More than four decades after the end of the Vietnam-era military draft, service members' pay and benefits still have not caught up to the true needs of the all-volunteer force, members of a congressional military compensation commission lamented Wednesday.
"Our country has never really taken a strategic pause to examine the personnel benefits" in the military," said Steve Buyer, former Indiana congressman and a member of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
After the Vietnam War, Buyer said, "Congress began a hodgepodge of coupling benefits out of the draft era to the all-volunteer force."
But many of those offerings now are piecemeal or outdated, too weak to robustly compete with typical benefits offered by private-sector employers.
Buyer and two other Republican members of the commission spoke at a Heritage Foundation event looking at the personnel reform successes of the last year, as well as the work still left ahead.
Earlier this month, Congress approved a massive overhaul of the military retirement system along with other comparatively minor changes in benefits recommended by the commission earlier this year.
But plans for similar sweeping changes to military health care were delayed, and will be debated in coming months by the House and Senate armed services committees.
The commissioners called those potential changes equally critical, not for cost-savings but for long-term recruiting and retention.
"We cannot focus on the individuals in uniform alone anymore," said Dov Zakheim, a commission member and former Defense Department comptroller. "We have to think about the families now, too."
Buyer said he worries that military personnel budget accounts too often are seen as potential sources of easy cuts for cash-strapped military planners.
"This defense industrial base has built itself as a powerful force," he said. "So the prime target when you enter a sequestration era is to target personnel costs, and that will drive savings you can move over to save on equipment."
But the commission — which spent two years reviewing hundreds of benefits and pays offered to troops today — argued that responsible reform must focus less on saving money than on providing sustainable and sensible programs.
The members at Wednesday's event also warned of the patience required to make those changes.
In response to a question on how quickly the retirement reform moved through Congress — about nine months from first introduction to President Obama's desk — Buyer laughed and noted that many of the key investment proposals in the retirement overhaul plan were first approved 15 years ago.