Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel talks with retired Army Col. Rebecca Hooper, program manager for the Center for the Intrepid, after Hagel spoke to soldiers, veterans and staff Wednesday at the center in San Antonio. (Lisa Krantz / AP)
SAN ANTONIO — Speaking to amputees and burn victims at a military hospital in San Antonio, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the new law that will slash future retirement benefits for veterans will be changed to exempt those with disabilities.
“Let me assure you that all disabled families — all of you in this room — will be exempted from any adjustments in the rate of growth,” Hagel said at a town hall-style meeting at Brooke Army Medical Center.
Hagel was referring to the new law that will slow the cost-of-living increases for working-age retirees. Specifically, the new law was included in a broad federal budget agreement in December and provides retirees under 62 with an annual increase that is 1 percentage point below any increase in consumer prices. At age 62, they will get a one-time “catch-up,” under which their retired pay would be restored to the level it would have been without the caps.
Hagel’s comments came in response to a question from an Army sergeant who is undergoing rehabilitation for a severe leg injury at the military hospital.
“A guy like me, I didn’t ask to get shot,” said Victor Rivera, a medically retired sergeant who is undergoing treatment at BAMC. Rivera said he worries that future cuts to pay and benefits will become so severe that “we can’t buy food for our family.”
“Please don’t take our money,” he urged the secretary.
Hagel assured Rivera and others at the small gathering of about 50 people that the law does not take effect until 2016 and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have already begun working to change the law and grant an exemption for disabled veterans.
“I get what you’re saying, and I agree,” the secretary said.
“That will be fixed. ... We’ve got two years to fix that.”
The 25-minute town hall meeting was dominated by questions about the budget uncertainty and concerns from troops and veterans about how deeply the reduction in Pentagon spending will affect the troops’ pay, benefits and support programs.
Hagel said changes to pay and benefits are inevitable, but that with “very careful thinking and analysis,” those cost-cutting measures will not necessarily have a big impact on individuals.
“We’ve got to be honest, we can’t sustain the glide path that we’re on,” he said.
“We can make some adjustments that really won’t hurt anyone. ... We can make it work well, fix it, and we’ll do it in a way that doesn’t hurt.”
Hagel said careful budget cuts will not impact vital operations like the rehabilitation programs underway at the military hospital in San Antonio. While there, Hagel toured the burn unit and spoke with two young veterans in recovery. He also toured the Center for the Intrepid, where hundreds of wounded warriors have recovered from leg wounds once thought to require amputation.
“We’re not going to do anything that would inhibit the progress of this institution.