“Will you encourage your three boys to join the military?”
That’s a question I get often because my husband, dad and father-in-law are Navy pilots. But it’s a question I struggle with, especially lately.
Choosing the military always means choosing sacrifice. There is no question that a civilian engineer has the opportunity to make more money than one employed by the U.S. military. And yet, comparing military pay to civilian pay is a fool’s errand, mostly because of the benefits. If you look at a military pay chart, you aren’t getting the full picture. We get housing allowances (or, BAH) and “free” (I always use that term loosely) health care. Historically, “choosing sacrifice” was offset by these benefits — the military’s promise to take care of its own.
Then, last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended to Congress the Pentagon’s proposal to change military pay and benefits in 2015. Under the proposed plan, pay raises would be 1 percent, health care fees would increase, and housing allowances would shrink by 5 percent.
Perhaps this seems nominal. I mean, they are giving service members a raise, after all. However, according to a military.com report, that 1 percent raise is actually “0.8 percent lower than the employment cost index [and] below the inflation rate. Meaning the value of a service member’s paycheck would go down.” And as for BAH, personally, ours has never covered expenses for reasonable housing. Even before a 5 percent reduction, we have always supplemented out-of-pocket.
Responding to criticism, the military claims they will use the money saved to support services for families and service members. I’m not great with math, but I understand this word problem: We’re going to take away some of your pay and spend it in a way we think will be better for you in the long run.
The end of this equation is the military loses its best people and struggles to recruit more. Because the biggest problem with the budget is not personnel costs. The biggest problem is waste.
In response to a question on my Facebook page, military spouses and service members sounded off about waste:
“[After] 20-plus years of watching military units waste billions of dollars at the end of a fiscal year on non-operational items such as televisions and popcorn poppers, I remain unconvinced that the way to save money is by reducing pay and benefits.”
“Having worked in a government budget office, [I know] travel for the most part can be stopped. Why have conferences in Vegas when most things can now be accomplished via internet?”
“[Not] allowing commands to make smart purchases…[for instance], buying a $29.99 case of copy paper at a local store instead of using the $89 case from the military’s contracted company [is wasteful].”
I, for one, am a supporter of a less popular choice: closing base commissaries and giving military families equivalent discounts at civilian stores. A large majority of retirees and reservists don’t even live near a commissary anyway, so they are missing this benefit. But the commissary has powerful lobbyists behind it, so, don’t worry, it’s here to stay.
We could go on. There are almost endless ways the military wastes money, but none of them involve paychecks, BAH or health care. And the most disturbing part about all of this is that the proposed cuts are supported by the people who promised to take care of us. Even worse, those people have claimed it’s what service members want.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Greenert held town hall meetings across the country to gauge service members’ feelings about the budget cuts. His take-home: Navy men and women understand the military’s need to balance personnel costs with readiness.
Interestingly, the Association of the U.S. Navy found a different take-home: Their survey of service members revealed that 90 percent do not want the pay cuts.
The moral of this story is that an active-duty 4-star admiral cannot, for reasons specific to the culture of the military, get an accurate poll of service members’ thoughts and feelings. Of course Navy men and women told Adm.l Greenert they “understand” and are ready to support the Pentagon’s decision. Those same men and women went home and shook their heads about all the waste — like, sending an admiral to town hall meetings that never could be authentic.
So don’t bother with the results of the CNO’s town halls. If you follow #KeepYourPromise on Twitter and Facebook, you will see how unhappy families are. At a time when the military is asking more of its people — longer and more frequent deployments, more administrative duties — they are about to ask them to do it with less pay and benefits. This is called “having your cake and eating it, too.” And it’s terrible for retention and recruiting.
So, will I encourage my sons to join the military? The answer is no. In fact, I’d like to opt them out of the recruiter list. If they feel moved to serve, we will know it. But having my sons courted by a recruiter who will tell them about the “great deal” of the military is, in my mind, exposing them to a promise that is quickly becoming an illusion.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.