The men and women in the military put their lives on the line every day to protect us.

At the same time, they strive to achieve financial security for themselves and their families.

Controversial changes proposed by the Pentagon and the Obama administration for military health and pension benefit plans could affect their financial goals. And there are steps they should take to prepare.

One proposed change would make the military pension system, currently a defined-benefit plan, more like a 401(k), or defined-contribution plan. This follows a similar trend by private employers in recent years.

Also, the Pentagon is proposing raising fees for Tricare, the health care program serving active-duty service members, National Guard and Reserve members, retirees, their families, survivors and certain former spouses worldwide.

The proposals have been sent to Congress, which is looking at them now, said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America.

"It's almost certain that there will be some changes. What we're trying to do is to minimize those changes," said Strobridge, a retired Air Force colonel.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that if adopted, the conversion of the retirement plan wouldn't apply to current military personnel but will be phased in for future military personnel.

But there's no guarantee that current troops won't be affected by the change, said Bud Schneeweis, a certified financial planner and director of the benefits department at the Military Officers Association of America, the largest organization of military officers.

"Secretary Panetta and others are on record saying that retirement changes will not affect anyone currently in uniform, but that remains to be seen," said Schneeweis, a retired Coast Guard captain. "They may see a squeezing-down of cost-of-living adjustments or the like."

Also, currently active troops could be affected because the nature of military service will change, he said.

"I believe that many more in the service will leave earlier since they may be able to take some retirement benefits with them from their 401(k)-style retirement (account)," Schneeweis said. "Faced with their fifth or sixth deployment in as many years, some will walk away. Workloads and deployment demands will increase for those to remain in the service for 20 years or more."

The higher health care fees would have a more immediate impact.

"The new budget plan would dramatically increase enrollment fees and deductibles for retired military families younger than age 65," the military officers association said. "Some will see nearly a fourfold increase over five years, from $520 per family to $2,048. After 2017, annual increases would be tied to a medical inflation index."

In addition, retirees and family members 65 or older would be required to pay a new, tiered annual enrollment fee of up to $475 by fiscal 2017. For that age group, the military Tricare plan serves as second payer to Medicare.

Under the new plan, the higher fees would be based on the individual's amount of retirement pay.

"Some retirees will see a 400 percent increase in the cost of their care and the introduction of means testing," Schneeweis said. "Those who receive more retirement pay will have to pay significantly more for the same health care plan. No other plan in America that MOAA has been able to identify charges patients according to their ability to pay — talk about a disincentive for doing well."

Although the Tricare proposals will have the biggest effect on retirees, active-duty troops with families will be affected, Schneeweis said.

"Single troops will continue to receive their care directly from the military health system, so (they) will not see any change," he said. "Service members with families will be affected by the increases in costs to families, especially with the significant rise in prescription drug costs."

Financial advisers say that although none of the proposals are final, there are things the military community can do now to protect themselves financially.

PUT EXTRA AWAY FOR RETIREMENT: "Be aware that the services will downsize considerably in the coming years," Schneeweis said. "Don't count on a retirement check because you may not get the opportunity to become vested in the current system."

He said service members should max out contributions to the thrift savings plan, the federal government's defined contribution plan.

For this year, plan participants may contribute up to $17,000.

The thrift savings plan expects to roll out a Roth option that would enable plan participants to invest after-tax earnings, which would grow tax-free.

Service members should evaluate their retirement goals and "make sure they're setting aside money for retirement regardless of what the military does with their retirement plan," said Joseph R. Morrin, senior vice president in financial planning at First Command Financial Services Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, which works with military families.

"They need to be preparing to do more now," he said. "The more people pay attention to their finances, the easier it is for them to adapt to changes, so preparing makes a big difference."

USE CIVILIAN JOB'S INSURANCE: "Many military retirees are relatively young, since retirement after 20 years is common," said Tom Murphy, founding partner and certified financial planner at Murphy & Sylvest LLC in Dallas. "These young retirees often go to work for companies which provide health insurance. One option to deal with the proposed health insurance changes is to go on the new employer's health plan."

It's acceptable to be covered under multiple health plans, though there will be a coordination-of-care provision preventing reimbursement for the same medical expense multiple times, Murphy said.

STAY OUT OF DEBT: "They have so much more flexibility if they can keep their debt loads down to bare minimums, especially if they expect to continue to be mobile in the services and be ready for either deployment or transfer," Schneeweis said.

CONSIDER RENTING A HOME: "Unless you're really sure that you want to remain tied to a particular area, consider renting in lieu of buying until the housing market settles down," Schneeweis said. "That's what seems to be tripping up a lot of our service members over these last couple of years."

Whatever happens, you will feel better having prepared for the worst.

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