Welcome to Part II of Our Overpaid Troops. Part I was published on Monday and addressed an issue recently raised in a diary well recommended by many Kossacks, that those who join the military do so in order to kill. As the wife of an Air Force Officer, I have strong disagreements with those that believe our military is solely a killing machine and that those who join are perpetuating a culture of war. You can read my thoughts on that topic here.
Two other diaries have recently made the Community Spotlight and claim that our military service members are overpaid. The writer purports to be an Active Duty Lieutenant Colonel who personally believes he makes too much money. My gut reaction wasn't very nice - that he is underworked, not overpaid. There are officers who manage to do very little and still find ways to get promoted. They rarely make it to Field Grade rank but as with any career field, we find exceptions.
My immediate reaction is somewhat unfair. I truly don't know the man nor do I know the officer. I have no idea if he supports a family or if his spouse, if he has one, has managed to maintain some semblance of a career as they have moved around. I don't even know if he's moved that often, if he's spent time away from family, if he's deployed to war. I don't know if he's in the Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marines. There is so much that I don't know that arguing with him is almost fruitless. If he thinks he makes too much, he obviously does. But I have a problem when he takes his personal experience and applies it to families like my own.
Most of you already know that I am the daughter of an Air Force Master Sergeant who retired after 21 years of service. What you might not know is that my Dad was very young when he and my mom started our family. He may have been a Buck Sergeant but from the stories my parents have told me, I always imagine him as an Airman First Class. Nevertheless, his pay was low and having a daughter this early in his career was expensive. I can remember my mom telling me about cashing a savings bond in order to buy my first pair of shoes.
This was back in the late Sixties. In the Seventies as we moved from overseas assignment to the States back to overseas again, my parents managed to raise three girls on a military salary. We never considered ourselves poor but I do remember being horribly embarrassed when the girl next door realized I was wearing one of her hand-me-down down coats. It was then, as a seventh grader, that I realized that my parents were scraping from the bottom of the barrel at times. We were middle class, but we were low middle class. We attended decent schools, we were well-fed, well-clothed, and we could go to the doctor when we needed to. These are things my Dad didn't always have growing up and he was able to provide them to us because he chose to join the military. Decent pay, great training, and the chance to leave home. That's why a lot of people join, even today.
I've met many a family that feel military life has been a saving grace - from the junior enlisted to the most senior officer. The reasons people join are varied. You can find folks like my husband who has always wanted to serve; it's a calling for him. And like people in other professions that feel called to duty, like teachers, it's very easy for us to take advantage of them. I've met families that join so that spouses or children can get health insurance that, before the ACA, was unavailable to them because they had pre-existing conditions. Some families join to get better access to higher education, whether it be that consistent salary that helps pay for classes or the GI Bill they know they are working towards. The reasons are many but never have I heard a family say they join in order to get rich.
Funny enough, our Lieutenant Colonel seems to think that's what is happening. Between the more than generous salary, the "free" health care, the "free" housing, and the bonus pay, military officers, at least, are getting rich. It's true that my husband is part of the 1% of the 1%. In military circles, he is rich. But that doesn't mean when he takes off his uniform and goes to downtown Washington DC that we can afford to hobnob with the 1% in our Nation's Capitol. Nor in San Francisco, New York City, Denver, Miami, or any other major city in the United States. Our salary gives us a comfortable life. We are very much middle class but I would even argue that we aren't upper middle class. We drive one car and it's a Toyota. It would be a Prius if we didn't live in a country with potholes the size of small cars. We live in a nice apartment with a view of a neighboring volcano. A year ago, we rented the top half of a semi-detached with no garage just north of Georgetown. The quality of our housing just depends on our location. In some places we feel rich (living overseas in South America) and in others not so much (Randolph AFB, TX and Beale AFB, CA stick out like sore thumbs). My kids have good quality computers but don't have cable TV. We make our choices, like most military families, and we budget enough so that we can afford nice vacations. Since my husband became a Field Grade officer, it means those vacations happen less often in tents. Does that give you a good picture of our life on a military salary?
