Troops, families have new advocate

By Tom Philpott: Military update

James Webb (D-Va.), a take-charge senator who in just his second year conceived and negotiated passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, made clear Wednesday he will continue to influence issues that impact on the lives of service members, retirees, reservists and their families.

Webb has more leverage now as new chairman of the Senate armed services’ personnel subcommittee. He also has more knowledge of, and curiosity about, military people and policy than arguably anyone in Congress.

Webb indicated he’s still upset with the Army chief of staff’s decision in 2007 to extend soldier deployments in Iraq to 15 months with only a year of dwell time back home between deployments.

Webb reminded witnesses he fought to stop 15-month deployments, with a mandate of one month home for every month deployed. Now, nothing is more valuable then increasing dwell time between deployments, he said. Thomas R. Lamont, assistant secretary of the army for manpower and reserve affairs, endorsed those comments.

Webb, 64, graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy, distinguished himself in combat as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, served as chief counsel on the veterans’ affairs committee, wrote best-selling novels, and was assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs and Navy secretary.

Webb and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), ranking Republican on the panel, allowed only glimpses of their goals for this year. They openly supported only a few priorities listed by The Military Coalition, an umbrella groups for 34 military and veterans associations, who had five representatives also testified before the panel.

Both senators expressed worry over rising personnel costs, particularly for health care, and each noted TRICARE fees haven’t been raised on beneficiaries since 1995. Neither senator endorsed raising fees now, though Graham questioned whether TRICARE can be sustained without doing so.

Webb noted he is one of 55 co-sponsors of S 535, a bill by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to end reductions in Survivor Benefit Plan annuities that occur when widows also qualify for dependency and indemnity compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. DIC is paid to survivors of members who die in service or from service-connected ailments.

Clifford L. Stanley, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, testified that DoD continues to oppose ending the SBP-DIC offset.

Graham said he wants to expand an early reserve retirement provision passed in 2008 so that it applies to any Reserve and Guard members mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001. Currently, for every consecutive 90-day period of mobilization in a fiscal year, reservists see their age-60 retirement start date cut by three months. But this only applies to mobilizations after Jan. 28, 2008, leaving out 600,000 members recalled since fall of 2001.

Webb was silent on the Coalition’s call to add another half percent to the proposed 1.4 percent military raise for next January. Graham said, “We all wish it could be more but we do have budget problems up here.”