Situation Report

The Pentagon spends $1 billion a year to pay unemployment to service members; Mattis’ parting shot: Afghanistan needs 20k post 2014; Pentagon, strictly enforcing CODEL travel; Where did $60 billon go in Iraq; What happened in Wardak; and a little more.

The Pentagon spends $1 billion a year to pay unemployment to service members; Mattis’ parting shot: Afghanistan needs 20k post 2014; Pentagon, strictly enforcing CODEL travel; Where did $60 billon go in Iraq; What happened in Wardak; and a little more.

By Gordon Lubold 

The Pentagon spent nearly $1 billion in 2012 to provide unemployment benefits for former service members…who left the military voluntarily. As the Pentagon confronts a $46 billion sequester that will mean drastic cuts to programs and operations and, soon, furloughs for civilian employees, it spends a staggering $1 billion a year on an entitlement program that sends unemployment checks to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines after they leave the military voluntarily. That’s in stark contrast to civilians in the private sector, who do not receive unemployment compensation when they leave a job of their own volition, and the program’s skyrocketing costs are alarming the services.

So if a Marine lance corporal, say, completes his four-year obligation and opts not to re-enlist, he can receive unemployment for as long as 92 weeks, even though he chose to separate from the military. According to a fact sheet on the program — known as Unemployment Compensation for Ex-servicemembers, or UCX — from the Department of Labor: "If you were on active duty with a branch of the U.S. military, you may be entitled to benefits based on that service. You must have been separated under honorable conditions. There is no payroll deduction from service members’ wages for unemployment insurance protection. Benefits are paid for by the various branches of the military, NOAA or USPHS."

The well established but little-known program, which has been in place for decades, was designed to help service members transition out of the military and into paying jobs in the private sector. Unemployment among some groups of veterans, especially those of the 9/11 generation, is higher than the national average, as much as 11 percent. And many believe service members separating from the service do in fact need time to make the transition. But it is the extent to which the benefit allows former service members to collect unemployment that has some defense officials wondering if the Pentagon can continue to afford such a program.

In 2012, the Defense Department paid $928,225,000 to former service members who received honorable discharges, according to data obtained by Situation Report. That amount was actually down from the $936,728,000 the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force paid for service members to collect unemployment in fiscal 2011. But the cost to the services has tripled since 2003, when the services paid about $300 million total for the benefit, according to DOD data.

According to the Department of Labor, 120,000 service members drew unemployment benefits in 2012; the year before it was 118,000; and in 2008 only about 71,000 service members took advantage of the program. Over the last five years, 517,057 former service members have drawn unemployment after leaving the military. Read more on this below. 

Welcome to Wednesday’s Snowquester edition of Situation Report, where it appears the ice-in-the-toilet ritual to make it snow is starting to work. We swear this is real. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I’ll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings and whatnot.

Pentagon Comptroller: we will strictly enforce CODEL travel policies. Comptroller Robert Hale provided "additional guidance for handling budgetary uncertainty" in a letter dated March 5 obtained by Situation Report. Among other things, Hale told top officials at the Pentagon that while the military would continue to provide military transport to members of Congress, it would only do so under necessary circumstances. Hale: "Organizations need to ensure that travel of members and employees of Congress is sponsored by the DoD only where the purpose of the travel is of primary interest to and bears a substantial relationship to programs or activities of DoD and is not solely for the purpose of engendering goodwill or obtaining possible future benefits."

Hale also said that the services should consider "significant reductions" in tuition assistance, he directed that the Pentagon not issue discretionary bonuses to civilians, and he warned employees against participation in "international events," except those where individuals are supporting foreign military sales. All "demonstration flying" with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds and other demonstration groups will cease April 1, as Situation Report reported last month. Military musical and ceremonial units will "not be permitted to travel" beyond the local area, according to the guidance.

The U.S. may be done with "big footprint wars," but there’s a host of problems with going "light." There is far less political will — or funding — to fight big wars anymore, and the Obama administration will lean heavily on its "partners" to get things done around the world. But, writing on FP, Jonathan Morgenstein says that it’s not so simple. "[O]ften prospective partners — including the Colombians and the African Union states — have less than ideal human rights records. Consider the case of the rebel group known as M23. Over the past year, M23, a Rwandan proxy militia, has committed large-scale atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last November, in response, the United Kingdom suspended all assistance, military and civilian, to neighboring Rwanda. Fifteen major human rights groups called upon the U.S. government to ‘cut all military assistance and suspend other non-humanitarian aid’ as well. Instead, President Obama chastised Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame by phone, but only scaled back U.S. security cooperation by a mere $200,000 (out of $200 million) — hoping that mild displeasure would allow it to maintain Rwandan support for U.S. interests and coax changes in Rwandan policy."

Mattis goes public with his recommendation for a post-2014 force for Afghanistan. The E-Ring’s Kevin Baron writes that Gen. James Mattis, the outgoing commander of U.S. Central Command, laid down a big marker yesterday when he disclosed his recommendation for the size of the American force in Afghanistan after 2014: 13,600 troops, with the potential of another 7,000 from the international community. That’s far larger than what the White House seems to be considering. In Brussels at the NATO defense ministerial recently, the German defense minister accidentally or not-so-accidentally announced the the U.S. would keep 8,000-12,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014; Surprised American officials  immediately responded, saying various numbers were under consideration and that that range was not U.S. only and included an international contribution. 

