Last updated: May 21. 2014 8:02AM - 226 Views
Thomas Crisp Contributing Columnist

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Top Pentagon leaders made a last stand May 6 in their months long offensive in support of military compensation reform, imploring senators to back plans to trim troops’ pay raises and benefits in the fiscal 2015 budget.

They’ve already lost on the other front of the fight, with members of the House Armed Services Committee the previous week rejecting the proposed compensation changes in their initial draft of the annual defense authorization bill.

If the Senate follows suit later this month, that will all but doom defense officials’ plans to cut about $2 billion from personnel costs next year and redirect the money into training and modernization programs.

At issue are plans to cap the military pay raise at 1 percent next year, cut housing allowance rates by 5 percent over three years, reduce the value of the commissary benefit and reorganize the Tricare system to include new fees for nonactive duty users.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and six fellow four-stars — his own deputy, the four service chief sand the head of the National Guard Bureau — argued that those savings are crucial to preserve military readiness and modernization accounts, a refrain they have repeated to lawmakers since the 2015 budget proposal was unveiled three months ago.

“Implementing this compensation package now will help us remain the world’s best-trained, best-led and best-equipped military. Otherwise, we’ll continue to hemorrhage readiness and cut into modernization funds.” Dempsey said.

But outside advocates — and a growing number of lawmakers — have protested that the compensation plans cut too deeply into troops’ wallets, leaving them with greatly diminished buying power even if their paychecks do not actually shrink. They maintain that DoD should hold off on any changes until at least next February, after the Military Compensation and Retirement Reform Commission issues a final report and recommendations on all pay and benefits programs. Dempsey said that timetable will delay meaningful reform until the 2017 budget, and cost DoD up to$18 billion in potential savings.

“We have enough information to request these nominal pay and compensation changes now,” he insisted. “We know this budget features difficult choices … but we have created a balanced package that enables us to fulfill the current defense strategy.”

Senators again reiterated dissatisfaction with self-imposed budget caps and looming sequestration spending cuts that have forced Pentagon belt-tightening, but have not offered any firm plans on a different way forward.

Members of the Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel have indicated they want to wait for the commission report, although Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the committee chairman, appeared less willing to simply punt decisions to next year.

“We do not have the option of simply rejecting these compensation proposals,” he said. “We would have to make alternative cuts.”

On 7 MAY, the House Armed Services Committee finalized its draft of the annual authorization bill, without the Pentagon’s requested compensation changes. Lawmakers did not specify an offset for the $2 billion price tag next year, instead shifting dozens of spending priorities around to help pay for their preferred programs.

They acknowledged that retirement and compensation will need an overhaul in the near future, but insisted the changes can wait nine more months for the commission’s report. Pentagon planners will know if their lobbying efforts before the Senate committee were more successful by early June.

Despite its vaunted intelligence-gathering capability, the U.S. military was surprised when enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan began building and deploying roadside bombs to kill and maim U.S. troops. It got so bad that a soldier asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld nearly two years into the Iraq war why U.S. troops were forced to defend themselves against such improvised explosive devices with homemade hillbilly armor.

“You go to war with the Army you have,” Rumsfeld told the soldier, “not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

It took the Pentagon three more years before Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles finally began trickling into Iraq.

While the troops were waiting for that armor, the Pentagon was also neglecting to track the traumatic brain injuries caused by such blasts, a new medical study says. TBIs — the “signature wound” of the post-9/11 wars — are tough to diagnose and treat. Without a good accounting of those who experienced a TBI, those challenges multiply.

The report’s authors, using amputations as a proxy for TBIs, conclude that the military documented only one in five TBIs estimated to have affected U.S. troops between 2003 and 2006. Responding to legislation, the Pentagon began tracking TBIs more closely beginning in 2007. Overall, during the eight years spanning 2003 to 2010, the study estimates that 32,822 active-duty troops suffered undocumented TBI wounds.

That’s more than the 32,176 documented by the Pentagon over the same period of time. “This analysis provides the first estimate of undocumented incident TBIs among US military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan” before Congress demanded the improved counting, the report says.

Such missing diagnoses are important, says the study, conducted by a pair of Johns Hopkins University health experts. Undocumented TBIs could lead to troops being booted from the military as malingerers or for personality disorders — discharges that could restrict their access to care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

For those remaining in uniform, it could lead to additional combat tours, boosting their chances of a second TBI and the “visual and auditory deficits, posttraumatic epilepsy, headaches, major depression, and suicide risk” that accompany multiple TBIs, according to the study.

Even a so-called “mild” TBI can rattle the (helmeted) brain inside the skull, leading to a host of maladies including memory loss, cognitive deficits, mood volatility, substance-abuse disorders, personality changes, sleep difficulties and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder.

“In recent years, the U.S. military has generally been reactive, rather than proactive, in responding to public health crises, including suicide, psychotropic drug misuse, and gaps in wounded warrior care,” says Remington Nevin, a co-author of the study. “Public-health leaders within the Department of Defense have a troubling history of having epidemics and programmatic deficiencies identified only by outsiders long after the time to act has passed, rather than having these identified internally in time to mount an optimally effective response.”

A top Army psychiatrist at the time says troops minimized the issue, and their leaders weren’t seeking it out. “Soldiers did not want to come forward, for fear that would be taken out of the fight, or thought to be malingerers,” says retired Army colonel Elspeth Ritchie. “And we — the medics and the line [officers] — were not looking for it.”

The authors used an interesting yardstick to estimate the number of undocumented TBIs: they calculated them by developing a mathematic formula that established a relationship between amputations and TBIs, based on the wars’ later years when the Pentagon was more rigorously tracking TBIs.

Unlike TBIs—the so-called “invisible wounds” of the nation’s post 9/11 wars—amputations are visible and easily counted. IED blasts cause most TBIs and amputations, making missing limbs a good tool to estimate the missing TBIs, says the paper, by Rachel Chase and Nevin of Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Including amputation counts in the model as a proxy for injury causing events is appropriate, given strong clinical and ecological evidence of common mechanisms of injury” for amputations and TBIs, they write in an article in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation slated to be posted next week.

Too often, wars’ impacts aren’t gleaned until years later. Mustard gas experiments poisoned thousands during World War II. Cold War nuclear-weapons tests are suspected of causing cancer. Agent Orange was the ticking time bomb in Vietnam—the Department of Veterans Affairs is still adding to its list of medical consequences. Gulf War Syndrome stemming from the first war with Iraq, in 1991, remains a mystery. Traumatic brain injury is simply the latest in the list of war’s unintended repercussions.

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