Military Members Have it Too Good and Whine Too Much

A few months ago I published an article entitled Should Military Members Receive Special Benefits?. The article was written in response to a comment on another website by someone who didn’t believe military members should receive additional benefits. I dedicated an entire article to the response because military compensation is a complicated and sometimes touchy…
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A few months ago I published an article entitled Should Military Members Receive Special Benefits?. The article was written in response to a comment on another website by someone who didn’t believe military members should receive additional benefits.

I dedicated an entire article to the response because military compensation is a complicated and sometimes touchy topic. In the article, I was clear to articulate that base military pay is low and there are numerous benefits in place to enhance total compensation packages and bring many military members up to a decent standard of living.

One of the primary reasons the government chooses to compensate military members via benefits in lieu of higher base pay is because base pay is used to determine retirement benefits; other benefits and forms of compensation are not factored into retirement pay. This form of compensation saves the military billions of dollars each year in the form of reduced pension payments to retirees.

You guys have it TOO GOOD! So quit your whining!

Somehow my explanation of the article was taken out of context and perceived as whining. What follows is a short quote from a comment left by tim tom, MPH, DrPH (full comment):

I disagree that military personnel deserves extra benefits. You are completely biased in your explanation of how “low” their pay rate is.

These two sentences lead off a 563-word comment about the amount and types of military compensation.

It appears, however, that my article was taken out of context. I went to great lengths to qualify the difference between base pay and benefits and to further explain that many military members enlist or apply for a commission as an officer because of the military benefits. At no point did I mention compensation was too low nor did I once lobby for the sentiment that military pay should be increased. My goal with the article was to familiarize people who had never been exposed to the military compensation system.

Please read the reader comment in full. Again, I encourage everyone to read the article explaining military compensation and benefits, then read the full comment prior to reading the remainder of this open response to the commenter. I encourage this so that my response (this article) is not taken out of context.

An open response to the comment

Dear tim tom, MPH, DrPH,

There was not a single instance in the article that could be remotely construed as whining, nor was the article biased toward the opinion that military members do not get paid enough. In fact, my assessment, which is based on personal experience and clearly stated in the second to last sentence, is and remains, “On the whole, I think the program does a good job of giving military members the opportunity to live a comfortable, but not extravagant life.”

In fact, let’s read the entire last paragraph again:

Military compensation is a complicated topic, and one that requires study to truly understand how much, and in some cases, how little, some military members earn. And even with study, you can still ask the question, “Do Military Members Get Paid Enough” The answer is not an easy one to answer, as it is easy to create a scenario to make it appear as though someone is vastly under or over paid. On the whole, I think the program does a good job of giving military members the opportunity to live a comfortable, but not extravagant life. And I don’t think that is too much to ask.

The final paragraph from the article is clear on my stance – I believe military members earn a fair living, but they are far from overpaid.

Regarding military benefits

tim tom, MPH, DrPH, please research these benefits to fully understand how they are calculated and who is eligible to receive them. Not all of these benefits apply to each military member and there are many civilian equivalents to some (not all) of these benefits.

What follows is a list of tim tom, MPH, DrPH’s statements regarding military benefits as taken directly from the comment he left. His statement is copied/pasted in bold lettering; my response follows. I tried to remain as brief as possible, but some of these benefits have many variables that can be too numerous to list in this article.

Briefly, I will respond to most of the line items:

