TCS Daily

An Army of Paupers

By Melana Zyla Vickers - January 14, 2002 12:00 AM

The image of Army Special Forces Sgt. 1st class Nathan Ross Chapman, 31 and a father of two, bleeding to death after being shot in the leg outside the Afghan town of Khost on January 4, is enough to evoke great heartsickness. Add the fact that Chapman, who had devoted 12 years to the Army, was making an estimated $52,000 per year, and the sorrow gives way to no small amount of guilt.

Chapman wasn't the only one to give his nation everything while receiving almost nothing. The CIA's Mike Spann, a 32 year-old father of three killed in Afghanistan in late November, earned less than $50,000 per year. The three Army Special Forces sergeants killed by a stray U.S. bomb in early December were similarly poorly paid.

Patriotic, adventurous service is its own reward, some might retort. While there's a grain of truth in that, it's important not to exploit these brave Americans' sense of national duty. Compare the salaries of men on the front lines to others that might be judged comparably adventurous and service-oriented, and you'll find that soldiers serving in Afghanistan are getting short-changed.

New York City firefighters such as the ones that doused the World Trade Center flames, for instance, can make $60,000 after only ten years. Unlike Special Forces soldiers, firefighters can also arrange their work in shifts that allow them to hold lucrative second jobs. Similarly, police officers in the Seattle area - where Chapman was raising his family - can make $60,500 after six years. These figures don't count overtime pay, which a soldier doesn't get even if he's working 24/7. Pointing this out is not to suggest that New York's bravest or Seattle's finest are overpaid. On the contrary, it is simply to suggest that, by comparison, U.S. military personnel are getting short shrift.

And there's a contrast between the soldiers and broader society as well: According to a study by the think tank RAND, half of civilians with some college education earn more than their counterparts in the military do.

Remuneration is faulty within the military, too. The paycheck that goes to a soldier suffering months of privation and threats to his life in Afghanistan is almost the same as that of a soldier of equal rank patrolling the Coke machines in the Pentagon. The maximum difference between the monthly pay of a Sgt. Chapman and a Sgt. Desk Jockey is about $800 and usually far less. It's broken down into special pays for such skills as freefall parachuting or scuba if the soldier has them, foreign-language proficiency, and a paltry $150 in "hostile fire and imminent danger" payments known as combat pay.

To be sure, there's some simple economics at work here: The price of combat soldiers is set where the supply of young, intelligent, patriotic, able-bodied Americans meets the military's demand for them. If the nation had a shortage of qualified applicants for the Special Forces, it could presumably attract more candidates by raising the pay. The fact that it doesn't suggests that the country remains full of willing candidates.

But at a time of war when combat soldiers' sacrifices are so glaring, there should be more to a discussion of their compensation than the cold logic of a supply curve. What's more, the question of fair pay is sure to come up again as the U.S. becomes more dependent on fighting wars Afghanistan-style, with air power supplemented by Special Forces.

Fairness alone argues for rewarding the soldiers who put their lives at risk for the country, or indeed give their lives for it, with better financial compensation. If the services want to preserve the equity among all servicepeople of a certain rank, so be it. But for national gratitude's sake, the Department of Defense should increase the pay that goes to soldiers who actually serve in the line of fire.

DoD has begun to improve the lot of soldiers overall, albeit modestly. An across-the-board, 5% increase in military pay kicked in this year. In addition, DoD offers servicepeople bonuses for reenlistment that can go as high as their basic annual salary minus special pay. And in a practice that arose to lure young people into the military during the 1990s boom years, when other jobs had much greater financial appeal, it will in some cases pay signing bonuses of up to $20,000. But these are one-time windfalls, and they don't particularly reward soldiers such as the Green Berets in Afghanistan.

Far better for the nation to recognize the sacrifice of these men and their families and to reward it, than to remain slavishly attached to principles of intra-military equity, supply, and demand.

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