about the cost of a fighter jet or bomber program would devour the military budget. Now it's health and pension costs - the same things civilians are struggling with, says Punaro.

Gen. PUNARO: Teachers are under fire. Government workers are under fire. Big corporations have walked away from these kind of pensions and deferred compensation benefits because they're unaffordable. And right now, the last bastion of this is in the Department of Defense.

KEITH: Let's zoom in on health care. Secretary Gates says a federal worker not in the military pays about $4,000 a year for family coverage. The military has its version of health insurance. It's called Tricare.

Sec. GATES: The cost of Tricare for a family for a year is $460.

KEITH: Four hundred and sixty dollars - that is the annual fee for working-age retirees. That's the group Secretary Gates has been trying to get to pay a little bit more - not so easy. Just as GM had a union to contend with, Gates has his own challenge: Congress.

Here he is last month at the American Enterprise Institute.

Sec. GATES: The first two years I was in this job in the Bush administration, I went up to the Hill dutifully each year with a request for a tiny increase in the fee for Tricare and got my head lopped off. And so the third year, I didn't try.

KEITH: But he recently told NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED this year, he's trying again.

Sec. GATES: We are asking for the radical change of moving it to $520 - two-and-a-half bucks a month.

KEITH: Actually, it's five bucks a month. Still, Gates is getting resistance from people like retired Air Force Major Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Major JOE DAVIS (U.S. Air Force, Retired) When people talk about $5 a month being reasonable, yes, it's reasonable. It is reasonable. But the thing is, what comes next?

KEITH: Davis argues you can't compare military benefits to benefits in the civilian world, because the career of someone in the military is often so much harder.

Maj. DAVIS: In that 20 years, you have the possibility of picking up your entire family and moving about a dozen times. Oh, by the way, you're going to war. Your spouse will never be able to really have a career, because you're relocating all the time.

Colonel STEVE STROBRIDGE (U.S. Air Force, Retired): That's a way steeper price than the 460 or $520 a year.

KEITH: That's retired Air Force Colonel Steve Strobridge. He's director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.

Col. STROBRIDGE: DOD only looks at what the benefit to DOD is and how much military people are costing them in dollars. They forget and don't put any value on what it has cost the people to serve.

KEITH: Veterans groups say if the Department of Defense wants to cut costs, there are many other ways to do it.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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