If a Colonel's wife weighs decisions about money, imagine what an NCO's family might be doing to hold their own. Yes, the stories about food stamps for junior NCO families are true. It's complicated by the choice to have large families for some but not for all. Sometimes it really is a case of un-employment of a spouse, or of single parent serving (yes, they serve too), or of living in a location where the expenses are just too damn high and that military salary just can't cut it. You'll hear stories of young Airmen driving that expensive sports car around town because the banks were willing to give him a great loan. Sometimes our junior enlisted make poor choices but that doesn't mean they should be paid any less. Like the rest of us, they learn from their mistakes. And taking away salary only hurts those who are socking it away for the future or need every penny to pay for the diapers and the formula for the new baby. If I held that magic wand and could change salaries at will, it would be the junior enlisted I would want to help the most. I believe that a single salary should be able to support a young family - that one parent should be able to stay at home with young children. This is especially true with military families where the stresses of moving and deployment hit hardest for young children and having a single stay-at-home parent can make all the difference in the world. Granted, each family is different but being able to make that choice in the first place is tantamount. In no way, shape, or form would I ever argue that our junior enlisted are paid enough.
Today, the pay gap between civilian and military is a mere 2.9% because Congress has been working since the early 2000's to close a gap that was as high as 13.5% in the late 1990's. That gap has closed not only because Congress has raised salaries for military service members but because civilian salaries have fallen. If our government starts to cut salaries in order to keep some kind of equity, we only participate in a race to the bottom.
Let's face it, we want quality folks to join all of our Armed Services and that means offering competitive salaries that attract not only the potential active duty service member but their (future) families. I guess we could begin to imagine a military that was more like serving the Catholic Church, where we demand folks be celibate or, at the very least, remain single, so that our government didn't have to concern itself with spouses and children. But the military as it exists today attracts service members who want to get married and have families.
There was a very practical reason to get those salaries up to civilian levels: recruitment during war time. It's one thing to serve the military during times of peace which still comes with its own dangers and stressors, but it's completely different when you know you'll be facing war. I would argue that it is time we stopped using civilian pay as the measuring stick. When we do so, we make a false assumption that military jobs are like civilian jobs. They aren't.
Civilians chose their careers. Military are given careers. When my husband joined, he had hoped to become a Security Police Officer. He was told the Air Force needed him in Transportation. His degree was in Political Science. He served at the Air Force's will and it is only in his final years that he has been able to use his actual degree and advanced education. Rarely do officers end up in the careers of their choice. Junior enlisted find similar strictures - they may want to be a computer tech but their tests suggest they might be much better in languages. Everyone serves where the military needs them to serve, not necessarily where they want to serve.
Civilians can refuse to move if a company wants them to. Military move as the government orders. And, often, they move when least expected. A three year tour can very easily turn into a two year tour if the military wants you in a new location. Or perhaps you're told to stay longer when your family is ready to leave. On rare occasions, it is possible to request an exemption and if the needs of the service can still be met while meeting a service member's request, it may happen. It's not common. And then there are the times when a family is on the cusp of moving and the government tells you that plans have changed and the service member is needed in a different location. We learn to embrace the suck.
Civilians generally work 8 hour days. I do know that some careers demand more and that people in law firms or on Wall Street can work endless hours. But they tend recieve bonuses at the end of the year. Military work longer hours with no bonuses. If we began to tally the time to figure out a per hour salary, it is often laughable.
Civilians can quit with a few weeks notice, or perhaps even none at all. Military who leave service without permission are considered AWOL and when found, will be punished. Even a contract can be lengthened by the government in times of need. Do you remember the stop-loss stories of the early 2000's? People were wanting to get out but we needed certain people in certain professions to stay. They were legally obligated to remain in military service.
Civilians retain their civil rights. Military are prevented from certain free speech activities, even after retirement. Just standing in uniform at an event that can be deemed political can get a military service member in trouble. Posting politically volatile info on your Facebook page? Better not have your profile pic in uniform. And officers can never denigrate the President, no matter how much they feel the President needs to be called out. Even years after they retire. They are held to the standard of the UCMJ.
Most civilians can question authority. Obviously there are exceptions with whistleblower activity in the civil service. If a military service member chooses not to follow an order or see what they believe is an illegal order, he or she better be damn sure they want to speak up. And they can't just quit and then speak out. The lowest ranked private can be sent to prison for not following orders.