  1. GI bill $37,000 (avg. debt of college grad civilians is $20,000!). Military members must purchase the right to GI Bill benefits at a cost of $1,200. The GI Bill is not always enough to cover tuition, fees, etc. and many veterans graduate with student loan debt. Veterans have a 10-year window to use their benefits or they are gone forever. In the civilian sector, many companies offer tuition assistance programs or student loan repayment plans. Here is more GI Bill information.
  2. Basic housing allowance (in San Diego, military personnel with dependents get $1893-$2847/month!!). $729 – $1350 in Alpena Co., MI. I guarantee you a job in San Diego pays more than a comparable job in Alpena Co., MI too. But base military pay is determined solely on rank and time in service – not your job, where you live, actual skill level, or many other factors that affect pay in the civilian world.
  3. Basic allowance for subsistence (food allowance)$223-$323/month. At one point all military members were required to live on post and part of their benefits package was room and board. As people began moving off base they were offered a food allowance equivalent to the cost of the military providing the food for the member. Many military members who live on base do not receive this allowance and instead receive a chow hall pass. If you are a civilian then work for Google. They get free food too.
  4. Homeowner benefits. Not very specific here. Are you referring to BAH, VA Loans Benefits, or something else?
  5. Dislocation allowance if relocating. Many civilian companies provide a relocation allowance when the transfer is made at the requirement of the company.
  6. Cost of living allowance $100-hundreds/mo. (dependent upon location). See #2.
  7. Combat compensation (if in active combat). And justly earned.
  8. Hazardous duty pay ($150/mo) for hazardous duties ofc. See #7.
  9. Per diem & Travel pay. Federal requirement, also required by most civilian companies.
  10. Clothing allowance ($1,400 initial allowance f/ enlisted, and $350/yr. average thereafter)…I wish I got paid for buying my expensive work clothes and items! As you mentioned, enlisted benefit only; officers are required to purchase uniforms out of pocket. Some civilian companies offer similar benefits, but this is rare. However, most civilian jobs do not require specific uniforms, or if required, do not cost hundreds of dollars per outfitting. Those that require expensive work clothes are the exception rather than the rule.
  11. Extremely generous retirement benefits! (comment truncated by editor – see full comment below). See below under “Regarding military retirement benefits.
  12. Death Gratuity = $100,000 paid to the military’s survivors (spouse, etc.). Buy life insurance. It’s not that expensive.
  13. Dependency compensation (payable to survivors of deceased veterans) $ 1,154/mo -add $286/mo for EACH child under 18 years…pretty darn good death benefits! See Social Security survivors benefits. Are they comparable? That depends on the earnings history or the deceased, number of dependents, and other factors. But I’m not willing to complain about the benefits a child receives after his or her mother or father died in service of our country.
  14. Combat special compensation (for those who qualify). See #7.
  15. Special pay (sea pay, flight pay, aviation career incentive pay, enlisted flyer incentive pay, submarine pay, wounded warrior pay, diving duty pay, ETC.) for those who perform certain jobs. Yep. Some people get paid more for dangerous jobs. It happens in the civilian world too. By the way, some EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal, or Bomb Squad in civilian terms) get special pay and bonuses too, even though they didn’t make your list. Oh, so do the guys on the police department bomb squad. I think that’s fair though.
  16. Concurrent retirement & Disability pay (f/ those discharged with disabilities related to military work). See below under “Regarding military retirement benefits.

Regarding military retirement benefits

From #11. Extremely generous retirement benefits! (the rest of the line item is highlighted in the box below).

Extremely generous retirement benefits! There is NO “vesting” percentages like civilians are required to follow. -Lucky military personnel! It is complicated how retirement is calculated, but a general estimation is appx. 55% of basepay after 20-30 years. (some military retire at 37!)…must be nice! A lot better than waiting till 65 and getting social security’s whopping $700/mo. I am projected to make at 67! (If I even live that long!)

Please read more about military retirement benefits to better understand how they are calculated and who is eligible to receive military retirement benefits. While the military retirement system is generous and one of the best retirement programs around (I believe a military retirement is worth millions of dollars), not everyone who serves in the military receives these benefits – they must serve the full 20 years or qualify under other circumstances such as a disability retirement to be eligible for military retirement benefits.

Here is more information about whether or not military retirement is pay enough to retire on. In most cases, “military retirement” is simply a pension that starts at an early age. Very beneficial, but not enough for a 37-year-old to live on the rest of his/her life. (FYI, one has to receive a waiver to join the military at age 17, which is extremely rare, making receiving retirement benefits at age 37 even rarer).

