DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
September 19, 1995

MORE BROKEN PROMISES

"It's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!' But it's 'Savior of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot." -- Rudyard Kipling, "Tommy," 1890

Over the years, the recruiting poster with Uncle Sam's commanding figure and its message, "I Want You," has attracted millions of volunteers to our armed forces. Many men and women have joined because of patriotism, still others for adventure, and some to get away from the law.

When I enlisted, grunts got 50 bucks a month, three squares a day, free mangled laundry and the guarantee of a Spartan life. Few volunteers joined up for the pay or the promise it would be an easy trip.

You got to be a human target, live in "exotic" Third World, disease- filled lands that were either too hot or too cold, and, if you were crazy enough to get married, you loaded the family in the station wagon every year to move to a new post and a new house, which often should have been a candidate for demolition.

For many regulars, one hitch led to another, and before they knew it, they had become lifers, retiring with at least 20 years of active service. The retirement deal was the carrot. It made the hard, nomadic lifestyle worthwhile -- or at least bearable. The government, in an implicit contract, said, "Give me your best years, and when you retire, we'll take care of your basic requirements."

Now, Congress wants to renege on the deal. As many as 750,000 serving military personnel could take a 9 percent cut in their retirement pay. This proposed cut could reduce retirement checks by as much as $250 a month for members who entered the service before September 1980. These are the warriors, many of whom stood tall along the Iron Curtain, in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and dozens of other miserable and dangerous spots.

Republican members on the House National Security Committee say the cuts are unavoidable if Congress is going to meet its promise to balance the federal budget. They say they can save $649 million over the next seven years by sticking it to the troops.

This gloomy news is sending shock waves through the ranks. Soldiers, like so many citizens, feel they can no longer trust our government to keep its commitments. Congress seems to have forgotten that it is warriors who risk their lives to win wars.

While breaking the faith with the men and women who make all the sacrifices, Congress is, as usual, wasting tens of billions of dollars buying unnecessary dinosaurs such as the B-2 bomber, Seawolf submarine and other relics.

The Republican-controlled defense committees in the House and Senate are calling for billions of dollars in increased defense spending on new weapons systems such as Star Wars, which has already slopped up almost $40 billion of pork fat.

If Congress scratched just one B-2 bomber, it wouldn't have to gouge the troops -- breaking a bedrock promise -- and would end up with over half a million bucks in savings.

The Republican members of Congress pushing to cut military retirement say they can't shift money from defense programs to cover the cost of the retirement benefits. They claim that existing law prevents them from moving the money around.

It seems to me that since they are the lawmakers, they can simply pass another law allowing monies to be shifted from their favorite porkworks to the most indispensable defense factor: the human element.

Of course, many of these lawmakers would understand this if they had served. Sadly, today in the House of Representatives, only 43 percent of the members have worn a uniform, and of these only a few were regulars.

Retired paratrooper, Sgt. Maj. Leo B. Smith, a 28-year Army veteran who wears the perfect attendance badge for not missing a war since World War II, says, 'When there's a shooting war they can't give us enough. But when things get quiet, the warrior is the one that gets the shaft. It's always been that way."

Perhaps the sergeant major is right, but he doesn't have to be. All it takes is a Congress that puts people over pork.