Army Plans to Close Retiree AKO Accounts by March 31, 2014: An Open Letter to Congressional Veterans’ Affairs Committee

In the “SEP-Dec 2013” issue of ECHOES, the official Army newsletter for retired soldiers, surviving spouses & families, it was announced that the Army plans to close retiree Army Knowledge Online (AKO) accounts by March 31, 2014. I believe this will place an undue hardship on me, and will cost me time, effort and security to communicate and access important information and I can now access quickly, easily and securely through AKO.

I have had an AKO account since probably around 2002, when I served on my first of three mobilizations for the Global War on Terror. Since then, and after retiring as a U.S. Army Reserve “gray area” retiree in DEC 2008, I have relied on AKO as a one stop shopping site for all things military, including this Veterans’ Affairs question form, which I accessed in two clicks after signing into AKO. Because the site is secure, I can gain quick, easy and safe access to my permanent Army records, DFAS pay, DEERS, Tricare, email, benefits, and dozens of other military related information portals and links.

I had always considered access to AKO a part of my rights as a member of the Army family. But now it kind of feels like this old soldier is being kicked out onto the street. I served 22 honorable years in the National Guard and Army Reserve, starting out as a PFC and then eventually becoming an officer and retiring as a major. I did not resign my commission, nor did I obtain a discharge. I bought into the idea that if I became a gray area retiree that I would enhance my eventual retired pay at 60 while at the same time making myself available should the Army require my services again. Needless to say, after reading about Army plans to disenfranchise me, and without explanation, I am feeling a bit kicked around and less than a soldier who wrote a blank check to you and the American People for my personal safety, comfort, livelihood and life.

Over the years I have seen AKO grow and change. Its importance to retirees cannot be overstated. I used it every day and several times a day during my active service days, and use it daily now as a means to stay connected to the service, my benefits and records. The site has been expanded, refined and has kept up with the times, reflecting new and better ways to serve soldiers and help soldiers serve themselves.

The same newsletter that announced retirees could no longer use AKO after March 2014, also explained how we would need to obtain a “Department of Defense Self-Service Logon (DS Logon), a relatively new, secure, self-service logon ID that allows Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs members and affiliates access to real-time personalized information on government websites.” It says after the AKO purge this will be our only secure access online for DOD and VA websites. The major flaw in this change is that beginning in March, in order to receive correspondence from the Army, I will need to inform all the pertinent Army departments that I must use a CIVILIAN email address for all notifications. The AKO account email will be discontinued in March, so I will never again receive official Army email on an official and SECURE Army email system. I feel that this will expose me and make me more vulnerable to fraud and abuse, and puts me at the mercy of a non-secure civilian email system. Worse than contracting out, as AKO did recently with the AKO email service, this is kicking out those of us who served and made it to retiree status.

Only about 15% of Army reservists ever make it to retirement, and fewer of us live to see the retired pay at age 60. I just had my first heart attack at age 51, and because I had low cholesterol (106), exercised regularly, and had no family history of heart attacks, I can only assume the stress of three deployments since 9/11/01 contributed to my illness. I don’t see age 60 as a sure thing anymore, and this AKO rug being pulled out from under me certainly adds to the stress column.

Please consider amending the current decision (by whom I don’t know) to eliminate retirees from AKO. It is a necessary and important link to the organization we are tied to for life. I have upheld my end of the bargain, and have lived the Army values of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage in uniform and out since the mid 1980’s when I signed up and raised my right hand to swear my allegiance and my life to support and defend the Constitution. Please don’t change my status now, when it’s time for me to begin receiving the compensation, benefits and respect I earned as a soldier.

Thank you very much for your time and kind attention to my request for help in maintaining AKO status for retirees. I believe we earned the right to maintain peace of mind when communicating with and receiving communication from the organization that we served so proudly, and would gladly do so again if called.

Very truly yours,

Montgomery J. Granger, MAJ (USA Retired)

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MILITARY RESERVE PAY AND BENEFITS UNDER ATTACK

Citizen Soldiers. Weekend Warriors. Chairborne Rangers. Warrior Citizens.

