Military pay
Looking for a few more dollars
Military members will receive a big raise next year, but will it be enough to keep them in uniform?

December 19, 1999
By Rod Hafemeister
Belleville News-Democrat

On New Year’s Day, the men and women of the U.S. military will receive their biggest pay raise in 18 years — a 4.8 percent across-the-board hike in basic pay.

Six months later, on July 1, another pay increase takes effect — targeted raises of up to 5.5 percent for certain ranks and years of service. Those raises, which should affect about 75 percent of those in uniform, are designed to reward performance over longevity and improve retention.

The military steadily has been losing people to higher-paying jobs in the private sector. Air Force pilots are flocking to the commercial airlines. All branches of the military have lost computer technicians and other skilled people.

In addition, Scott Air Force Base always has been a place where people tend to end their military careers. Because it is a command base, people assigned to Scott usually have a number of years in and can retire without Illinois taxing their military pension.

So the Pentagon is throwing money at them, hoping to convince them to stay in.

For example:

• An Air Force staff sergeant (E-5) with six years in service will see
his or her basic pay go up $100 a month,  from $1,614 to $1,714 after
July 1.

• An Army captain (O-3) with six years will go from $3,364 to $3,525.

• A Marine gunnery sergeant (E-7) with 16 years will go from $2,382  to

• A Navy commander (O-5) with 16 years will go from $4,845 to $5,286.

The E- and O- designations refer to pay grades, not ranks, which vary from one branch of the service to another.

In addition, there also will be raises in housing allowances for those who live off-base; new or improved incentive pays for critical skills, and an increase in the maximum reenlistment bonus from $45,000 to $60,000 for certain undermanned jobs.

Also included is a revamping of the retirement system to give career service members an option to get a lump-sum early payment in return for accepting a reduced monthly pension after retirement, and to fix a disparity between older members and those who joined the service since 1986.

Defense leaders hope the raises will help stem the rising tide of people leaving the service and bolster recruiting efforts.

“We have ... the most-skilled, the best-trained, the best-equipped people in the world,” Defense Secretary William Cohen said earlier this fall. “It’s also clear to us that we have to recruit and retain the best people and provide them with a sound quality of life if we’re going to
remain a dominant force for good in the future.

“We can never pay you enough. We’ve said this before. But we can pay you more.
And that’s precisely what (these raises are) going to do.”

But government studies and surveys by military publications repeatedly have shown that pay is only one factor — and often not the major one — in people deciding whether to hang up the uniform.

And the fixed-percentage raise does the least to help those at the bottom of the military career ladder: the young enlisted men and women on their first tour of duty.

“Our military personnel will not fail to notice that while we are spending inordinate amounts of money on programs and activities not requested by the armed forces, we rejected a proposal to get 12,000 military families off food stamps,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the
Senate before casting his vote on the pay raise bill.

McCain favored military pay raises but was upset that the House had killed his proposal to add money targeted for lower enlisted members with large families.

Times change

Back in the days of the draft, soldiers, sailors and airmen entering the service usually were single, lived in the barracks, ate in the mess hall and spent most of their time in their government-issued uniforms. Their meager pay was enough to cover their limited expenses.

But the creation of the all-volunteer military almost three decades ago brought with it a new kind of service member — one who expected to be paid a living wage and have the free time to spend it.

They live in neighborhoods throughout the metro-east — military families with children in school who shop as much at the mall as they do at the base exchange.

And increasingly, young enlistees today are married.

Twenty years ago, only 40 percent of the people in the military were married, most of them career service members. Today, about 60 percent of the 1.4 million people on active duty are married — and the Pentagon figures that, at any time, about 12,000 of them have the right
combination of low pay and large enough family to qualify for government food stamps.

Even worse, a 1997 study commissioned by the Pentagon found that more than half the enlisted service members were experiencing some kind of financial difficulty.

The study, by the Rand Corp. for the Department of Defense’s Office of Family Policy, found that:
• 27 percent of enlisted members reported having trouble paying their bills.

• 21 percent said they had received pressure from bill collectors.

• 19 percent said they had trouble making ends meet.

• 9 percent had pawned valuables.

