What US armed forces earn -- and why

Compensation for the men and women who put themselves in harm's way has been rising since 9/11. It's all part of the price of freedom.

By Bruce Kennedy May 16, 2013 3:44PM

Military Man (© Stockbyte/SuperStock)As we approach Armed Forces Day this weekend, take a moment to not only thank your friends and family in uniform but to consider their unique way of life.

The old Navy slogan, "it's not just a job, it's an adventure," may still hold true, but at the end of the day, working in the military remains a job -- with its own job culture, pay scales and unique financial aspects.

Military take-home pay can run from around $16,000 annually for someone just entering basic training all the way up to over $200,000 for a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Members of all four military services work with an equivalent pay grade scale -- E-1 to E-9 for enlisted personnel and O-1 to O-10 for officers.

But military salaries are more than just a person's basic and taxable take-home pay. Compensation also includes tax-exempt allowances for things like living quarters as well as benefits for health care and retirement. And Military.com notes there are currently more than 70 different types of pay and allowances in the military system, including factors like flight pay, submarine pay, overseas deployment pay, hostile fire pay and imminent danger pay.

According to George Washington University's Face the Facts project, about one-quarter of the U.S. Defense Department's overall budget -- around $153 billion in fiscal 2012 -- goes toward personnel costs. And two major components of those costs are salaries and allowances, at more than $100 billion, and health care, at over $53 billion. In addition, military retirement costs in 2011 came to $51 billion.

The study also notes that, while the U.S. military's active duty force has grown just 4% since 2000, compensation costs are up 28%.

Clearly, those "perks" can add up. In its fiscal year 2014 budget request released last month, the Department of Defense acknowledged that. The regular military compensation of basic pay, housing, subsistence allowances and tax advantages created an equivalent salary for the average military enlisted member of more than $52,000 in 2011, while the average officer's equivalent salary was around $100,000.

Robert Goldich, a retired military manpower analyst with the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service, notes military salaries have been on the rise since the end of the draft during the Vietnam War, when the four services had problems with retention due to competition from the civilian sector.

Pay has "gone up even more in the past 10 to 12 years, because of the wars we've been in," he says. And since 9/11, Goldich notes, "there's been a sense that you need to be able to attract people to meet requisite force levels for fighting the wars. And there's also been a sense in Congress, because we've been at war, of giving the troops more."

Plus, the Servicemember's Civil Relief Act, which offers some protections for deployed active-duty military personnel, postpones or suspends obligations on financial issues such as credit card debt, mortgage payments or taxes.

Of course, it's impossible to truly compensate military personnel who endure years of sacrifice and who, as part of their profession, put themselves in harm's way. But Goldich says it's a trade-off.

"My son was a combat Marine infantryman with two combat tours in Iraq," he says, "and he wasn't getting paid a huge amount of money, but he was certainly getting paid a lot more than an enlisted infantryman was getting paid during the draft era."

More on moneyNow

May 16, 2013 4:41PM
Take-home pay of $16,000 is the maximum a Senator or Congressman should make; unlike soldiers whose live are in danger, public servants don't even have to do their jobs (mouth hot air) and they still get paid. So $16,000 is more than enough for them. Based on performance, $1/year maybe over payment.
May 16, 2013 5:53PM
"PERKS" In my 26 years serving in our nation's military I don't ever remember seeing the word "PERK" on my leave and earnings statement. I have no regrets for the time I served in the military and have a lifetime of great memories, but it did not come without sacrifice. One thing to remember, it's nearly impossible for a military spouse to establish his or her own career when you have to pack up and move every 3 or 4 years. Our nation ask a lot from our volunteer military and they deserve and earn everything they are paid and then some. There are no "PERKS" in the military just a group of highly trained professions that put service before self everyday so we Americans can enjoy the lives we have.  
May 16, 2013 4:04PM
The vast majority of the active regular military personnel are underpaid while most of the Defense Contractors are Overpaid. Ditto for private contractors working for the Government, they overcharge to infinity times ten.
May 16, 2013 4:52PM
More pay and benefits for the soldiers actually on the ground fighting and less money for Private security contractors like Blackwater
May 16, 2013 4:15PM
They should get much more for what they have to do. Without them; you might not be here and be able to post and read  this.
May 16, 2013 5:27PM
Where did they come up with those numbers? What do they consider an average enlisted member? I retired as an E-7 with 22 years of service in 2004 and my computed annual compensation was a little over $38,800. That's pay, allowances and benefits even if you adjust for inflation, there's no way I would have been anywhere near $52,000 if I had retired with 22 years of service in 2011. If you want to point out overcompensation take a look at all those politicians and their staff. If you think the military has a good benefit package, why doesn't Congress have the same package?
May 16, 2013 4:31PM
I would tie all government pay to the military.  You have to give the guy with the gun a raise if you want anyone else to get more. Same for welfare, food stamps, Social Security, everything.  Without the military protecting us, nothing else is possible.
May 16, 2013 4:45PM

sure beats the $92 a month I got as a draftee.

they deserve every penny and more.

