Army Maj. Matthew Riley is the classic example of why the decision about whether the new Blended Retirement System is a distinctly individual one.
He has more than nine years of service and works as a microbiologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. But because of a serious injury during a previous assignment that resulted in a permanent profile, he’s concerned that in the future, he may be facing medical retirement or separation.
“I’ve recovered enough to do my job, but one concern I have is my injury getting worse, and not making my 20 years,” Riley said. “I will do this job as long as they allow me.”
Riley discussed his concerns, and his financial status, with Carlos Perez Jr., a retired colonel now serving as the chief operating officer of American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association.
“The principal thing a service member has to reconcile in his or her mind is the likelihood that he or she is going to stay until retirement,” Perez said. “Maj. Riley plans to stay as long as the Army will let him. In his case, let’s say he serves four or five more years and is medically retired and is still eligible to receive retirement pay. That’s still advantageous and probably more advantageous than the Blended Retirement System, from a purely financial point of view.”
Riley was unsure how medical retirement will be treated under the Blended Retirement System.
“Just like the legacy retirement plans, a member retired for physical disability has the option of calculating his or her retired pay based on either longevity or disability rating” under the BRS, said Air Force Maj. Michael Odle, DoD assistant director of military compensation policy. “The processes for calculating retired pay based on a disability rating has not changed. BRS has no impact on how that is determined. If a member is rated [with a 30 percent disability] the retired pay would be based on a multiplier of 30 percent. Furthermore, an 80 percent, 90 percent, or 100 percent disability would still equal to a 75 percent retired pay multiplier as it does today under the legacy retirement system.”
It’s still the same decision-making process, said Perez.
“If I know today for a fact I’m going to stay to retirement, the current system is advantageous,” he said. “If I know I’m absolutely not going to stay until I retire, then the Blended Retirement System does allow you to put away some money for retirement that you would otherwise not be able to.”
However, the bulk of that BRS benefit requires troops to contribute to their Thrift Savings Plan. To maximize the benefit, they’d need to put in 5 percent of their base pay — not an option for Riley, he said, as he faces significant student loan debt.
Riley wasn’t aware of the continuation pay service members get at 12 years of serviceunder BRS. According to the Defense Department’s BRS calculator, his estimated payout, which would come in about 2½ years if he opted into BRS, would be about $19,000. In order to get the most benefit from BRS in the future, he’d need to put most of that $19,000 into his TSP, he said, but instead, he’d probably need it more at the time, to pay off his student loans.
But to receive the continuation pay under BRS, the service member must agree to serve another four years. With his uncertain medical situation, Riley questioned whether he would have to repay all or part of the continuation pay if he were unable to serve the extra four years for medical reasons.
DoD guidance states that troops may have to repay all or part of the payout if they don’t fulfill their commitment, but that each situation is different.
“The decision whether or not to recoup any portion of the continuation pay bonus is the prerogative of the military department secretary,” DoD spokesman Army Maj. Dave Eastburn said.
Riley said he’s leaning toward staying with the legacy system because he feels the 20 percent extra in his retirement pay will make a big difference in his quality of life. Retirement pay under both the BRS and legacy systems begins immediately upon retirement, while contributions made by the service member and by DoD to the Thrift Savings Plan can’t be withdrawn before age 59½ without hefty taxes and penalties.
Riley has run a variety of scenarios on the DoD BRS calculator. “I looked at everything from the best BRS payout to the most realistic scenario and was amazed to find that all but one showed significant advantages and long-term benefits in the legacy system,” he said. “The calculation that showed the best BRS benefit was putting in the highest TSP, with a high rate of return, with 50 percent of my continuation pay back into the TSP.”
He said the comparison totals aren’t as important to him as the amount he would receive each year after retirement, which is also laid out in the DoD calculator. In all options, he said, “the BRS doesn’t even come close to matching the [legacy] monthly payments until around 14 years post-retirement.”
While he’s single now, if he later marries and has children, “personally, I worry that my financial need will be greatest right around retirement age.”
If Riley has his wish, he’ll keep working as a microbiologist in the Army and serve for 30 years. If he leaves after 20, when he’s 46, his calculations are that his pension would be about $15,000 more a year under the legacy retirement system.
“Thinking where I’ll be in my life right then, would I rather have that $15,000 then?” he asked. “Yes.”
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.