• 4 percent were behind in their rent or mortgage payments.

• 4 percent reported “serious” difficulties, such as having utilities shut off, repossession or bankruptcy.

During the study, military leaders at all levels said one of the biggest problems was easy access to credit, especially for low-ranking service members whose salaries cannot support a lot of debt.

“It’s more common than it used to be when I was a youngster 19 years ago,” said Lt. Col. Thelma Hales, commander of the 375th Mission Support Squadron at Scott Air Force Base. “We have a lot more young marrieds now. And I even see new lieutenants come in $30,000, $40,000 in debt
because of college loans and credit cards they got in college.”

Hales’ command includes the Family Support Center at Scott, which provides financial management training and assistance along with a variety of other programs.

Since February 1997, the Air Force has required all personnel to go through a basic financial management training program, including instruction on checkbook management, at their first duty station after training. The Army and Navy have similar programs.

The Scott center also offers help in getting out of debt and one-on-one financial counseling. It even conducts training on mutual funds and other investments for those who have a handle on their finances.

In the last year, the Scott center conducted 57 financial seminars, with 1,465 attendees.

Master Sgt. Scott Young, the squadron’s first sergeant, said one of his biggest problems is getting airmen to come in for help early.

“Usually, they won’t come to see me unless they’re in crisis or there’s something on my desk, like a notice of a bounced check or a letter from a creditor, and I call them in,” he said. “I try to determine if it’s just a mistake or a real problem — I try not to help people who don’t need it. But I’ve never sent somebody to the Family Support Center who didn’t come back and say it helped them.”

Hales and Young said that when someone has financial problems, they have to deal with two issues: the immediate crisis and long-term fixes.

“First, I have to find out if they can’t pay the rent, have no money for groceries, are about to have their utilities cut off,” Hales said.

One agency that can help with immediate needs is the Air Force Aid Society, the official charity of the Air Force. It can quickly provide grants and no-interest loans for basic living expenses, emergency leave travel expenses or repair of a car needed to get to work.

For long-term fixes, the Family Support Center can provide in-house counseling, direct airmen to civilian agencies if appropriate and help spouses find jobs.

Getting those who need it financial help is an essential part of his job, Young said.

“A person who’s worrying about bills can’t do their job. They’re not paying attention to what they’re doing,” he said.

“It’s all about the readiness of the Air Force,” Hales added. “When we have families that are taken care of, then I know I have a troop in the squadron who is ready to deploy.”

Starting at the bottom

Today, an E-2 — the second-lowest pay grade — who has fewer than two years of service makes a base pay of $1,075 a month before taxes. After the raises take effect in 2000, he or she will make $1,127 a month — a raise of less than $2 a day. (An enlisted airman usually only stays at the lowest pay grade — E-1 — for about the first six months he or she is in the service.)

For a single airman who lives in the dormitory (they don’t call them barracks anymore) and eats in the dining facility (what used to be the mess hall), that’s still a fair amount of money.

A married airman gets money for food instead of free meals — $7.50 a day — and gets a housing allowance that is based on pay grade and the cost of housing in the area. For an E-2 at Scott, that’s currently $440 a month; defense officials have not released the new housing allowance
tables yet, but most are expected to rise.

Many service members complain that the housing allowances don’t cover the cost of a home big enough for a family with several children.

For years, on-base housing was not available for low-ranking married troops. About a decade ago, the Pentagon changed that policy, setting aside some on-base housing for junior enlisted troops.

But at most places, demand far exceeds supply. At Scott, the waiting time for one of the 76 two-bedroom units is 14 to 18 months; for one of the 11 three-bedroom units, it’s 18 to 24 months.

Since most young airmen don’t have enough credit history and cash for a down payment and closing costs, most can’t buy a house and are forced to rent apartments or houses for their families.

Frequent deployments and moving every few years make it difficult for spouses to find good-paying jobs and often find they are working primarily to pay for the day-care they need so they can work.

One organization at Scott that helps them stretch their dollars is the Airmen’s Attic.

Most Air Force bases have a place that lends or gives away dishes, pots and pans and small appliances to young airmen trying to set up a household with little money.

