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Enlisted soldiers who became officers fight for pension benefits, with senators’ help

Washington’s Patty Murray and other U.S. senators, troubled by reports of career soldiers poised to lose thousands of dollars a year in retirement pay, are urging the Army to extend their service a little longer so they can leave the military with full pensions.

The 15 senators who wrote Secretary of the Army John McHugh last week want to protect scores of officers who were chosen for involuntary retirements this year and will be compelled to leave the military with the lower pay of enlisted soldiers.

The soldiers joined the Army as enlisted troops, but became officers later in their careers. Some of them have not served the required eight years as officers to be able to retire at the pay of their higher rank.

The difference in many cases is about $1,100 a month in retirement pay, for life.

“They answered the Army’s call to duty not just once, but twice. They have been deployed. They have served for years and then all of a sudden they are told they are going to lose their retirement pay, and that is unacceptable,” said Murray, a Democrat, who wrote the letter with Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson.

In the midst of a fast postwar drawdown, the Army this year required 19,000 captains and majors to go through early separation boards. Of those, the Army selected 1,188 captains and 550 majors for involuntary separations.

Officers who joined the military as enlisted soldiers had the most to lose because of the risk they faced in falling back to the pay they received as noncommissioned officers. The Army requires soldiers to serve 20 years to receive a full retirement.

One Joint Base Lewis-McChord officer who spoke to The News Tribune on condition of anonymity will be compelled to leave the Army with 20 years of total service, but only seven years and four months as an officer.

As a result, he’ll retire as a sergeant first class — his last rank before becoming an officer — and lose $1,100 a month in his pension.

“It’s taking me back to what I would have made 11 years ago,” he said. “Had I not switched over to becoming an officer, I would have been promoted and earned more.”

Murray and 14 other lawmakers want the Army to change its policy on early separations for these soldiers by allowing them to stay in uniform until they accumulate enough time to retire as officers.

So, the JBLM officer who spoke to The News Tribune would be allowed to stay in the Army for another eight months.

“We strongly urge you to take the necessary steps to rectify this situation in order to allow these soldiers to retire at the rank they have earned and appropriately honor their service to our nation,” the senators wrote.

It’s unclear what it would cost to fulfill their request.

McHugh has received the letter and will respond to it, said his spokesman, Lt. Col. Chris Kasker.

The Army is on a path to cut more than 110,000 active-duty soldiers from its peak wartime strength of 562,000 soldiers in 2012. It has about 510,000 active-duty soldiers today, and it is expected to drop to about 450,000 by 2019.

Army leaders have said repeatedly that capable soldiers will be forced to leave the military because of the speedy drawdown. The crunch could intensify if lawmakers fail to repeal the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration, which could cause the Army to cut another 30,000 active-duty positions.

“They’re in the Army now, and in other times they’d probably continue to stay in the Army. But this is not normal times,” then-Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell told Stars and Stripes in June.

The Army has not described the criteria it used in the boards. The New York Times recently obtained an internal Army report that showed enlisted soldiers who became officers were far more likely to be chosen for an early separation than those who became officers after attending West Point.

Some of the officers being chosen for early retirements were noncommissioned officers during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They were encouraged to apply to become officers to meet the Army’s then-growing demand for junior officers to lead platoons and companies on the battlefield.

“The Army was asking NCOs to become officers because they were short,” said the JBLM officer who spoke to The News Tribune. He deployed to both wars as an officer.

He was blindsided when he was chosen for an early separation this summer because his command had told him he looked like a strong candidate to stay in the Army.

“It seemed like a mistake,” he said.

Now he’s trying to figure out what he’ll do after leaving the military.

“Well, I’m trying to start networking, which is something I had not thought about before,” he said.

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