The Myth of Low Military Pay

Saturday, 27 February 2010 09:35 By Carlton Meyer, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

The Myth of Low Military Pay
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: louisa_catlover, m1ndy9876)

One great myth in American society is that military personnel are poorly paid. That was true until the 1980s, when a push to improve recruit quality boosted military pay each year at twice the inflation rate. The military was once known for low pay yet great retirement, but now has great pay as well. This fact is hidden from the public with absurd propaganda from military associations about the need to boost pay, and fear in the Pentagon that if Congress catches on, the days of big pay raises may end.

For example, inflation was flat last year and Social Security recipients received no increase for 2010. However, military personnel just got a 3.2 percent pay increase, while civilian wages fell 1.6 percent last year. Some Congress members worry the USA will go bankrupt unless it cuts spending, so why the pay boost? First, it's a form of vote buying. Second, federal civilian pay increases follow military pay increases. Congressional staffers and everyone inside the beltway benefit, so they profit from this deception.

Look at what the average 20-year-old American earns. The latest data is from the third quarter of 2009, which shows Americans ages 16-24 on average earn $429 a week, or times 52 = $22,308 a year. The DoD has a simple online pay calculator. The average age for a recruit is 19, so the typical pay for a 20-year-old sailor is E-2 = $37,637 a year. If he has a wife and two kids, it's $41,021, nearly twice as much as he could make in the private sector! This does not include special pays and bonuses.

If someone joins the military rather than going to college, after four years he will be at least an E-4, and, with a wife and two kids, make $48,180 a year! This more than college graduates and at least $14,000 more than the average salary of any other occupation in the USA where most workers have decades of experience and seniority.

Finally, it is very rare to find subsidized childcare, free gyms and tax-free shopping in the civilian world.

It is true that many military people work more than 40 hours a week, yet so do many civilians. There are many service members who work less than 40 hours a week, and some work less than 20 if you discount the hours at "work" they spend surfing the web, exercising in the gym, getting a haircut or playing softball. Military personnel receive 30 days paid vacation, enjoy 12 paid federal holidays, several extra days off as part of "long weekends," unlimited sick leave, plus the common practice of going home soon after lunch on Fridays. In contrast, American workers average just 13 paid days off, and around 40 percent of Americans never get a paid day off and have no benefits such as health care.

Yes, many servicemen endure stressful occupation duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why combat pay should be boosted. However, most career service members rarely spend time in combat zones, and they usually enjoy the adventure and the extra pay involved. Keep in mind that Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard personnel are paid the same as soldiers and marines, and if deployed into a combat zone, it is normally very safe and comfortable duty aboard a ship or a large base.

Career enlisted men earn ultra-high pay. An E-7 with 20 years of service with a wife and four kids earns a whopping $78,221 a year! That's much more than Americans with advanced college degrees, like an MBA. E-9s can make over $100,000 a year! Enlisted can retire after just 20 years of service without contributing a cent toward their generous retirement plan. If the US military advertised these facts, recruiters would have lines outside their office.

Double Pay for Officers

Officer pay is ultra high as well. The DoD's online pay calculator<> shows that a new officer starts at $54,800 a year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) collects data on pay for new college graduates, broken down by occupation. Several types of engineers start off at around $70,000, so pay for new officers seems reasonable. The BLS provides the average pay data for all college graduates, and its latest data is from the third quarter of 2009. This shows the median pay for American workers with a bachelor degree is $1,020 a week, times 52 = $53,040 a year. This shows that an officer fresh out of college earns more than the average college graduate with years of seniority and experience.

Let's say the average college graduate works between ages 23 and 63, so a direct comparison for an average officer would be a 43-year-old at 20 years of service who is an O-5 (lieutenant colonel or Navy commander). With a wife and four kids, he earns a massive $136,000 a year! That is more than twice as much as the comparable American wage. The excuse is that officers have much more responsibly, but that is questionable. Officers in charge of units have limited authority, and since there is an officer for every five enlisted, many do not command anyone. Many officers are students, co-pilots, aides or desk clerks who rubber stamp paperwork. The US Army has trouble keeping captains because of the endless deployments and a perception of low pay, but it has no problem keeping mid-grade officers.

Some officers have advanced degrees, but most were paid to obtain one. No company in the private sector pays employees to attend college for two years to obtain a masters degree. Nevertheless, the BLS data shows the median pay for American workers with advanced degrees is $1,309 a week, times 52 = $68,068 a year. So, your average mid-career military officer earns twice as much! How is this justified?