After 12 years of war, this next one seems obvious, but military folks can be deployed to a war zone. It was only recently that the State Department made it so that all of their Foreign Service Officers can be deployed as well. Otherwise, I know very few civilians who worry about being sent to war.
Military service is just plain old different from civilian employment. And yes, people today volunteer to serve. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't receive salary and compensation that shows our government and our citizens value their service and understand that serving is a form of sacrifice.
Of course, maybe you're a progressive who doesn't believe in military service at all. You hate the entire concept of the military and want it to be gone. Of course you want the compensation to be chipped away - you see it as a potential solution, a way to reduce recruitment and to make sure that those we retain are only the most desperate.
Our military already struggles with retaining progressive minds. It has always been easier to recruit from conservative states than from liberal ones. If you want to keep it that way, keep chipping away at benefits and compensation for our military. Retain the people who believe that there is some honor in serving a nation that believes our military service members don't deserve a salary that allows a dignified lifestyle.
If you do that, this is what you get to look forward to:
First - lower retention rates. Unless military pay is able to keep up with the costs of raising a family, people will not join or will resign as soon as able. Families are already struggling to make BAH cover the costs of rents in most locations, despite what our Lieutenant Colonel would like us to think. Our BAH in Washington DC didn't come near covering our rental home and that was on a Colonel's allowance. We purposefully chose a house that would not require a long commute. Cheaper rent further out would have only meant paying more money in transportation costs. It's a Catch 22 in many locations with military bases where the base itself is located as far as possible from civilian population centers. "Free" base housing no longer exists - privatized housing on military bases requires that the entire BAH be spent even if the quality of housing is not equivalent to what might be rented off-base. And as a Colonel's family, we can manage because his salary does allow some leeway. As a junior officer or as an NCO, not so much.
Second - service members with families either leaving service or getting divorces. Military families are already at maximum stress levels. One study shows that 90% of working military spouses are underemployed. CNN just released "The Uncounted" which attempts to tell the true cost of war and includes the number of military family members that have committed suicide. And when the wars are supposedly over, stress doesn't completely disappear for these families. Many of today's military families are waiting to find out if their early retirement papers will be accepted. Imagine telling your company that you were ready to leave on their terms and then having that company tell you that, wait, we need some of you stay so we won't let you leave until we figure this out. It's happening to hundreds of Air Force families as I write this. As the wars end, we still have assignments away from home, multiple moves, and work hours that are incredibly difficult in today's do more with less military.
Third - a decrease in officers and enlisted from higher economic backgrounds. When Congress decided to raise military salaries and bring them much closer to civilian salaries, we saw an increase in recruitment from higher income neighborhoods. As progressives, this should be seen as a positive as it means we as a nation are not attempting to take advantage of folks of lower economic means. A military that provides good benefits and salaries is able to recruit from all levels of our society, not just from the poorest.
Fourth - more difficulty recruiting quality officers and NCO's. If the salary gap once again increases in between military and civilian pay, then we will lose well-educated individuals who will chose to follow a civilian career path. We saw it happen in the 1980's and we will see it happen again.
Fourth - We will likely experience an increase in privatization. Privatization of our military has been happening for many years but cuts to benefits and salaries will speed up the process, not slow it down. Already we have mercenary forces serving in war zones doing jobs that can be contracted out. How much do we want to contract in the future? Are you ready for the next Blackwater to fight the next war? As much as we would like to think that we would make up our lack of recruitment through a draft (which would then make the populace angry which would lead Congress to not go to war in the first place), we won't. It is much too expensive to train non-volunteers and our Congress would turn to contracted individuals before they would ever turn to a draft. Fewer benefits and lower salaries for our military service members are a step in that direction.
I hope this information convinces at least a few civilians that cuts to military salaries and benefits is the wrong step for our government to take. As Congress is looking to trim the DoD budget, and rightly so, there are many places that we can afford to cut that won't harm military families. Instead of looking at increasing fees for Tricare or cutting allowances for housing, leadership needs to be making cuts that really make a difference. That means Congress will need to find some strength to tell defense contractors that we don't need another dozen Abrams Tanks nor do we need the F-35 to be nuclear capable. These are tough decisions for Congressmen that are desperate to keep jobs in their communities. But there are solutions that include bringing in sustainable employment that doesn't rely on the Military Industrial Complex. And if military families can see that, I believe Congress can as well.