The reaction was swift, and it was powerful. Defense Secretary Hagel put a reduction in military benefits on the table; Pentagon officials point to what they describe as unsustainable personnel costs, everything from health care to day care to discounted commissary privileges. Veterans groups called it unconscionable to inflict cuts of any kind on a force that has endured repeated deployments. 

According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, benefits received by active-duty military together with millions of retirees have grown more than 40 percent faster than inflation in the decade between 2001 and 2012. Benefits were sweetened and others added in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, reflecting the thanks of a grateful nation—not to mention the instinct of politicians about where the votes are.  

After Congress in December shaved one percent from the annual COLA (cost of living adjustment) increase for working-age military retirees, the House and Senate reversed itself, voting earlier this month to repeal the measure by huge margins (95 to 3 in the Senate; 326 to 90 in the House). The attitude seems to be that in a $500 billion dollar defense budget, there’s enough money that the Pentagon shouldn’t be nickel-and-diming military retirees.

With a generation of veterans facing physical challenges in earlier wars they wouldn’t have survived—including brain injuries that defy easy treatment—it takes some courage to make the case that benefits need to be reined in or the whole enterprise is threatened. It’s a case that Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro has been making since June 2011. 

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