This explains why career officers love the military and fight to remain in the force. Keep in mind that these DoD pay figures do not included special pays and bonuses, which often adds thousands of dollars a year. It was once common for military pilots to leave after six years and join an airline. This is rare today since military officers now earn far more than airline pilots.

Congress seems unaware because, a few years ago, officers in the Pentagon produced a bogus study showing they were underpaid, so Congress authorized a special pay boost for mid-ranking officers. It seems they decided they are comparable to top lawyers at top law firms, rather than the average pay for Americans with advanced degrees. Also note that while most Americans have a retirement plan, nearly all are matching plans where employees must contribute half and the benefits are limited. People in the military never contribute one cent and have defined benefits that are never depleted. Since most retire at around 45 years of age, they earn retirement pay and heavily subsidized medical care for decades more.

Don't Waste Time With College

High military pay explains support for the recent law that allows servicemen to pass their VA college benefits along to their children. Why should enlisted leave the service and struggle through college on a small stipend only to graduate and earn less money? It is far better to re-enlist, so that after another four years they are an E-6 with eight years and pocket $63,000 a year, some $10,000 more than the average college graduate with decades of experience! Keep in mind that going to college also results in the loss of over $200,000 in pay during those four years.

High pay causes depression among disabled veterans. The VA pays an adequate disability rate for them to live comfortably, but it is far less than their generous active duty pay. Many are outraged when, partially disabled from combat injuries, they are punished as doctors say they cannot remain on active duty, so their income falls in half. This has led to confusion as injured vets awarded a disability rating attempt to re-enlist after discovering that private sector pay is less than half as much. The Army recently drew the line at 50 percent disability, meaning anyone with a disability rating of 50 percent or more is not allowed to re-enlist.

Let's look at the pay disparity with an example of two brothers. One graduates from a four-year college, followed by two years of graduate school at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses and lost wages. He worked for 12 years and now earns the national average for his educational level of $68,068 annually. His brother joined the military, never took a college class and didn't work hard, so he is just an E-6 after 18 years in the military, yet he earns more than his hard-working and highly educated brother who spent six unpaid years and over $100,000 to toil through six years of college.

Drawbacks of High Military Pay

Over the past three decades, private sector pay remained flat, while Congress routinely provided annual military pay raises higher than the inflation rate. As a result, military personnel now earn twice as much as comparable Americans. What wrong with that?

1) Every dollar spent on unneeded pay is a dollar that could have been spent to develop or procure new items of equipment;

2) Less pay allows for more manpower. If troops were paid the same as back in the Reagan years, our military could afford twice as many troops. One solution to reduce deployment time is less pay and more manpower;

3) Meeting re-enlistment goals are no problem today, but that increases stress as everyone must compete (and brown nose) to remain in the career force. One mistake or upset officer may end their career;

4) As the nation faces bankruptcy, it is unpatriotic to demand larger budgets to fund unnecessary pay raises.

The Pentagon reform is simple: freeze pay for a few years. Use some of the savings for more combat pay and for deployment pay. Also, Congress should scrutinize re-enlistment bonuses, which have become a tradition even though most are unjustified. It is true that some service members are overdeployed, but that is the result of poor leadership by generals and admirals who use GIs as pawns in their political games for larger budgets. There was never an urgent need for more soldiers in Afghanistan. Navy admirals now brag that half their ships are underway. Congress should ask why. Has the Soviet fleet reappeared? Does al-Qaeda have a threatening Navy? Keeping the OPTEMPO (operating/operations tempo) high burns up fuel, wears out ships and sailors.

Meanwhile, private military organizations, which act like unions, blatantly deceive Congress and the American people with greedy demands for ever-higher pay. The Association of the US Army's current legislative agenda includes its traditional demand to "eliminate the pay gap." How can military officers, who claim to have high standards of honor, patriotism and honesty, support that deception? Freezing military pay will upset some military personnel, but only the selfish ones. Yet, they should realize that national bankruptcy is a major threat to their career and retirement plans. If the dollar collapses and inflation hits 30 percent a year for several years, a newly elected Congress of "teabaggers" may slash pay and retirement benefits in half.

Other service members consider themselves patriots, and agree that a nation facing bankruptcy should not continue to grant them unnecessary pay raises. While some may express outrage, they will never leave their prosperous military career, even if their pay is cut. Meanwhile, military recruiters and retention specialists can distribute this article and await an avalanche of applications.

Last modified on Saturday, 27 February 2010 10:18