WASHINGTON — After 25 years of service, including combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Lt. Col. Stephen Preston retired from the Army and began collecting a pension of nearly $55,000 a year. The money made it possible for Preston to go back to college, get his MBA and embark on a second career in corporate strategy.
So it happened that Preston was sitting in his new office shortly before Christmas when he heard on the radio that he had become the latest target in Washington's war on spending.
"I'm not an angry man, but I was very, very angry," Preston, 51, said in a telephone interview from his home in Tampa. "This is a pact between the greater population of the United States and the fraction of people who served and sacrificed. If you didn't want to pay us what you promised us, then you probably shouldn't have promised it."
The plan to trim pension increases for working-age military retirees such as Preston is by far the most controversial provision in a bipartisan budget deal approved by Congress and signed last week by President Barack Obama.
The cut is small — a one-percentage-point reduction in the annual cost-of-living increase — but it has provoked outrage among veterans who argue that the country is reneging on a solemn pact.
The authors of the budget deal, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., have already agreed to amend the provision to exempt disabled retirees and survivors of those killed in action, eliminating roughly 10 percent of the $6 billion in savings projected over the next decade.
But Ryan has resisted efforts to abandon the pension cut entirely, calling it a "modest" adjustment to a particularly generous program.
Opponents say the policy retroactively penalizes a deserving group while doing nothing to contain the much larger cost of health and retirement benefits for the general public.
Overall, military compensation — including health benefits and salaries paid to active-duty personnel — eats up roughly half the defense budget.
Military pensions would appear to be particularly ripe for reduction. Anyone who puts in 20 years can receive payments immediately and look forward to annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, for life. That means service members who signed up at 18 could find themselves with a full pension — roughly half their active-duty paycheck — at 38.
Opponents of the policy do not deny the need to overhaul military pensions, or military compensation in general. But they argue that changes should be made for future enlistees, not for people who have already served and planned their lives around promised benefits.
Just as troubling, opponents say, is the cavalier manner in which budget negotiators cherry-picked savings from the military to cover the cost of a small budget deal that solves none of the nation's biggest problems.
"It's horrible policy. If we're going to reform entitlements, let's do it in a fashion that's comprehensive," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an advocate of broad entitlement reform who voted against the budget deal and is campaigning to overturn the military-pension provision.
This agreement "is not an effort to deal with the entitlement problem," Graham said. "This is an effort to single out one group of people and put a penalty on their benefits that you're not putting on anybody else. And this would be the last group we'd want to penalize, I think, not the first."
Preston, the retired soldier, agrees.
"Those of us who make it to 25, 30 years, we deserve to get what we were promised," he said. "It isn't even really about the money. If we need to balance our budget, fine.
"But let's not balance it by breaking the deal you have with me, who served, in order to provide for somebody who just showed up," he said. "You just don't do that."