When legislation making future cuts to cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for military retirees was passed last winter in Congress, The American Legion launched an aggressive campaign to have them repealed. That many of the cuts were later repealed was due in no small part, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said, to the Legion's efforts.
Speaking during the Legion's 54th annual Washington Conference's Commander's Call today, Graham – a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee – praised the Legion's efforts and asked the organization to remain vigilant when it comes to speaking for members of the military.
"The American Legion spearheaded an effort of veterans organizations to basically challenge the Congress to rethink an idea ... as part of a budget deal," said Graham, a U.S. Air Force and South Carolina Air National Guard veteran. "You spoke through email. How many of you visited a member of Congress about this issue. You got everybody worried about their jobs. You woke up the Congress and the American people, and we fixed this problem. Without you, it would not have happened.
"The American Legion is so important. It is the voice, it is the eyes and ears, and it is the soul of those who care about the military. Your role now is more important than any time in history because we live in a society where most people are disconnected from the requirements of service. The average American is not asked to do a whole lot in terms of defending the nation. That doesn't mean they don't care. They do. But without your voice, without the press conferences and the emails and the office visits, the COLA would not have been fixed."
Graham said the American people have a duty to those who have chosen to make the military a career. "People don't join the military and stay for 20 years just for the money," he said. "But when we make a commitment to our people, we need to keep it. If it's not a good deal, it reflects upon us as a nation."
With that said, Graham said with Americans now living well into their 80s, there is a need to look at the military compensation system; the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission is doing just that and will issue its report in February 2015. "I challenge The American Legion to keep an open mind about how we would reform pay and benefits in the future to have a sustainable military," he said.
Graham blasted sequestration, calling it "Latin for politicians doing really dumb things." He said the No. 1 priority of the federal government should be that its citizens are adequately defended.
"So how do we replace sequestration from becoming a reality by 2024?" he said. "We're going to have to get Republicans and Democrats in a room and find a way to cut the budget in a more fair and sustainable manner. Military spending is 18 percent of our budget. It absorbs 50 percent of sequestration cuts."
Graham said the timing isn't right for the U.S. to cut its defense budget. "Tell me a good time for America to go to a historically low level of spending," he said. "Tell me five nations in NATO who spend 2 percent of their money on defense.
"We have the smallest Army since 1940, the smallest Navy since 1915. Build the defense budget around the world as it is, not the way you would like it to be. If you want to avoid a war, make sure the people wanting to fight you will lose. They're less likely to fight you if they know how this movie ends."