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Military Life, Part Two: Pay And Benefits

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U.S. Army Sgt. Jerry Evans, military pay chief for 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) gains access to his Eagle Cash account using one of the Eagle Cash kiosks inside the Finance office on Contingency Operating Base Basrah, Iraq, Nov. 28, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Specialist Matthew G. Keeler.
Paying Military Benefits Is The Country’s Price For Freedom

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By Vickie Goen
Special for Modern Times Magazine

Nov. 9, 2011 — When deciding whether or not to accept a position with a company, most people conduct a certain amount of research. They want to know how their future company compares to its competition, what the company’s long term goals are, and what opportunities are available for personal development.

While these questions tend to be the ones that are considered appropriate for a potential employee to ask during an interview, the more important details such as pay and benefits are expected to be discussed once an offer, or at the very least, a second or third interview is given.

Surprisingly, this is not the case for individuals who consider enlisting in the U.S. military. On the contrary; compensation, benefits, and bonuses are often the key talking points for recruiters. Considering the potential risks inherent to joining the armed forces, perhaps it makes sense to dangle the proverbial “carrot” right from the start.

And just how well are our military personnel compensated? As with any career, much of this depends on position, years of service, and expertise. To associate a monetary figure, the U.S. Army website lists the starting salary for 2011 of a Private (pay grade E1) as $17,611. This figure represents basic pay not including additional bonuses or special compensation such as combat pay.  

Specialist Kenneth Peavey, who joined the Army in 2004, estimates that he made $1,300 per month when he enlisted. This equaled a yearly salary of $15,600. Currently, Peavey’s salary is about $2,300 per month, or roughly $27,600 each year. This increase in pay represents three promotions (from E1 to E4) and annual increases. One could argue, when considering just the numbers, that Peavey makes a decent living. However, if you consider that he spent a year deployed in Iraq, and that his pay supports a family of three, it changes the scope slightly.

When asked how much he makes, Staff Sergeant Ignacio Reyes’s response was, “not enough to get killed for, I’ll tell you that.” He estimates that after more than 10 years in the Army, he makes about $45,000, annually. Reyes has been promoted five times in his career to reach the rank and pay grade that he currently holds (from E1 to E6).

In addition to base pay, the military offers multiple allowances. The Army in particular; offers food, housing, clothing, and cost of living allowances to name a few. The Basic Allowance For Housing or BAH is one of the most appealing benefits. BAH is used to cover a soldier’s rent or a percentage of rent, with the amount given based on rank, family status, and location.

Other benefits listed on the Army website include; medical and dental insurance (for soldiers and their families), and vacation time. Both Specialist Peavey and Staff Sergeant Reyes earn 2.5 days of leave per month. As would be the case with any other employer, leave must be approved in advance and requests are considered based on the needs of the unit.

Another perk that many young recruits find enticing is the Montgomery GI Bill. The amount that a soldier can receive is based on years of service, but there is an opportunity to earn more than $50,000. For those who enlist immediately after high school with plans to attend college in the future, this is a chance to reduce or completely eliminate student loans.

After a soldier has completed his or her service, the Army will pay for a soldier and their family to move back home. Along the same line, veterans are also eligible for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs home loans. VA home loans allow a soldier with approved income and credit to purchase a house without the burden of a down payment. Since the pay in the military is not necessarily enough to bank a large savings, this is a good way for interested individuals to become homeowners. And, typically, the percentage rate for a VA loan is less than that of more conventional loans. Currently, VA loans have an annual percentage rate (APR) of 3.836 percent for a 30-year fixed mortgage. In contrast, Wells Fargo’s APR is 4.433% for the same loan.

For the families of soldiers in the Army, there is always the chance their loved one will not make it home from a mission. Should this unfortunate event occur, how does the Army compensate the family for its loss?

Life insurance is offered at a current premium of $0.065 per $1,000. This can be purchased in increments of $10,000 up to a maximum of $400,000. While this seems like a substantial amount, is it enough to cover the basic needs of a family, future college expenses, and other unforeseen events?

If one looked at the compensation offered by the Army without taking into account the job description, then, overall, its pay and benefits are comparable to the current market. Salary.com lists a plethora of entry level positions that correspond with the base rate for new Army recruits. However, knowing that each day on the job in the military could potentially be the day you die raises the stakes substantially.

The military pay scale has been the subject of intense discussion lately. This debate became particularly heated when the threat of government shutdown revealed that soldiers would not be getting paid but would still be expected to perform their duties. Do we pay our soldiers adequately? Are the benefits they receive enough to offset the lower base pay? The answer to this might be different for everyone, but it can be summed up in a single sentence: The amount we should pay our military personnel directly corresponds to what we, as a country, feel our freedom is worth.

Go To Part Three —>

(Editor’s note: Training and Service was Part One of the series and is viewable here. Part Three, Life After Service, is available here.)

Vickie Goen is a freelance writer living in Phoenix.
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