Esquire magazine’s report this week that a retired 16-year veteran of the United States military—a Navy SEAL who played a key role in the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden—now struggles without health care has become a mini cause célèbre. The story is an opportune time to review how the U.S. takes care of the men and women who do so much to protect it.
America’s military compensation system is at once generous and stingy. It needs improvement, but the right answer at a time of national fiscal duress cannot simply be to increase benefits wherever there seems an argument for doing so. Reforms and efficiencies are needed too.
Whatever the specifics of the SEAL’s case, a person who leaves the military after 16 years doesn’t fare very well in postservice compensation systems. Pensions kick in after 20 years of service, typically at 50% of previous basic pay, as does access to the military’s “Tricare for life” health-care program that provides excellent benefits to veterans and their families at very modest costs.
Anyone retiring before 20 years of military service isn’t eligible for these benefits, even in part, and virtually everyone in the military is well aware of this fact—which is why very few people voluntarily leave the service after 15-19 years.