In view of the discussion of military compensation, kicked off by Secretary Hagel and Kos' front pager the other day, I thought it would be helpful to lay out what they pay me to get an idea of how much this really is. I suspect that the community may find this a little surprising. All military compensation is a matter of public record.
I'm an O-5 - A Lieutenant Colonel or Commander, depending on which service I'm in, and no, I'm not saying. I was commissioned in 1991, so my basic military compensation is 8,676 per month. This works out to 104,112 per year, which is in anyone's book a comfortable living - it's just about double the median family income in the United States.
Being an O-5 is, in today's military, middle management. Some of us have commands, but in general you serve more often in staff functions. That's work that needs doing too, and it can be very fulfilling, but let's be clear - most O-5s are not leading troops at the front. This is quite rare.
Getting promoted to this level is competitive. The Army Times published a piece in 2012 titled "O-5 selections plummet to lowest rate in decade" - when they dropped to just under 83%! So while there's an element of competition in all elements of one's military career, this is not by any means a cut-throat affair. Successfully being promoted to O-5 is largely a matter of being at least average, and sticking around.
This compensation package doesn't come close to telling the whole story, though. It is widely known but seldom observed that the military pay packet is lavishly embellished with a lot of extra good deals that top up one's pay significantly. Let's take a look at these other pays:
The two big ones are Basic Allowance for Subsistence: 246.24. (I'm expected to feed myself for about 18 bucks a day, which I can manage), and Basic Allowance for Housing. Where I live, in Northern Virginia, I am allotted 3,102 for housing. That would support a mortgage of over 600,000 dollars. I am not expected to cover my housing costs out of my base pay - this is extra. And these two allowances are not taxed. So the effective degree of compensation is greater. Oh, and speaking of taxes, many states do not collect income tax from military members serving outside of that state, so if you can justify legal residence in one of these states, you're off the hook for state income tax as well.
For all military members, the contribution to your retirement is nil, and you can draw it after 20 years (half pay at 20 escalating to 3/4 pay at 30 years). Your contribution to your health insurance is nil. If you shop at the commissary, you're saving as much as ten percent on your routine groceries. It's hard to quantify the tangible costs of these benefits without getting deep into quality issues (what are the precise coverages of the TRICARE health system compared to a platinum policy, what particular groceries do I put in my shopping basket, what's the net present value of the equivalent investment to give me a half pay retirement at 20 years and at what discount rate) but the effects are obviously not zero.
Depending on your particular career field, as well, there are additional special pays and allowances and so on. For example, if you are on flight status, you get a bit extra to continue to make the military your career. It varies by the number of years of aviation service, but from 14 to 22 years it peaks out at 840 per month. There's language proficiency incentive pay. There's family separation allowance that kicks in if you're as little as 150 miles away from your home for 30 days. Of course, there are combat pays and sea duty pays and hazardous duty pays and occasional bonuses to stay in, and sometimes other cash incentives to get out.
I don't argue with any of that, in principle. Military service can be dangerous, and it definitely involves work-related stresses, long hours, and a certain lack of control over where you live and for how long that many civilian career fields don't face. But appreciating a military member's service should always be subject to a bit of judgment and balance. As I reach the end of my military career, I realize that the salary I would require to maintain the same take-home pay I receive now would oblige me to look for a civilian job with an annual salary of 190,000, considering all the tax treatment of allowances and things I don't have to contribute to. Of course, I draw my retirement immediately, so I will have that extra 60,000 per year to fall back on, giving me a little flexibility to find that new job. And even if I were getting no special pay at all, my equivalent salary per year would work out to something like 165,000
If I get promoted to Captain, or Colonel (O-6), my base pay goes up by nearly a quarter, and the housing allowance becomes more generous as well. And the Admirals and Generals are even more well-paid.
I'm pleased that my country values my service. But I don't see a persuasive argument that my service is as valuable or pivotal as that of the senators, representatives, cabinet secretaries, or appeals court judges. As far as I can tell, only the President, Vice President, Supreme Court Justices, and congressional leadership are more highly compensated. This is the part that appalls me, frankly: I am no one special in the big scheme of things. I do my job, I do it well and safely, and I've prospered by being in the military. But my contribution is modest compared to that of others, and despite it benefiting me personally I believe this is inequitable. Given what I do, I am overpaid.
3:50 PM PT: I didn't expect to spur such a vibrant and interesting discussion today, especially not with my first diary. So thank you to everyone who participated and recommended it. I sincerely appreciate everyone's comments, especially those of you who criticized me - I have learned from that.
My overall point remains that I find the compensation for my service to our country to be overgenerous relative to others who serve our country. But the amplifications of the commenters who speak up for the enlisted folks, who are undercompensated, shouldn't be ignored, so that provides valuable perspective. Thanks.