- - Monday, October 25, 2021

A recent report on military pay and compensation from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is disappointing. Entitled “AssessingTrends in Military Personnel Costs,” the report overlooks many factors that should be considered in any discussion of military pay.

Although the report does not offer firm recommendations, the author alludes to cutting annual pay raises, placing more health care costs on military beneficiaries, cutting housing allowances, and several other items.

Throughout the report, the author compares military to civilian compensation. Unfortunately, one is hard-pressed in the 47-page report to find any discussion of the sacrifices or dangers military personnel must face as they go into harm’s way.  To illustrate this point, at about the same time the CSIS report was issued in September, CBS News carried an interview with a Marine major who was at Kabul airport when a suicide bomber detonated a suicide vest. Thirteen U.S.servicemen were killed, along with nearly 200 Afghans.

The major talked about the actions of several of his Marines that day. He said after the suicide bomber detonated his vest, shooters opened fire from a nearby roof. The major said one Marine was blown off his feet and shot through his shoulder. Nonetheless, he still had the wits about him to recover his weapon and put the opposing gunmen down.   

The major said another young Marine with substantial blast injuries to his lungs and internal organs had enough grit and courage to drag another injured Marine out of harm’s way — all at risk to his own life.  Listening to the major recall that day and talking about the courage of his Marines and then reading the CSIS report presents a stark contrast.

Granted, while sacrifice is not limited to military service, the risks and overall impact life and death missions have on military personnel and their families are remarkable and rarely replicated in the private sector.  Often, the impact is financial. For example, while the CSIS report mentions reducing annual military pay raises, it overlooks many married junior enlisted’s financial problems - some of whom must rely on food stamps. The current Congress has identified this issue and is addressing it as the Basic Needs Allowance. Provisions from the Military Prevention Act are included in both versions of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

The CSIS report is not the first time military pay and service-earned benefits have been placed on the table. Such attempts to modify and outright reduce pay and benefits are tactics to increase resourcing for readiness and other programs. But these actions have been proven not to work. Where Congress and administrations have short-changed military pay raises, they had to come back later with higher than Employment Cost Index (ECI) raises to overcome weaker retention and loss of interest for others to join. 

Our national Defense Strategy clearly articulates an increasingly complex and global security environment. To meet this challenge requires building a more lethal force and recruiting, developing and retaining high-quality personnel to achieve warfighting success. However, a lack of commitment to preserving pay and benefits sends a poor signal to those currently serving and those interested in serving.

All the military services are in the midst of a recruiting challenge because of both a smaller pool of eligible individuals and a waning interest in military service. Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, the Air Force recruiting chief, recently said that although his service met recruiting goals for the first time in five years, the future will be more challenging.  A Defense Department study in 2020 found that once criminal records and drug abuse are factored in, a 20-million-person pool of military-age personnel is narrowed to about 4.4 million who are qualified academically and physically.

Propensity to serve reduces the pool even further to about 400,000—and the services need 250,000 annually to meet recruiting goals. This means aggressively competing with the private sector for those 250,000 young men and women.  Addressing the willingness to serve issue, Maj. Gen. Thomas said America’s youth are becoming more disconnected from the military more than ever before. Another recent Defense Department study of 3,300 Americans between the ages of 16 and 21, shows only two percent of those polled would “definitely” serve in the military in the next few years. Nine percent would “probably” serve.  

This argument about a disconnect between the civilian populace and the military is reiterated in an article in Slate magazine by a former soldier. Daniel Johnson writes that “an ever-smaller portion of the U.S. population, not to mention U.S. politicians, has any experience with military personnel…..most Americans support the military, yet don’t know what it actually does.”

So, any discussion that eludes to the erosion of pay and benefits clearly makes recruiting all the more difficult. For those who are currently serving, it’s a game-changer because it calls into doubt retaining a quality all-volunteer force if there is not a reciprocating sense of commitment from leadership.

The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) pays particular attention to regular military compensation and its importance to the recruiting and retention necessary to meet the nation’s security and warfighting requirements. MOAA realizes that volunteers join and remain serving based on several factors, pay and benefits being only one. Quality of life, job satisfaction and public support are other key factors—not to mention the support of our national leaders and Congress.

• Tom Jurkowsky is a retired Navy rear admiral and a board member of the non-profit Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). MOAA advocates for a strong national defense and for military service members. He is the author of the book, The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page.

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