From the hearing yesterday, in an exchange with Republican Sen. John McCain:

Mattis: "The post-2014 force, senator, that decision I know has not been made yet. It’s still under consideration. I have made my recommendation."

McCain: "Which is?"

Mattis: "That recommendation is for 13,600 U.S. forces, sir."

McCain: "And how many NATO?"

Mattis: "Well, I — not something I control…"

McCain: "Right."

Mattis: "but I assume it’d probably be around 50 percent of what we provide." 

Mattis, unplugged. After years of being under what seemed to be a gag order, Mattis was back. At least temporarily. At a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis was asked about sexual assault in the military after it was recently disclosed that an Air Force three-star, Craig Franklin, reversed a decision in a sexual assault case involving Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, dismissing the charges against him. During the hearing yesterday, McCaskill asked Mattis what he thought about it. Mattis, who has a history of colorful quotes, got a laugh when he responded: "You show us someone who conducts themself in a criminal manner along these lines, and I am dry-eyed when I put my beloved troops in jail the rest of their life for all I care."

This from a Marine who famously told Iraqis in 2003: "I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all." Mattis’ "Wikiquote" page here.

Their Vanity Fair cover shot: Annie Leibovitz couldn’t have done any better than this shot of Mattis and his hearing swim buddy, Adm. Bill McRaven, by Andrew Harnik of the WashTimes.

The complexities of Wardak. Disagreement about what happened in Wardak has forced a negotiation over the future of the American presence in the Afghanistan province. Reports of torture, disappearances, and other abuses, first laid at the feet of U.S. Special Operations Forces operating in Wardak, resulted in President Hamid Karzai calling for an end to U.S. operations there. American officials now say they are trying to work it out. But a report in the LAT this morning explains the discrepancies between the U.S. and the Afghan government and how this could contribute to problems for the end-game. The LAT, with reporting in Washington and Wardak: "The story was gruesome: A university student, captured in a U.S. special forces raid, was found decapitated and with his fingers sliced off. Amid a groundswell of public anger, Afghan President Hamid Karzai‘s office cited that incident, as well as reports that nine villagers had been abducted from their homes, when he decided last week to bar the elite U.S. troops from a volatile province at the doorstep of Kabul, a move that could one day put the capital at risk. But the account of the young man’s death was wrong, U.S. and local Afghan officials say. He was snared by armed men, not U.S. forces or their Afghan allies, according to Afghan law enforcement officials. In police photos of the body, he has one finger chopped off and a gash on one side of his neck, but he wasn’t beheaded."

"Just not strategic thinking": In Iraq, too much money spent, too few results. So says the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stewart Bowen, in his final report, which details the spending of more than $60 billion in taxpayer dollars to support programs and projects in Iraq. The report "urges and substantiates necessary reforms that could improve stabilization and reconstruction operations, and it highlights the financial benefits accomplished by SIGIR’s work," according to an online cover page of the report, released this morning. AP’s Lara Jakes, a former bureau chief in Baghdad, writes: "Ten years and $60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost." Jakes quotes Kurdish government official Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani: "You think if you throw money at a problem, you can fix it…. It was just not strategic thinking."

Unemployment benefit for former servicemembers, continued.

For the services, growing alarm. The services have quietly watched the entitlement cost for unemployment steadily rise for years. Although unemployment is paid through each state and the District of Columbia, the Department of Labor submits a bill to each of the services on behalf of unemployment recipients, according to a spokeswoman at Labor. But now, as each one confronts massive cuts from the sequester — and continuing worries about the size of future budgets — those bills are making the services more and more anxious. Privately, service officials say the program is blowing a widening hole in their budgets and want the Defense Department to re-examine the policy. But past attempts to modify the program have been rebuffed by senior leaders who fear that meddling with an entitlement program that helps transitioning service members — many of whom are war veterans — is politically and perhaps morally untenable.

Still, while it may not be low-hanging fruit for a Defense Department that must find billions of dollars of trims, cuts to the benefit are ripe for consideration. Officials tell Situation Report that the current unemployment compensation program should be better aligned with the benefit available in the private sector – for people who are laid off or otherwise lose their job – not necessarily for service members who can collect unemployment for months on end after electing to leave the service voluntarily. We’re told that one way to achieve a fair compromise would be to expand various Transition Assistance Programs, or TAPs, that help servicemembers transiton out of the military. Such programs, which vary between services, could be tailored to pay service members for a limited period of time as they leave active duty and search for a job in the private sector. The expanded TAP program would be created in place of what is currently offered under the unemployment compensation program, saving the Pentagon billions of dollars.

An analysis of the issue by RAND in 2008 concluded: "Our analyses suggest that the sharp rise in the UCX caseload is not evidence of a substantial weakening of the civilian labor market for recent veterans. Instead, our analyses suggest that the increase in the UCX caseload is due to changes in the population of veterans eligible for UCX. This includes a sharp increase in the number of veterans who qualify on the basis of their reserve service and a sharp increase in the length of reserve deployments. Nevertheless, the sharp increase in the UCX caseload might suggest a rethinking of the UCX program."

 

Noting

  • San Diego Union Tribune: More in Congress want to demote distinguished warfare medal.
  • AP: ISAF will no longer publish attack figures for Afghanistan.
  • FP’s Af-Pak: Where is the Afghan voice on post 2014?
  • Defense News: White House won’t veto House Continuing Resolution.
  • Politico: New poll: Cut spending, but spare the military.  
  • Danger Room: Over $8 billion of money spent on Iraq was wasted outright.
  • Battleland: Sequester, what sequester?