Military personnel who seek to extend their careers should stay in shape and stay out of trouble because the armed forces will strive to keep only the best through a post-war drawdown period, warns the new chairman of the House armed services personnel subcommittee.
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said his priority will be to improve quality of life for service members, their families and veterans. But the 63-year-old lawmaker and retired Army National Guard colonel also recognizes that tight defense budgets and planned force reductions, particularly for Army and Marine Corps, are part of the new "realism" for the military.
Wilson said he's not endorsing Defense Secretary Robert Gate's plan, unveiled this month, to cut the active force Army and Marine Corps, starting in fiscal 2015. Army strength would drop by 27,000 and the Marine Corps by 15,000 to 20,000, Gates said, assuming ground force commitments in Afghanistan can be reduced significantly by then.
"I'm concerned," Wilson said. "Our country is at war. We have an enemy that is very persistent and determined. And I do believe we have extraordinary instability with Iran and North Korea. We've made a mistake in the past by reducing the ground forces."
Gates explained that, even after the projected cuts, which the service chiefs endorse, the Army still would have 40,000 more soldiers and the Corps 7,000 more Marines than when Gates took office four years ago.
Some force cuts are set to occur even sooner, under Gates' order to the services to find $100 billion in budget savings over the next five years to be used for higher priority programs. Part of the Navy Department's plan, for example, is to begin cutting manpower ashore and to reassign 6,000 personnel to operational missions at sea.
Wilson said he already has had discussions at the Pentagon about the "extraordinary budget constraints" and the planned force cuts.
"I want a system where people know up front how important it is that they maintain their physical fitness, that they make sure there are no disciplinary infractions of any kind," Wilson said. The key to protecting careers will be to stay deployable, he said.
Wilson has more military experience than most lawmakers. He was commissioned through Army ROTC at Washington Lee University in Virginia. After three years in the Reserve he transferred to the South Carolina National Guard. He moved from adjutant general corps to the judge advocate general corps after earning his law degree and served 28 years in the Guard before retiring in 2003.
Three of Wilson's four sons serve in the National Guard, including his oldest, Alan, an Iraq war veteran who this month became attorney general of South Carolina. His second oldest son is an active duty Navy doctor.
Wilson, now 10 years in Congress, ran for re-election last year as a Tea Party candidate. He knows there are deficit hawks among them who want to roll back all federal spending. He also knows about debt panel recommendations, from late last year, calling for deep cuts in many federal programs, including military entitlements.
Wilson said he and many other conservatives want to protect spending on defense, homeland security and on veterans, because there are plenty of enemies out there, and also America has obligations to those who served.
So, in the face of calls to slash federal spending and address the burgeoning national debt, Wilson said he still intends to fight to correct long-standing inequities in military entitlements. He wants to end the "widow's tax" in the Survivor Benefit Plan, and to lower the age-60 start of reserve retirement to make the plan fairer compared to active duty retirement. He also wants some military retirement paid to all service members forced by medical conditions to leave service early.
That might sound unaffordable amid tightening defense budgets. But Wilson's approach, he said, will be to achieve these goals in phases, making at least some progress on each of them every year.
Wilson said he is inclined to oppose Gate's call to "modestly" raise Tricare fees for working-age military retirees, starting in fiscal 2012, and to raise fees automatically thereafter to match medical inflation.
He opposed repeal of "don't ask, don't tell law" and still believes that it will harm military readiness. He might hold new hearings on the issue but not before the armed services committee completes its work on the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, which might not be until May.