We’ve heard them all, and say them to each other on occasion, but seriously, most folks haven’t a clue what the differences are between Active Duty and Reserve Component soldiers.

Military Reserve Pay And Benefits Are Under Attack

The similarities are easier to explain. We train to the same standards; all serve when called; put the mission first; bleed red blood; and write the same blank check to the American People for our lives, livelihoods, personal safety and comfort.

Why is it then, when it’s time to remunerate those of us who dedicate ourselves to the defense and honor of our great nation, that some wish to reduce, alter, and desanctify our compensation? The Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation wants to do just that, saying recently that Reserve soldiers are “over paid.”

Leaders of the Congressionally chartered Reserve Officers Association recently met with the Review panel in an effort to explain how Reserve soldiers are in fact UNDERPAID compared to Active Duty soldiers.

I am $201,600 less valuable than an Active Duty soldier who may never have served in a combat zone.

They pointed out that when all the numbers are crunched and a Pay-to-Work ratio establishedReserve soldiers are paid LESS than Active soldiers. Reserve soldiers also receive fewer benefits and tend not to live close enough to military bases to take advantage of services and amenities those bases offer Active soldiers and their families. Retired pay for Reserve soldiers cannot be collected until age 60, whereas Active soldiers can draw retired pay immediately upon serving 20 years of honorable service.

The Congressional Budget Office is squeezing Reserve compensation by recommending reductions such as capping military pay raises, retired pay reduced by the amount granted in tax relief (called concurrent relief), narrowing eligibility for Veterans Administration compensation, and by targeting “Individual Unemployablity” benefits.

President Obama is pushing to reduce Tri-Care health coverage for Reserve soldiers and wants more base closings, which continued sequestration would almost certainly require. These two things make health care services for Reserve veteran soldiers less and less accessible.

Military Reserve Pay And Benefits Are Under Attack

Again, are Reserve Component soldiers less important? If so, why not just come out and say it and then see what happens to retention and morale, and subsequently our nation’s ability to provide adequate defense?

Reserve soldiers make up the majority of combat support and combat service support units in the Army, such as Military Police, medical, transportation and logistics units. In other words, without the Reserve Components the capability and integrity of our Army would be fatally compromised.

We gave up careers, left our families, and disrupted our civilian lives for the cause of preserving freedom and liberty in the Global War on Terror. I was forced to change jobs before leaving for a 14-month mobilization to Iraq in 2004-2005 – that job was eventually eliminated by my employer and I was told when I returned, “you’re not here enough.”

I now earn half of what I would have been earning and instead of less than a five-mile commute to work each day I travel over 100 miles round trip. Gasoline and wear-and-tear on my 10-year-old vehicle alone costs me over $6,000 per year. And let’s not forget the two-and-a-half hours per day I spend on the road is time I am not with my wife and five children – who, in my opinion, suffered enough from my absences during my three mobilization deployments since Sept. 1, 2001.

I retired from the Reserves in 2008 after 22 years of honorable service at the age of 46. Under the current law I cannot draw retired pay until after turning 60. Were I an Active Duty soldier I could have begun drawing retired pay immediately upon retirement.

In my case, because I am a reserve component “gray area” retiree, compared with the Active Duty, I lose 14 years of earning potential. At $1,200 per month (my estimated retired pay), I lose $14,400 per year, which is $201,600 over 14 years. That means, I am $201,600 less valuable than an Active Duty counterpart who may never even have served in a combat zone.

If you are a Reserve Component (Reserve or National Guard) soldier, spouse, dependent, parent, or concerned American, please contact the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (to write, P.O. Box 13170, Arlington, VA 22209, or call, 703-692-2080), which is collecting comments in an effort to recommend changes to current Reserve Component compensation. Let your voice be heard that Reserve soldiers are every bit as valuable and important to our national defense than are Active Duty soldiers, and every bit as human.