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The Military's Gentle `Ax'

Servicemen and women are given very favorable terms to leave

NO science writer could today get space offering the thesis that the world is flat, and no sportswriter could command attention with a piece on the speed and finesse of heavyweight George Foreman.

Yet, those writing about the drawdown in United States military manpower repeatedly present the equally false picture of 500,000 men and women about to be cashiered from the US military, many after heroic service in the Persian Gulf.

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According to the caricature, these victims of national ingratitude will be cast onto the rocky shoals of an inhospitable economy with neither the training nor the skills needed to prosper.

A recent US News and World report article compared their lot unfavorably to victims of the corporate sector in that, "General Motors, by comparison, will lay off 74,000 workers over the next three years."


In truth, very few military personnel face reduction in force. More senior officers passed over twice for promotion, who will receive full retirement benefits - at least half their active duty pay for life - constitute the only military casualties of peace.

Further, brand-new benefit packages expressly designed to encourage voluntary separation by younger officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) should provide a more-than-adequate cushion for the transition to civilian life, even during the current rather difficult period.

True enough, the military services are in the midst of a five-year cutback from 2.1 to 1.6 million active-duty personnel. But what is often overlooked is that during an average year some 300,000 uniformed personnel leave military service, most through ordinary retirement or failure to reenlist. Thus, if it chooses to do so, the military could accommodate about three times the volume of mandated personnel cuts, simply by holding back on accessions and enlistments.

This is, of course, not an acceptable way to handle the reductions because it would badly skewer the rank profiles of the four services, leaving too many in the middle ranks and too few in the junior ones.

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TO maintain a more balanced force, the Pentagon last year sought and obtained from Congress legislation enabling the services to retire colonels with more than 20 years service and no hope of future promotion, and to offer attractive separation packages to officers and NCOs whose less than 20 years of service precludes retirement benefits.

Under this latter package, a serviceman or woman can choose between a single lump-sum payment or a lesser payment which continues as an annuity for twice the number of years he or she has been in the service.

For example, the typical major with 15 years active duty can choose between a single payment of $94,114 or an annuity of $15,640 running for 30 years. A staff sergeant with 15 years active duty can choose a lump-sum payment of $56,126 or a 30-year annuity of $8,536. In addition, those electing to separate from the service are entitled to free job counseling, placement services, two-year commissary privileges, and other perquisites.

And while the skills of tank gunners and infantry commanders may not be readily transferable to civilian professions, the demand for teachers, electricians, mechanics, law-enforcement officers, salesmen, and managers continues.

Small wonder that few reductions in force (rifs) will be needed. In March, the Army canceled the one rif board scheduled for captains and has thus far been obliged to rif only a handful of majors. The Air Force, which must cut 24,000 NCOs and 7,500 officers through the end of fiscal year 1993, has not obtained all the voluntary NCO separations it needs or the more than 4,000 voluntary officer separations. Further, many among the potential Army and Air Force officer rifs are former enlistees who will have

the option of returning to NCO status to avert forced separation.

Neither the Navy nor the Marines are at this time planning rifs.

There are, of course, social costs associated with the cutback in military personnel. But they are borne more heavily by those who will be denied the opportunity to enter the armed forces than those already there. For example, the early figures show that lower recruitment numbers and higher minimum standards are having a somewhat disproportional impact on those black high school graduates who otherwise would have used military careers as a bridge to middle-class economic status.

As for professional soldiers, they are being treated with the fairness and farsightedness required by a just society. To portray them as society's hapless victims demeans both their careers and ourselves.

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