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Military pensions: a political minefield for reformers

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When Al Baker was a young infantry officer in Vietnam, his main concern was getting through the day. Three combat tours and a handful of Purple Hearts later , he has been selected for promotion to colonel. Now he's brushing up on his French and Arabic, preparing to be the top United States military adviser to the Lebanese armed forces.

For this he gets paid about $45,000 a year. Having just completed 20 years in the Army, he could retire at age 43 and continue receiving half that sum. He won't, but he figures this retirement benefit is ''deferred salary'' for a highly demanding and often dangerous job that has required his family - which includes six children - to move at least 15 times.

''It's very difficult to put a price on that,'' says the tall, slim West Virginian, whose family is packing up for another move.

Up on Capitol Hill, Rep. Les Aspin sees it differently. ''The retirement benefit is too generous,'' the Wisconsin Democrat says. ''A review is now long overdue.''

Early paid retirement has long been a target for military critics and reformers. But today this controversial benefit of uniformed service is the focus of special scrutiny. ''It's a new era,'' says Representative Aspin, pointing to recent changes in social security and other entitlement programs, as well as federal deficits climbing toward $200 billion.

Congress is about to begin a series of hearings on the subject; the President's Private Sector Commission on Government Cost Control has just recommended sharp cost-cutting measures in this area; and the Pentagon itself is completing its regular quadrennial review of military retirement.

Military pensions are a very large part of this country's defense budget, and they are growing rapidly. They totaled $11.9 billion in 1980, rose to $16.2 billion this year, and are projected to cost $44.7 billion by the year 2000.

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