Holy Bovine, Batman! Sacred Sailors!

This article is part of our “Sacred Cows Week.”

"COLA? Sure I'll take a cola."
“COLA? Sure I’ll take a cola.”

After asking for military discounts my entire adult life, and usually getting them, I feel confident in calling Americans fans of the Armed Forces. “Support the troops” was a major catchphrase in the months and years following 9/11, and while that that has died down some, the sentiment remains.

Servicemembers have benefited in a multitude of ways, but most notably in their wallets. While historic military pay usually lagged behind the civilian economy, in the last decade and a half it has rocketed well above prevailing wages when adjusted for age and education levels (full report and summary).

That made some sense when military recruiters had to compete in a superheated job market, with one unnamed service (rhymes with “smarmy”) vastly extending waivers and reducing minimum enlistment periods. But recently, the situation has been different. Waivers are rare. Recruiters are in a target-rich environment, and retention is at all-time highs.

And even in this environment, servicemembers are still getting a raise next year.

In these times of both fiscal constraint and high retention, does this really make sense?

Let us make a mandatory disclaimer: the inherent risks of military service certainly justify fair and equitable compensation, and no pay or benefit can truly compensate servicemembers for combat, time away from home, injury or other sacrifices. But too often, that disclaimer is allowed to substitute for policy, and benefits just keep growing… and growing… and growing.

This raises two questions.

First, at what point do personnel costs (already the biggest part of the DoD budget) crowd out procurement, operations, maintenance, R&D and all the pointy-end-of-the-spear things the military does that make the job worthwhile? It doesn’t do much good to have well-trained, highly-paid troops if they’re killed while riding in inferior equipment.

Second, at what point do the taxpaying civilians grow to resent the privileges of the troops, especially as we leave Afghanistan and end the long combat deployments that engender sympathy for the military? That mission’s end will bring lack of clarity on what exactly the Armed Forces do. Watch the yellow ribbons disappear if the public decides the “Pacific pivot” is nothing more than paid military vacations in Australia and Singapore.

There is a world of reasons to deeply value the institution of the military; however, these critical questions will never be satisfactorily addressed if servicemembers are placed on some kind of super-citizen pedestal.

We have seen the sacred cow, and it is us.

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant and strategic communications consultant whose pay lags far behind guys who play Navy lieutenants on TV. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or his employer.

8 thoughts on “Holy Bovine, Batman! Sacred Sailors!”

  1. There does need to be a change in how we view military pay and benefits. It would be much easier to discuss ideas to change them if we admit that things like pay, pensions, medical care, bonuses, etc aren’t semi-mystical gifts from a a grateful nation to its military heroes, but rather just tools used to attract and maintain talent, that should be adjusted as needed in order to meet retention and recruiting goals in the short and long terms

  2. Excellent post, and something I’m glad to see brought up.

    First, and I would argue, foremost, you shouldn’t be joining the service for monetary compensation, and monetary compensation should never be promoted as a reason to join. Mercenaries “serve” for monetary compensation, not native sons and daughters. Benefits, yes – educational opportunities, travel opportunities, self discipline, etc. are legitimate secondary reasons to consider joining up, and there’s nothing wrong with dangling longer-term possibilities, like “retirement” pay at a relatively young age to aid recruiting as compensation to the very real sacrifices that, as a matter of course, are expected of someone who serves the nation. Those things appeal to those who are capable of thinking beyond their immediate comfort zone, and well into the future – the type of kids an all-vol force needs. But again, those are secondary to the decision to serve. I never expected to be well compensated monetarily for joining the Navy when I signed up way back when. I did expect those other things I mentioned, but I understood (to the degree an unmarried, reasonably mature kid possibly can) what I would give up when I enlisted. And that was enough.

    I’m sick and tired of hearing double-dippers (military retirees who work for the gov’t or contractors – and by the way, I’m one of them) screaming about the deficit or “socialist Obamacare” while drawing three government-paid checks a month, their families covered by Tricare for Life for next to nothing, and demanding every possible military discount at every struggling mom and pop store, as somehow their due. Grow up. Get real. The nation simply can’t afford your conceit.

    It’s well past time to reconnect with the reality of military SERVICE. The U.S. population is willing to honor you with reasonable compensation and amazing benefits not offered to any others. It’s well past time for us to remember where the honor truly lies. Our service, in their name.

    As you say, “We have seen the sacred cow, and it is us.”

    /end rant

  3. Right on the money! A more reasonable base pay, with tiered and more tightly controlled allowances for combat (which a significant portion of the military are not involved in), hazardous duty (ditto), and separation. Why should a PFC inside the wire at Bagram be paid the same as a PFC walking point and sleeping in the dirt in some unpronunceable valley? Better yet, why are either of them there? But, that’s a discussion for another day. Again, a top-notch, thoughtful post.

  4. OBTW, service academies have the highest starting salaries for recent grads among any universities in the country.

    1. *Caveat: Not evaluated by military pay scales. Figures are evaluated from “[o]nly full-time, civilian workers based in the 50 states and District of Columbia” (Source: CNN Money)

  5. I’ve often wondered what the country would do if it ever really got in a fight and had to reinstitute the draft. We could never afford to pay a mass drafted army what we pay our people now, and we certainly could not have a two tier system where we paid today volunteers more than we pay draftees.

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