But at Scott, the Airmen’s Attic is a whole lot more: a 9,000-square-foot warehouse that gives  E-1s through E-4s  virtually everything needed for a house except the walls and roof: furniture,
bedding, adult and children’s clothing, baby items, small appliances, dishes and cookware, electronics and toys.

Helping each other

Manager Kathy Hawk said the Attic averages 6,000 donations a week from other service members, base organizations and corporate donors.

“We accept anything and everything as a donation except used underwear and used socks,” Hawk said. “It’s not all new stuff, but you take what you can get.”

The Attic is only open from 9 to 11 a.m., Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and “shoppers” are limited to how much they can take each month, but they still come in droves.

“Everything is on a first-come, first-served basis,” Hawk said. “But they can come in as often as they want to see what we’ve got available.”

Units and organizations all over the base have committed to sending volunteer workers, mostly active-duty members, on the same day each month to help out.

“They do everything from sweeping the floor to sorting through the donations to stocking the shelves,” Hawk said. “It wouldn’t work without the volunteers. No one is paid — that’s the beauty of it.”

Besides its regular offerings, the Attic also has monthly specials and sometimes puts items up for drawings. And once or twice a year it allows E-5s in for a special shopping day.

The numbers are staggering: between June, when it moved into its current reclaimed warehouse on base, through November, it gave away 28,707 items to 1,848 patrons. A total of 787 volunteers worked 3,217 hours. The Attic received 98,700 items as donations, with many of them set aside for the three-day Christmas shopping special that was held last week.

Hundreds of airmen lined up each morning of the three days last week waiting for the doors to open. Inside, shelves were set up with toys, sporting equipment and small appliances.

Tuesday, the first day, the parking lot was overflowing an hour before the doors opened.

“The airmen wouldn’t let some of the volunteers in because they thought they were cutting in line,” Hawk said.

The Attic now is closed until after the New Year’s holiday and won’t accept donations until Jan. 4. Hawk said she is hoping to get more local merchants to donate and is especially looking for furniture.

“If we get furniture, it goes right away,” she said.

An ounce of retention

For years, military pay raises have lagged behind the private sector and even other federal employees. Worse, because most raises have been flat percentages across the board, the pay table has gradually become skewed to the point where longevity carries more weight than promotions.

This year, under pressure from military leaders to raise pay, the Clinton administration submitted a budget that included a 4.4 percent raise. But that number was still only .1 percent higher than the index used to compute the rate of salary increases in the private sector.

Congress boosted the raise to 4.8 percent and added language saying that over the next six years, raises should be .5 percent higher than the index.

At least as important as the raise is the adjustments to the pay table, said Navy Capt. Elliot Bloxom, the Pentagon’s director of compensation.

Under the current tables, only 37 percent of pay raises are tied to promotions while 73 percent are because of longevity. After the adjustments, 53 percent of the raises service members receive during their careers will occur from promotions and 47 percent from longevity increases, with the raises getting larger with each promotion.

“This is a one-time pay table adjustment,” Bloxom said. “But what’s important for service members to remember is not what raise you get on July 1, but the raises you will get if you stay in the service and perform well. Don’t look at where you are now, but where you expect to
be in five years.”

But if defense leaders are banking on pay raises to reverse the flow of people leaving the service, they are likely to be disappointed.

A recent General Accounting Office survey of about 1,000 officers and enlisted service members in critical specialties found that more than half intended to leave the service at the end of their current terms —and pay ranked far behind other complaints as the reason.

According to the GAO, about 62 percent of the factors prompting people to hang up their uniforms were related to work circumstances: lack of equipment and materials to do their jobs, undermanning of units, frequency of deployments, and lack of personal time for family.

Military and retirement pay accounted for only 23 percent of the factors causing dissatisfaction with the military.

Hales, the Scott squadron commander, said she agrees that everyone has their own reasons for getting out, but believes the raises will change at least some minds.

“This is a terrific raise. I’ve written about it in both of my last Commander’s Calls (letters to the troops),” she said. “This is one way my lawmakers have helped me with retention.”

Originally Published, December 19, 1999, Belleville News Democrat, Belleville, Illinois
(c) 1999, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill


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