- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dear Sgt Shaft:

I recently called the VA’s 800 number and was really frustrated at the time it took to navigate to a real live person. There was an endless maze of choices starting with do you want to apply for e benefits. None of the choices seemed to fit the reason for my call. I almost felt that if I could select all of the correct responses to the seemingly endless filtering process, I wouldn’t have had to make the call in the first place.

When I finally was able to push enough buttons that it was clear that I needed to speak with a human, I was told that this would take more than 20 minutes because of the heavy call load. Ironically, this is where the good news starts, I was give the opportunity by pressing 1 to opt for hanging up without losing my place in the cue and the VA would call me back when it was time for my call. I selected that option and was called back in the estimated time range.

I applaud VA for this efficient intervention, but wish that it could find a way to ease the path to the personal touch when an automated approach just isn’t the way to go.

Bob S.
Alexandria, Va.

Dear Bob:

I recommend that the VA secretary let his fingers do the walking over the VA’s 800 number as all veterans have to do. Hopefully, he and his apparatchiks will review and correct this veteran unfriendly system.

Shaft notes

The Sarge joins the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in their opposition to sweeping changes in the military retirement system.

America’s 10-year fight in the Middle East has produced a battle-hardened generation of young folks, who by and large have the full support and appreciation of a grateful nation.
This is most welcoming to my generation of Vietnam veterans, who returned home to a vastly different reception.

But the post-9/11 generation is not yet returning to flowers and victory celebrations, not with 90,000 troops still in Afghanistan and hot spots elsewhere around the world. They are returning instead to an economy in turmoil and extremely high unemployment rates for veterans younger than 24, who are having difficulty translating military skills into a
civilian asset, and the reluctance by some employers to hire guardsmen and reservists who might get recalled to active duty.

They also return trying to make sense of the past 10 years, extremely proud of what they accomplished but disconnected from a civilian public that has been unaffected by a decade of war. This is especially true on college campuses, which are as foreign to young veterans as boot camp would be on their student peers. And for those who choose to
stay in uniform, they return to an America that used to wait for the wars to end before downsizing its military.

January’s announcement by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta paints a stark reality that DOD will do its share to rein in government spending. Gone over the next five years will be 100,000 soldiers and Marines, who will return active Army and Marine Corps end strengths back near pre-9/11 numbers.

Gone beginning in fiscal year 2015 will be full military pay raises, which this year was just 1.6 percent. Also gone sometime within the next decade could be dozens more military installations and facilities, as additional base realignment and closure commissions have been recommended.

And gone could be the existing military retirement system, replaced with a more civilianized structure that is portable, participatory and possibly deferred, that focuses more on saving the government money than on providing a modest and immediate stipend to someone who first volunteers 20 or more years of their youth to the nation. Already gone is any semblance of free medical care for life, but still there are now new plans to force working age retirees and those 65-plus to pay even more for their earned health care

Secretary Panetta and his service secretaries and service chiefs have a tough job ahead, not only because they have to reduce the overall defense budget by $487 billion over the next decade, but because they have to do it in such a manner as to not break faith with a military still at war.

DOD would be wise to also not break faith with America’s veterans’ service organizations, who give service members a collective voice on Capitol Hill, as well as serve as the military’s greatest advocates and recruiting tools.

And perhaps utmost, the powers that be have to convince themselves that all these negative qualify-of-life changes on a military still at war will not destroy the all-volunteer force. America’s military is the strongest and most powerful on Earth because it takes care of the people who take care of the mission, but now, I’m not so sure, because it sure seems like the new military strategy is being driven by a cost-reduction budget, despite sound bites to the contrary.

Technology is certainly a force multiplier, but it can’t replace boots on the ground, ships at sea or manned aircraft. And constantly comparing civilian programs with military pay, retirement and health care plans — while calling the military programs “too generous” — is insulting, and so is any proposal that requires those who sacrifice the most for our nation to sacrifice even more.

Once the economy rebounds — and it will — DOD will no longer have the luxury of record recruiting and retention rates. The department will once again be forced to offer expensive enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses to attract and keep the 25 percent of Americans who can meet the military’s minimum health, aptitude and physical fitness standards.

Perhaps my greatest fear is that all these changes to pay and benefits are going to create a mass exodus of mid-career officers and noncommissioned officers because they no longer feel appreciated or in control of their own military careers.

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, P.O. Box 65900, Washington, D.C. 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330, call 202/257-5446 or email sgtshaft@bavf.org.

• Sgt. Shaft can be reached at .

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