Some private corporations offer pension plans as well, with varying degrees of benefits. While these are becoming more difficult to find, they can still be found.

Employer sponsored retirement plans. Many employers in the civilian sector offer company-sponsored retirement benefits such as a 401k plan or similar offering. Some of these plans come with generous company matches or base contributions regardless of employee contribution. The military has access to the Thrift Savings Plan, which is similar to a private sector 401k plan, but there is no matching contribution (at the time of original publication). (score one for the civilians!)

Traditional and Roth IRAs and individual investments. Both military members and civilians have access to Roth and Traditional IRAs. I believe Roth IRAs are good for military members and they should open a Roth IRA if they have the funds to do so. Everyone should take their retirement future into their own hands, regardless of who their employer is.

Social Security benefits. Military members are eligible for Social Security Benefits, as is everyone who pays into the Social Security system (note: some military members who served decades ago did not pay social security taxes, depending on when they served. Here is more information about how military service affects Social Security Benefits).

Social Security Benefits are usually based on how much you pay into the system. I don’t know which formula you used to come up with $700 per month at age 67, but if you used the annual Social Security Statement that is sent out by the SSA every year, then your benefits probably reflect earnings to this point. Your benefits should increase as your earnings history increases. You should receive your annual Social Security Statement approximately 3 months before your birth date, but you can request one at any time if you need another copy.

Also, please research concurrent retirement & disability pay. This is a sore topic for most people receiving concurrent receipt because the plan is not fully in place and most military members with service-related disabilities actually receive what amounts to a tax benefit for being disabled, but do not receive additional disability payments. (It’s actually more complicated than that; they receive their disability payment, which is tax-free, and have an identical amount deducted from their retirement pay. You can see how that would be frustrating).

Military Members Are Undereducated and Overpaid

I skipped over a small section of the comment about subsidized medical and dental care, another comment about free airfare for wounded/sick military personnel and sometimes their families, and veterans preference for civil service jobs. The final statement about education and experience warrants more attention.

I will leave you with his final statement from his comment:

So don’t try to pull the wool over people’s eyes whining that military personell get horrible pay and benefits, because that just isn’t so! Especially for active duty who have NO COLLLEGE DEGREE, and LITTLE OR NO EXPERIENCE, they get GREAT PAY and BENEFITS! you have to combine pay with benefits, which many Americans say benefits are as important, and often more important than pay levels.

Actually, you guys have it TOO GOOD! So quit your whining!

tim tom, MPH, DrPH, no one stated on my website that military personnel “get horrible pay and benefits.”  And one does not need a college degree to have highly specialized or technical skills.

Many people and organizations value specialized training, technical skills, leadership, honor, service, and a host of other traits and characteristics more than they value a college degree.

But if you need to see evidence of military education then please read the following statistics from the USAF demographics (current as of January 7, 2010):

  • Over 53% of officers have advanced, professional, or doctorate degrees. (Officers are required to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree).
  • 86.8% of field grade offers have advanced, professional, or doctorate degrees. (Field grade officers are in grades O-4 through O-6, which is considered a mid grade officer. It generally takes 10 years to achieve the rank of O-4). To put this in perspective, the 53% of total officers with an advanced degree includes all officers including those fresh out of college who have not yet had time to complete an advanced degree. Within the first 4 or 5 years of service most officers have begun work on an advanced degree program, and most complete it within the first 10 years of service.
  • 85% of the officers have completed one or more professional military education or developmental education courses.
  • 70% of enlisted members have college credits toward a degree, with almost 20% having an associate’s degree or equivalent hours, and over 5% with a bachelor’s degree (that 5% represents over 14,000 individuals).
  • These statistics do not include numbers for those who have a double major or more than one advanced degree.

