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Pentagon will review higher pensions for top officers

Jan. 29, 2014 - 08:42PM   |  
HASC SCMR MWM 20130801
Navy Adm. James Winnefeld (Mike Morones/Staff)
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WASHINGTON — A Pentagon commission on military compensation will review a 2007 increase in pensions for three- and four-star officers that made the retirement pay of some officers higher than what they made on active duty, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Navy Adm. James Winnefeld said the commission will examine the change as it examines all compensation issues.

The pension change, largely unremarked on at the time, was first reported on by USA Today in 2012 and again this year in light of the cost-of-living cuts.

The Pentagon had requested the change in law for top brass in 2003 to help retain senior officers as the military was fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and wanted to keep experienced officers on active duty.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., cited USA Today’s reporting Tuesday when she asked Winnefeld if the changes to pensions for top brass, which boosted their pensions as much as 63 percent, should be reviewed.

A four-star general or admiral retiring with 40 years of experience would receive a pension of $237,144, according to the Pentagon. Base pay for active-duty top officers is $181,501, according to the Pentagon. Housing and other allowances can increase their compensation an additional third.

Winnefeld testified as part of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing into a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for military retirees under the age of 62. The change, which was included in a budget deal struck late last year, would see pensions for veterans under the age of 62 decrease 1 percent annually beginning in 2015. The COLA reduction was eliminated for disabled veterans.

“I believe that the COLA reduction is wrong because it targets a single group – military retirees – to help address the budget problems of the federal government as a whole,” said Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the armed services committee.

He predicted the provision, estimated to save $6 billion, would be repealed.

The chairman’s ranking member, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he shared Levin’s concerns. Veterans’ groups have mobilized as well to defeat the measure.

No military officials were consulted on the cost-of-living change, said Christine Fox, the acting deputy defense secretary. She urged senators to hold off on the change until a comprehensive review of military compensation, already under way, is issued in Feb. 2015.

Growth in military pay and benefits, she cautioned, threatens to affect the Pentagon’s ability to buy modern weapons and train adequately.

Any changes to military retirement should be grandfathered, leaving benefits unchanged for those who are serving, Winnefeld said.

“I hope that we can agree to fix this now,” Ayotte said.

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