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Some Ready to Quit : Military on Defensive in Pension War

April 20, 1985|MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

NORFOLK, Va. — As a chief petty officer assigned to the Navy's destroyer fleet, Harold Burton, 39, puts up with cramped living conditions and tours at sea that separate him from his wife and children for as much as six months at a time.

And he has uprooted his family to move to new assignments nine times in his 19 years of service.

He relishes seafaring--the travel, the excitement, the comradeship. All things being equal, he says, he would like to stay. "I love the Navy," he says. "I'd like to stay in 30 years if I can."

These days, however, there is a cloud over Burton's seascape: the increasing talk in Congress and elsewhere about cutting back the hefty pensions that have become one of the main fringe benefits of a military career but also contribute significantly to the ever-expanding size of the federal budget.

Pension a 'Golden Egg'

"If Congress cuts our pensions, I will leave the Navy," Burton declared, his smile fading and his body stiffening at the thought. "The pension is what you call the golden egg, in my opinion. That's what I've worked toward."

To a growing number of critics, the military retirement system is a golden egg the country can no longer afford. Nine major studies over the last two decades, including a report last year by the Defense Department, have recommended changes that would reduce the cost of the program, which is expected to be $18 billion next year, and a measure that would make some trims has begun moving through Congress.

Under the present system, members of the armed forces may retire with substantial pensions after 20 years in uniform; indeed, under the Pentagon's "move up or move out" promotion policy, many are forced to retire after 20 or 30 years.

Pursue Second Careers

Because individuals normally begin military careers in their late teens or early 20s, most retire before age 45 and collect pensions while pursuing second careers--often civilian jobs with the Defense Department or private defense contractors.

That can be a very good deal for the individual, a deal that members of the armed forces are understandably reluctant to see changed. But, it is a very expensive deal for the federal government--not just because of the generous size of military pensions but because military retirees are likely to collect pensions far longer than other American workers, who are usually 20 years older when they retire.

Also, advocates of change say, the practice of tying retirement to 20 or 30 years of service means that many men and women leave the military at their peak skill levels.

Consider the case of former Navy Lt. John M. Quesenberry, who was forced to retire after 30 years. He promptly accepted a job with the National Security Agency doing what he had done for the Navy--teaching cryptography--but at higher pay, on top of a pension equal to roughly 75% of his Navy salary.

"It was dumb, absolutely dumb," said Quesenberry, now 66 and fully retired. "The Navy lost my services, and the government in general was paying me twice."

For those who retire after 20 years, the system provides 50% of the average base pay they earned during the last three years of active duty. For those like Quesenberry who retire with 30 years in the service, the beginning pension is 75% of base pay. All military pensions increase annually with inflation.

Average retirees today will receive $500,000 in pension benefits over their lifetimes. In 1983, the average annual pension was $9,665 for retired enlisted personnel and $21,915 for officers.

Cost-of-living increases--a feature common to federal pensions but not to all private ones--have driven costs ever higher over the years. Some of the highest-ranking officers who retired in the early 1970s now receive pension benefits that exceed the active-duty base pay for officers of their rank.

Combat-Readiness Cited

Defenders of the system say it is designed to attract persons into the services and to ensure a youthful, combat-ready supply of officers in war.

"We have a lot of tools in our tool bag with which to manage the forces, and retirement is one of them," said Maj. Gen. Stuart Sherman, a military retirement specialist who is a deputy assistant secretary of defense responsible for manpower and personnel matters involving the armed forces reserves. "People are afraid that, if you agree to change the system, Congress will not do those things that will be necessary to maintain force structure."

However, as the cost of the system has risen and the federal deficit crisis has become more severe, criticism has grown sharper. Under pressure to cut other programs dear to the hearts of their constituents--including such civilian retirement benefits as automatic cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security--members of Congress have begun to cast unsympathetic eyes on the military retirement system.

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