A first hand example. When I separated from the military in 2006 I had a college degree and my base pay was roughly $25,000/year. I received roughly $1,000 BAH/BAS per month which was tax free, putting my “paycheck” value at roughly $40,000 if the BAH/BAS would have been taxed. I also had access to full medical coverage and other military benefits, which is difficult to put a dollar value on. I don’t think $40,000 plus medical benefits is unreasonable compensation for a college graduate with several years experience.

Thank you for expressing freedom of speech and allowing me to do the same

tim tom, MPH, DrPH,thank you for taking the time to express your opinions and exercise your freedom of speech. And rest assured our nation’s military members are working hard to maintain that right – many of them while working 80-100 hour weeks in hostile locations. Some of those troops are also taking correspondence courses while deployed. I should know – I was one of those people who took advantage of military tuition assistance programs to take courses while I was deployed to the Middle East so I could finish my degree while I was enlisted. It was a great benefit – almost as good as the tuition assistance program I have at my current civilian job.

I am happy you stopped by my website, tim tom, MPH, DrPH, so I could share some of this information with you. I hope it has given you a better understanding of how the military compensation system works.

And if, after reading this, you still believe military members have it too good, then I invite you to head over to the nearest military recruiting office where you can find more information about receiving a commission in the US Armed Forces. The US Military is always in need of more doctors.

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  1. Christina says

    You should add the fact that only 17% make it to retirement (recent AFTimes article)…..there’s so much bs and hardship in military service a weaker/smarter/saner person typically bails out before they reach retirement eligibility….I’m a year into my retirement and still figuring out how to thrive without working for someone else….. I gave up a great deal to serve, as does every troop that takes that oath. I think your writer is probably resenting his own choices in life and is expressing ‘sour grapes’ – it happens… he wouldn’t have wanted to serve in those Ebola hot zones!

    I did chuckle last month when I received a letter from the Dept of the AF informing me that I’m required by Title 10, U.S.C. blah blah blah to keep update info on record because I’m “subject to recall for national emergencies, contingencies and brief periods”. I’m comforted that you feel it’s unlikely, I however remember all the fat old guys they pulled out of retirement after 911! It was unusual to say the least. We are living in unusual times.

  2. Michael Spivey says

    Ryan, the term “retire” from the military is the grossest of a misnomer.

    You can’t “retire” from the military. You can go out at 20 on half pay and be on the “Inactive list” till the end of time (till you die).

    Can be called back to active duty for any or no reason at all other than the “Secretary desires it.”. The only limitation in the regs is that you cannot be sent overseas involuntarily with out a declaration of war.

    How many civilian companies can recall you back to work involuntarily after you “retire”. Would that ability cause one to reconsider a “retirement” package?

  3. anthony truax says

    as a prior service member I would like to call BS to the fact that we get paid to much. we make to many sacrifices, have 20 people all telling you to do something and you cant complain or you get in some deep ****! we don’t have the freedom that civilians have and we protect that freedom by giving up most of our rights to protecting yours(aka civilians. we work long hours and are under paid all the time and when we get deployed we work seven days a week 12-20 hours a days if that. so I don’t want to hear anybody complain that the military gets paid to much. and the fact that we could die at any given moment for our beloved country to protect your way of living. only 1-2% of the entire united states answer the call. and their is no reason that we should be dogged for being paid to much if anything we are getting under paid for the sacrifices that we make everyday. thank you to all the service members who do what they do everyday to protect us hooyah, oorah, hooah!!!

  4. Dino says

    This country made a conscious, deliberated decision 40 years ago to return to an All Volunteer Force, a force that is now unparalleled in its professionalism, motivation, and abilities. However, such a force doesn’t come cheaply. For the vast majority, our military members earn every dollar and live within their means. Plus, have the military pay critics seen the Federal civilian employee compensation? Now, there something we can all complain about!

