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Today's front page of the Marine Corps Times
Last week during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corp Michael Barrett responded to Senators who were asking what the impact of lower pay raises, increased health care fees, lower housing allowances, and increased prices at the commissary would do to our men and women in uniform. He said:
I truly believe it will raise discipline. You’ll have better spending habits. You won’t be so wasteful.”
Honestly, I would have expected words like this to come from Stephen Colbert, not from the top NCO of the Marines. In fact, all the other service chiefs gave testimony to the exact opposite. It seems as if the Sergeant Major decided to go out on a limb all his own.

In fact, Barrett is playing with political fire but I'm not sure even he knew how dangerous this game can be.

Barrett's comment was reported in the Marine Corps Times in a manner that caused him some level of distress. He claimed he was quoted out of context. But it wasn't until a military spouse, Kristine Schellhaas, published an open letter to the Sergeant Major at, her blog about Marine family life, that he decided to speak out. She was very polite in her letter, full of respect for his position and for him as a person. But she let him know that he was mistaken in his approach. While she was fighting on the Hill with other military spouses to keep military benefits, he was telling Senators that military families could use more discipline. In the words of Schellhaas:

We stormed the Hill yesterday to fight for military benefits and Tricare. Your words were the complete opposite of what we were fighting for...

Our families will have to make choices between paying the electric bill or that co-pay for a nagging cough. They’ll pay the electric bill.

Schellhass' letter made an impact. In fact, it made Barrett realize that he didn't quite get his point across in the way he intended. So he wrote a response letter. Before reading it, you might think that he actually tried to explain that he didn't mean what he said. But no, he just doubled down:
Nobody wants less. But if we don't slow the growth of our hard-earned generous compensation/benefit entitlements that we have enjoyed over the past decade, we won't have sufficient dollars for what we need - the investment in our warfighting capabilities and our wonderful Marine and family care programs.
The Marine Corps Times is on top of this story. Yesterday, they published a piece about the back and forth between Schellhaas and Barrett. And you would hope that a little time might have softened Barret's point of view. But no:
“We are a warfighting organization. And if we don’t get control or slow growth, we are are going to be an entitlements-based and health care provider, and not a warfighting organization,” he said. “That’s what I will tell you: we have to remember what we do for a living.”
Those words could have come from any of the political pundits on FOX News.

Barrett has fallen for the bait. He believes that we must choose between fair and just compensation to our military families and quality training and equipment. As Schellhaas says in her latest, between bullets and benefits.

Currently there is an organization holding meetings across the country on reforming military compensation and retirement. Their next public meeting will be at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida this coming May. They are collecting public input and will report to Congress what they find in April 2015. So why all the hearings in Congress this year? Why did Paul Ryan and Claire McCaskill offer up retirement in the budget this year? Why has President Obama cut benefits in his version of the 2015 budget? Why the big rush?

We've just managed to spend billions of dollars on two wars for which Congress never managed to pay. Congress never came to the American People and said, If we want to fight these two wars, we need to pay for them. So we're going to institute a tax to do so. We know you support the wars so won't you help pay for them?

If they would have done so, we would have more than enough money to pay for today's military and tomorrow's retirees. But it is so much easier to ignore the facts and to ask military families to sacrifice once again. And when you can get your military leadership to fall for the trap, well, then you've really succeeded as a politician, haven't you?

The problem doesn't really lie in the Defense Budget being over-run by "entitlements" as the Sergeant Major believes. In fact, this problem keeps cropping up decade after decade because a certain element of Congress doesn't want to properly budget for defense. In the words of John Q. Public:

Today’s uniformed leaders feel like they are trapped in a vicious budgetary cycle. Congress won’t let them close unnecessary bases, end frivolous procurement programs, discontinue wasteful programs, or enact structural reforms. Nor can Congress be depended upon to keep our military forces clear of elective, protracted wars that are expensive in economic, human, and moral terms.

With so much budget space off-limits and facing the reality that our country’s strategic choices have slowed modernization, senior officers and NCOs have begun wrongly framing the budget dilemma as a choice between appropriate compensation and adequate readiness . . . between critical benefits and new equipment. This is a false choice.

So what happens when our leaders fall for the false choice? Military families suffer.

Recently, I was reminded of a military family tragedy that happened almost 30 years ago. It was 1984, the year I graduated from high school. In that year, the pay gap between military and civilian salaries was a mere 5.5%. Our nation was not at war. Our military families, especially our junior enlisted families, struggled to make it on military pay. One family in particular was feeling the brunt of a recent overseas move, the lack of available military housing on the local base, a family separation as the active duty member was serving in a remote location, and the stigma of having to borrow money from an Army aide organization. It's a story that could be happening today.

This family thought it was coping as best as possible until their 13 year old son committed suicide in order to save the family money. Talk about discipline. In this child's mind, his family needed the savings more than they needed him.

I never want to see our military families experience these kinds of decisions. In this Month of the Military Child it is a hell of a reminder that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines don't serve alone. It's great that Sgt. Maj. Barrett wants to increase discipline among his active duty members. Oorah! Those men and women signed up to serve and are willing to sacrifice everything for our nation. Their children should never have to feel that way.
Our military families should not be asked to sacrifice so much and when we cut the lifeline to families, we place stress on spouses and children that is unconscionable. A family should never have to chose between paying a Tricare co-pay or putting food on the table. A family shouldn't have to calculate whether the cost of fuel to drive to the local Walmart saves them more money than shopping at the local Commissary. No military family should have to pay more for housing on the local economy just because the government decides that they will only cover 95% of the rent. And pay raises? They exist to keep that pay gap close to zero. We want our military families to receive salaries that keep families off of food stamps and out of programs like WIC. Make cuts to those annual pay raises and just watch the increased need.

Truthfully, this is an argument that could be made for all families in the United States. I'm tired of reading about the working poor. I'm tired of reading about how Congress just can't manage to raise the minimum wage. But I have to face my battles one at a time.

Can you help military families? Now is the time to contact your Representative and your two Senators and remind them that the choice should never be between bullets and benefits.

9:37 AM PT: Sergeant Major Barrett has just tripled down in an interview with the Marine Corps Times:

Q. People may say some Marines aren’t making that choice. They are making the choice of whether to pay the co-pay to get their cold checked out, or pay the heating bill. How do you respond to that?

A. [It’s about] Better spending habits in general ... Not spending beyond your means. [Those in need] should go to see their command financial specialist and, [say], ‘Here is how much money I have. Here are my wants, and here’s my needs. As soon as I get my paycheck how much should I put away?’ That’s what it’s about.

The good Sergeant Major also accused folks of spending their hard earned money on 72-inch TVs when a 32-inch would do just fine. I wonder how many 72-inch televisions the government owns in waiting rooms around the nation? Instead of telling his troops how to spend their money, maybe he should be telling the government how to spend theirs.

Originally posted to A Progressive Military Wife on Mon Apr 14, 2014 at 06:50 AM PDT.

Also republished by Military Community Members of Daily Kos, ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement, Kitchen Table Kibitzing, and In Support of Labor and Unions.

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