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'No changes' to military pensions for now

WASHINGTON -- It sounds like a pretty good deal: Retire at age 38 after 20 years of work and get a monthly pension of half your salary for the rest of your life. All you have to do is join the military.

As the nation tightens its budget belt, the century-old military retirement system has come under attack as unaffordable, unfair to some who serve, and overly generous compared with civilian benefits.

That very notion, laid out in a Pentagon-ordered study, sent a wave of fear and anger through the ranks of current and retired military members when it was reported in the news media this month.

If pensions are to be cut, Congress should go first, one person said on the Internet.

"Obviously, we're concerned about it," said Ret. Gen. Gordon Sullivan, an Army chief of staff in the 1990s who heads the nonprofit educational group Association of the United States Army.

The Defense Department put out a statement this week stressing it was only a proposal and that no changes will be made anytime soon.

"While the military retirement system, as with all other compensation, is a fair subject of review for effectiveness and efficiency, no changes to the current retirement system have been approved," said Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez.

The upset was sparked by a nonbinding recommendation from the Defense Business Board, the Pentagon's private sector advisory panel. A July 21 draft report that could be finalized this month recommended pensions be scrapped and replaced with a 401(k)-type defined contribution plan.

The report was strictly about dollars and cents, part of a review of Pentagon spending started under Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's predecessor, Robert Gates.

It didn't mention intangibles: Would such a change make military jobs less desirable? Is it possible to compare military and civilian employment? How much does a grateful nation feel it owes to the less than 1 percent of the population that volunteers to fight America's wars? The report noted that military retirees start collecting pensions immediately upon leaving the service, rather than at age 65, as is standard in the private sector.

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