Altman: Veterans groups ready for budget battle
"The superior military strategist strikes while schemes are being laid." From the Art of War, by Sun Tzu. Taking a page from their ancient Chinese predecessor, a pair of retired U.S. generals talked Thursday about seizing the budget initiative from the 113th Congress and the White House with massive defense cuts looming. "In a time of uncertainty, everything is on the table," said retired Army four-star Gen. John H. Tilelli Jr., now chairman of the Military Officers Association of America, or MOAA — an influential military lobbying group claiming more than 300,000 members.Tilelli was at MacDill Air Force Base as keynote speaker for the Tampa chapter's monthly lunch. During his speech, a call to arms for the current legislative session, he talked about the importance of "storming the hill" and how it helped forestall massive increases last year for those relying on the TRICARE military health insurance program. I caught up with Tilelli and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Joseph Lynch, the organization's general counsel, after the lunch plates were cleared away. "… the things on the table are always on the table," said Tilelli, a Vietnam War combat veteran who served as vice chief of the Army. "Health care, compensation, our pay raises, our retirements, our care for the wounded warriors and families. "All of those things the nation has made a promise that they must keep and MOAA has a responsibility to assess those things during this time of uncertainty, and to ensure we are pushing the right things forward to Congress." The lunch was just two days before Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh announced pre-emptive, albeit reversible, austerity measures ahead of any cuts imposed by sequestration. These include civilian hiring restrictions, curtailing flying and travel that isn't mission-essential or related to readiness and curtailing or stopping minor purchases. "A major concern we have is the high degree of uncertainty we see with the 'fiscal cliff' remaining unresolved, the threat of sequestration and the debt ceiling still needing to be addressed by Congress and the President," Lynch said. "When making decisions in those areas, we are concerned what happens behind the scenes that could affect the military community. When people start making budget decisions on the back of an envelope and trying to get to a bogey and they don't care what programs they are hitting or how hard they are hitting them, that can have a serious impact on military readiness, on the all volunteer force, and on the country's obligation to the people who have served the military for long careers." The retired generals listed preserving health care and the military retirement system as the organizations top priorities. "The truth is what you see sitting over there," said Tilelli, pointing to two men wounded in combat sitting at a table near the door. "Tell me how much we owe them or how much we should take away, for they have paid enough. These men and women who have served multiple times in the last 10 years, four and five times, deserve more than we can ever give them." Speaking of MOAA, and the Tampa chapter's Operation Helping Hand spinoff organization, readers of this column should take a bow. More than 50 of you responded to a fundraising request on behalf of one of the wounded soldiers Tilelli was talking about. In November, Thongpane Thongdeng, 33, an Army specialist who lost his right leg in 2010 to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, returned to his Tampa home to find that someone broke in and stole thousands of dollars worth of electronics and other goods. After I wrote about the still-unsolved burglary, the checks started pouring in to Operation Helping Hand, raising more about $5,000 for the Screaming Eagle known by the nickname TD. And before I wrote anything, Tampa Police officer Connie Trigoe, investigating the crime, got her fellow officers to chip in to buy TD a new Xbox to replace the one stolen from him. Due to a deadline change, my weekly roundup of those service members who died while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom will now cover a seven-day period ending on Fridays, a day earlier than usual. During that period, the Department of Defense announced the death of one soldier. Sgt. Aaron X. Wittman, 28, of Chester, Va., died Jan. 10, in Khogyani District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, from injuries sustained when his unit was attacked by small arms fire while on mounted patrol. He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Ga. To date, 2,159 U.S. troops have died supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation's longest war.