One of the recent initiatives the President or at least the folks at the Pentagon have put forward is a 401K style retirement system. Along with Tricare hikes it is assumed that this will somehow lower the personnel costs of the military. The benefits that the military enjoys, or at least the Active Duty Service Members, are far better than any civilian jobs so why not cut them? Unfortunately this might well cut at the very heart of the all volunteer force. Again and again we have seen that the pay that SMs receive is far lower than their civilian counterparts. Even 4-star Generals and Admirals who make about as much in a month as an E-1, the lowest rank makes in half a year, but the jobs they do and their responsibilities, were they in the civilian world would make them easily ten to fifteen times as much.
There are Sergeants Major out there that have Masters Degrees, and some even have PhDs. Most of them have at least 20-25 years invested and to make that rank they have to be hard charging years. Now lets take the average retiree, well talk about the officer who is better off. The average officer will get out at 20-24 years of service if their retiring, with a rank of O-4 to O-5 (if their unlucky O-3) now regardless of branch there's a lot there that they can hang on their hat. If you're a Major or LTC you will have at least some staff time, and you will probably have some type of command, all look good on a resume right? Well here's the catch, the employer has to actually know what the hell kind of job you had. You also have to ask, seriously, if the officer was Infantry, Armor, Artillery or Special Forces. . . you can't exactly translate that to the civilian world.
Now lets talk about that healthcare. Here you need to understand something about the military life that you will not find in the civilian sector. Imagine you're on a semi-pro athletic team. Doesn't matter the sport, the point is imagine the level of physical activity, and general fitness level you have to maintain. Now imagine there is no off season. Most football players do not make it to 20 years, and their contracts are for millions of dollars. Imagine having to maintain the level of physical fitness all the time. Then you have to remember that there are requirements that no pro star will have on them. Go watch some footage of Ranger School sometime and imagine having to train like that at least once a fiscal quarter, not to mention training up for those events. It all adds up. If you actually make it to 20 years (which lately is becoming less and less likely) you're going to have serious medical issues that will not face your contemporaries.
The truth is that the pay, for what is asked of them is ridiculously small. How much do you think you would require to work on a Nuclear Submarine? My dad told me of the dock workers who would go out on a refit with his submarine. They would get time, time and a half, double time then double time and a half, with hazard pay on top. Just for being there to trouble shoot problems his boat might have run into, on a three to four day cruise those dock workers would make about a month and a half's worth of pay. How much do you ask for if you were in an environment that at any second can get crushed like a beer can, or if one of the valves fails can drown you? Now how much would you demand to get shot at regularly? Want to look at something outrageous? Look at how much a State Department worker who never left the Green Zone made compared to the infantry trooper that went on patrols in IED chocked roads. What keeps a lot of troops in are the benifits.
The schools are, on average better on post, the PX is tax free, and if they don't have it there they can get it for you. The Commissary is cheap, which is an absolute must for a junior enlisted-man's wife, because there isn't a lot of money to go around. If you're bored the MWR will hook you up, and they really go out of their way to give you something to do that is at least somewhat affordable. Lastly the housing areas, while not the greatest in some bases are at least affordable. All these benefits offset the fact that you're usually stationed miles from civilization, you're on call 24/7, and can literally be called to go anywhere and do just about anything humanly possible with little or no warning, and may be gone for as long as the President requires, to say nothing of the potential injuries or deaths.
With all this in mind the reason that military benefits are treated as Holy Writ, not to be messed with under any circumstances. A lot of people who have never served see the surface realities of the benefits, "free" healthcare, housing, and discounted shopping, but they never bother to look deeper than that. The fact that some of the Joint Chiefs have actually proposed some of the impending changes shows they're either out of touch or they're protecting their careers. Either case is appalling. The retirement system isn't perfect, it was made for a profession that makes young men into old men (and now women) quickly. If we plan to keep an all volunteer force, if we plan to keep a highly professional, motivated, and skilled military, we are going to need to keep the benefits, as a boon, and even a lure to recruit and keep the quality people.
When you think of America's military in the next 20 years do you think it will be a professional force that is able to whether the storms unforeseen on the horizon? We have managed to hold our own with nearly 11 years of constant warfare, something it was simply assumed a modern representative Republic could never do. How many of those troops would have returned again and again to the war zone, if not for those benefits? In this debate one should be sure to tread very lightly, lest the consequences cost more that they purport to save.