The military pay raise is shrinking.
The military housing stipend is shrinking.
The military commissary benefit is under fire.
And now Congress may start charging active-duty families for medical care.
It's a stunning turnaround for those who provided troops and their families with generous incentives throughout much of the post-9/11 era. Since 2013, when Washington first fought to curtail defense spending, annual pay raises have averaged just 1.1 percent. Retention bonuses — worth tens of thousands of dollars during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — have dropped off as combat deployments slowed and the services were forced to reprioritize their funding.
Last year, Congress passed sweeping retirement reform legislation, the first significant move to dial back the military's long-term personnel costs. There are new rules requiring military families to pay more out of pocket for their housing, which can have varying impacts depending on local rental markets.
Grocery discounts could start to dry up. Even the new GI Bill, perhaps the most extravagant benefit afforded to military personnel today, is being reviewed with an eye toward limiting what the government previously agreed to pay for some military spouses and kids to attend college.
"There's so much that needs to be done to make the military health care system work for families before we talk about charging them for that care," said Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association.
"The Defense Department keeps saying they'll protect readiness by asking families to pay for it, and thinking that families will suck it up and take one for the team," said Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. "It's a spiral that's going to end up hurting families and hurting the military."
"It's part of the long-term cycle, especially when [military members'] sacrifices fall out of the news," he said. "But that doesn't make it easy for the folks who have to live through it."
Here's a look at the paycheck pinches troops are facing in the near future:
Smaller pay raises
[[[WILL ADD E-4, O-3 COMPARISON CHART HERE]]]
Smaller housing stipends
"That's extremely frustrating," Raezer said. "Here's a benefit that works well, that helped the department deal with the lack of adequate housing for families, and now they're dismantling that."
No family's housing stipend will see a decrease next year, but the trims mean that troops will be paying a larger share of their rent costs for years to come.
In separate veterans legislation, lawmakers have toyed with the idea of cutting the housing stipend for individuals using the post-9/11 GI Bill. A House plan would cut in half the stipend for dependents using the education benefit. A Senate plan would cap increases in every GI Bill recipient's housing payouts, similar to the active-duty housing trims.
Both the shrinking pay raise and shrinking housing benefit come as the military is shifting to a new 401(k)-style retirement system, one where troops are being encouraged to save more money to help pay for their retirement. But Raezer said that's going to be a tough sell if troops are being "nickled and dimed" in other areas of their finances.
Smaller commissary benefit
Congress is moving away from the decades-old system of selling groceries at cost, with no profit. And that could mean a higher food bill for military families. Lawmakers have included major reform provisions in their pending defense policy bills that would allow commissaries to establish a "variable pricing program." Officials would be able to set prices "in response to market conditions and customer demand," according to the House plan.
"It's a radical change in the commissary's mission," said Eileen Huck, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. "The role has never been to generate revenue. It's been to provide a benefit, and this would fundamentally change the mission.
"Lawmakers and defense officials have talked about the importance of the savings, but we don't know how the new plan will play out, how it will affect the benefit," she said. "Our fear is that it will lead to increased prices."
Marcie Garcia, tour participant, chooses the health food during a Cooking Matters Tour at the commissary, Oct. 9, 2014.
Photo Credit: Pfc. Julio McGraw/Marine Corps
"We're concerned that once you bring in a business or entity to run commissaries, they may raise prices, and that would reduce the benefit for military families," she said, calling all these ideas "uncharted territory when it comes to commissaries."
Paying for health care
Both the House and the Senate are planning major overhauls to the military health system, alterations that could radically change hospital hours, patient access to doctors and troops' quality of care. But it also could cost troops more, and for the first time require active-duty families to pay a yearly charge for their medical care.
Under the House bill, everyone now serving or retired would continue to pay the current fee structure. That means no enrollment fee for the families of active-duty troops to get military medical care.
The Senate would not charge active-duty personnel any annual enrollment fees for Tricare, but service members and families who use private care could still feel a pinch. The proposal calls for raising co-payments for private care and increasing the catastrophic cap for active-duty families to $1,500, up from $1,000.
Pharmacy copayments also would increase for these family members if they don't pick up their prescriptions at a military pharmacy or get them by mail, under the Senate plan.
Photo Credit: Michael Orrell/AP
Staff members on both the House and Senate side said the goal is to persuade the military health system to increase access and improve quality in return for allowing the Defense Department to raise fees.
Strobridge said he believes the proposal to charge new active-duty families for health care will not survive the legislative process but the proposed and increased fees for working aged retirees likely will become law, given they appear in both versions.
Higher health care costs for personnel and retirees likely won't hurt recruiting, since most join the armed forces for reasons other than employment benefits, he said. But they could hurt future retention.
"It's not unprecedented for Congress to look at almost anything, whether it's the pay-raise caps, the housing allowance cuts, the commissary proposals," he said. "They changed retirement and now they are looking at changing health care and a whole host of things. I'm not sure this is the end of it."
In part, this squeeze on military benefits is connected to long-held Pentagon worries about personnel costs eating into the overall defense budget. Another reason is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fading from national consciousness.
Troops' advocates say the main culprit is sequestration, and spending caps that Congress approved five years ago in an effort to rein in government spending.
"It turns out that setting arbitrary budget caps for 10 years may not make sense when you get to year five," said Ray Kelley, director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars' National Legislative Service. "And when you need immediate defense spending relief, you can't get that from cancelling long-term contracts. You get it from scaling back pay and benefits."
"So, instead they toy with this benefit and that benefit to make [the budget] work just for now," Kelley said.
"Congress aren't the ones being pressed by sequestration. You've already asked so much of so few for so long, and now you're asking them to take less and pay a little more. That's going to make people walk away."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.