  5. GSK says

    Wow…what is he talking about the military is overpaid…I am a military spouse and a daughter of a csm who served in the army 30 years n just recently retired so I know what I’m talking about. You can’t put a price on missing your kids birthdays or holidays, their first step, their first words, and all the school plays and basketball games that they missed. I personally can count on one hand how many birthdays my father attended. They put their lives endanger and all so you can have freedom of speech to say they make too much money because they don’t have a piece of paper(a degree) to say that they are smart enough to deserve that money but these are the same people who are dying and jumping in front of those bullets for our freedom. Who are you to say that they make too much money. I don’t see you leaving your kids for a year at a time and you come back and they don’t know who you are. So until you spend some time in our shoes and not behind some desk typing on a computer about what our servicemen deserve…then maybe you could understand.

  6. Terrie Young says

    Wow, I am a Marine Spouse of 17 years, and proud of it!!!! Sounds like Tim Tom should sign up and join if he thinks the military has it so good. Get him some combat boots and ship him over to Afganistan/Iraq, maybe my husband will get a full year at home with his family. Since 2005 he has spent at least some part of every year to date in one of the those two nasty countries!!!! He’ll even get free uniforms and boots!!!!

  7. christie says

    All i can do is laugh at the fact that people think the military makes to much money,and to many beniies. I would love for some one to take a poll and see how many average people would leave there families for 15 months go to a war zone get shot at and bombed and possibly captured and if you get captured i dont even want to know what would happen. I dont think they serve you tea and cookies if they capture you. The living conditions in iraq and afganistan aint that comfy folks.I mean i could go on and on. So again i have to laugh at the mere mention that the military gets paid to much or to many bennies.Maybe this was an aprils fools joke it is truly the funniest thing i haveheard in my life. Get real if people think we make to much or get to much the have offices every where>all ya have to do is sign on the dotted line and raise your right hand and we would be more than willing to show you guys just what we military folks do to earn our pay. Its real easy to sit on the side lines and run that mouth which is one of the things the military protects your right to do by the way,so again come on down and sign up if you talk the talk why dont ya walk the walk.

  8. Maribeth says

    I am a spouse of a military member. For anyone to say we make to much doesn’t have that many kids. WIC and food stamps is based on income and dependents nothing else. If we made so much money we would not be on these. I have even been told there should be a set number of children a military family should be allowed to have?! Military members receive the lowest amount of increase in pay. You only get a higher pay rate when you make rank. Its not that easy to make rank. Every year yes we get a increase. Guess what we got this year, a whopping 1.4%, lowest increase in over 45 years. When the cost of living everywhere is rising still. The programs are to make up for what we don’t get in pay.

  9. Crystal says

    As a 911 Vet and a current military spouse I don’t see those guys jumping for joy to walk a mile in my shoes. To each their own I guess. What most individuals don’t understand is these soldiers don’t do it for the pay or benefits which they so rightfully deserve. Yes, there are some individuals who’s elevator does not go to the top floor, but they are the most dedicated and hard working field soldiers out there. So I would much rather a guy that that knows how to keep his weapon from jamming than an individual that knows Shakespeare cover down for me. On the flip side there are those soldiers who are well rounded and choose this life due to the passion to serve. I guess the selfish one’s just would not understand what it is like to have that kind of bond with people or understand what it is like to be a true mentor.

  10. Hank says


    Great post and great response. I just wanted to add a few things.

    Promotion and subsequent compensation is based on responsibility. My 1SG has been in 20 years and while he may not have a Bachelors Degree, he is responsible for 105 Paratroopers and $11 million worth of government equipment thanks to the tax payers. He is responsible for a lot and is paid for that responsibility!

    Also, as a company commander I routinely get up at 0400 to get to work at 0500 and often do not get home until 1800 or 1900 at night. So, if you just say that I work a 12 hour day with base pay and benefits (not including health) for argument’s sake, I earn about $14 per hour in total compensation. Now, that doesn’t include the three deployments (26 months worth) when I was working 24/7, where I’m down to $7 per hour then. Not bad for a guy with two Masters Degrees!

  11. Ryan says

    $14 an hour with two masters degrees? Well, I wouldn’t quite say you are overpaid, but it’s getting close. That is awfully generous of our tax payers. 😉

    • aj2010 says

      What on earth do you need two masters degrees for? I just finished my BA, and you know what i chose to get it in? A job I researched first – nothing I wanted to study. I’ve met a lot of people like you before. You live in school houses because you want to be there. Then when its over and you’re swamped in school debt and the degree you got is in liberal arts you complain. There are many opportunities out there and YOU can do better then that. There are plenty of jobs if you push hard enough, maybe relocate. Who needs two masters degrees? Even doctors don’t usually have two masters degrees – they usually go above that level. Get government work (so when you pay taxes you can feel like your paying yourself) they pay better then that and they don’t care about the title of your degree. Good luck with your job, just don’t hold it over other peoples head. They don’t care if you eat well or not.

  12. Chris says

    Great response! I think the most accurate way to gauge the correct amount of compensation is to take someone’s specific job in the military – like an aircraft mechanic or EOD technician – and then compare it to their job in the civilian world. I think if you take into account experience, training, and location, it generally works out to be very similar in compensation.

    The only exceptions would be to the base pay scale that rewards time in service without always accounting for performance. The Navy, at least, sets time limits on promotion that affects a members ability to continue service if they don’t meet certain milestones. As a member of the military myself, I certainly do enjoy the regular pay increases, but I believe that is the only part of the system that could be construed as unfairly biased.

    I think it’s worth mentioning the number of equivalent jobs in the civilian world that pay more than one in the military, and also how the military sometimes overcompensates based on experience and job description.

    For example, an O-3 submariner and an E-6 submariner living in San Diego leave after 10 years of service to work at a nuclear power plant, essentially doing jobs similar to their experience on a nuclear powered submarine.
    O-3 total pay (base, BAH, BAS, sub pay) – ~$95,000
    E-6 total pay (base, BAH, BAS, sub pay) – ~$69,000
    Nuclear Reactor Operator @ San Onofre (Oceanside, CA) – ~$89,000

    This is an example of compensation for just a reactor operator, not even a manager or supervisor, who doesn’t deploy for months on end, have the responsibility of piloting a multi-billion dollar ship, or learn to operate tactically in an undersea environment.

    As an easier example, I’ll compare a dentist and a dental assistant, both with about 10 years of service living in San Diego.
    O-3 Dental Officer (base, BAH, BAS, dental pay, board certifed pay) – ~$114,000
    E-6 Dental Technician – ~$65,000
    Civilian Dentist – ~$156,000
    Civilian Dental Techinican – ~$42,000

    I think it is easy to recognize that in some cases the military is more generous, and in others it is much less so. I think that in order to truly quantify our compensation and benefits, however, you need only ask a servicemember who has missed 2 out of his 3 kids births, or who wasn’t able to attend his father’s funeral due to overseas duties. For all of us who have served, and continue to do so proudly, I believe our government does a pretty damn good job of keeping it fair for everyone.

    • Ryan says

      Well stated, Chris.

      Numbers can be sliced and diced a thousand ways to support almost any argument. I think the key to this is taking a holistic view of pay and benefits across all branches, jobs, etc.

      There will always be outliers, some people who earn more or less than a civilian counterpart, but on the whole the military offers fair compensation.

      Thanks for your service. 🙂

    • Mary says

      A dental officer making $114,000 per year …and it is not taxed? I hope it is taxed! And this amount does not take into account that taxpayors are giving officers who never go to war a housing allowance that is greater than $1500 to 2000 per month!
      Sorry. If we want to be honest, the military is a socialist institution.
      I don’t mind paying for those who go to war but not the rest of them. That dental officer can afford to pay his or her own mortgage.
      And do taxpayors know that they are on the hook for private school education too? ROTC should only apply to state schools.
      And is it true that taxpayors pay for officers who pursue more than one college degree? Taxpayors should not have to pay for more than one master’s degree.
      And is it true that every time an officer decides to stay in the military for another “term”, he/she gets another large sum of money (GI bill?)?
      I know some of this information from those who are in the military.

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