May 16, 2013 5:19PM
And CONgress earns (strike "earns") TAKES $174,000 annually for a part time job, poorly done??? Ask your doctor if this is right for Americans.
May 16, 2013 5:44PM
I spent 31 years in the Air Force. As a recruiter in the 1970s I told everyone if they retired they would get free medical care for life.  Guess what! It was a lie.  Now they say they can't afford the system they have and want retired military members to pay more, up to 3 to 4 times more.  What a crock. The sad part is the active duty leadership now is supporting that so they can buy more planes. Go figure. Everyday my retirement pay is decreasing in value.  
May 16, 2013 4:54PM
there the only part of the government that is under paid. there worth 10 times more than the congress and the senate, and 1000 times more that the so called president.
May 16, 2013 4:33PM

Surely- Johnny-Lipp does not really think that someone gets $16,000 for going through their basic training.  That has to be what they would earn in a years time if paid the same rate as someone in basic and is pre-tax and everything else. 


Yes they military does get paid more than it did during the draft, and yes they get paid more than whin I enlisted in the USMC in 1975.  But lets look on the other side of the coin.  While I served my 21 years, I had E-7's or Gunnery Sgt's that could have qualified for food-stamps had they chosen to.  Remember that is someone who has chosen to make a career of the military, has spent probably 12 to 15 years or more with their company to keep it in plain terms and still was at the poverty level. 


I don't think most of the country wants a return of the draft and you cannot keep or attract the types of men and women we need across the board at minimum wage.  They men and women we have today in many ways are far more capable than we were even thirty years ago.  See how many people will speak out against higher military pay when we have to reinstitute the draft and yank thousands of hopefully qualified new recruits off the streets and out of their homes.  As dave1230 said and I agree: The vast majority are still underpaid, add the responsibilities they have to manage, time separated from their families and trusting their spouses to keep the home fires burning while they are deployed five or six times into combat.


I believe the average Joe or Jane would not want to play by those rules.  Yes I loved my time and often wish I had stayed longer.  That does not lessen the issues of today's military and what they endure each year.  Their situation does not appear to be getting easier any time soon.

May 16, 2013 4:20PM
Do nut mess with service member:
Govt., should take care of them after
they completed a honorable discharge
in 20yrs., or injured and retired with service
connected disability.
Politics should stay clear of this
constitutional obligation. "screw"*

May 16, 2013 4:34PM
That Serviceman's Civil Relief Act is more whitewash for the politicians.  Had one guy in my platoon that ended up losing his business because of the failure of the authorities to take it seriously, especially when it comes to banks.  He was an independent trucker, with his own rig, bought shortly before Desert Storm and our unit got activated.  He was a very good mechanic, and an outstanding equipment operator.  Missed the first payment, told me, I told the C.O., the C.O. got hold of J.A.G., and the next thing we know, he's missed another payment and his wife is telling him they repossessed his truck.  There was no way he could afford the payments on an E-4's pay, and he'd been told there wouldn't be a problem during his active duty time, because of that act.  I have heard anecdotal reports of other people even losing their homes because of the lack of support for this problem.  Others lost their jobs because of the lack of honest adherence to "Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve."  And they are a major part of the current armed forces operations.
May 16, 2013 5:44PM

I say that all the congressmen and senators that make negative comments about the military and their pay should maybe propose a mandate that all current and future reps and senators complete at least six months of active duty before they will be able to run for office.  I think that it would be a way of realizing what we go thru.  I am a 1968 Vietnam vet and a proud one.  The young soldiers coming back from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan need more assistance than they are getting.


May 16, 2013 4:38PM
And what amount of benefits, to include housing, food, medical, and money does someone on Public Assistance get?
May 16, 2013 5:11PM
1965 pay as an E-3 LCPL was 83.10 month and when I got married wife got 123.10 a month like to see anyone live on this now!
Draft pay was $89. per month during the VietNam war. If the basic pay is over $16K today, what is that to inflation?
May 16, 2013 5:08PM
They fail to include the variable housing allowance and food rations allowance. That make for a pretty good pay check for GI's now days. Beats the hell out of the $78 a month in 1969 with $55 hazardous duty pay ie: combat pay also. And then crapped on by the public when we came home. I have all the respect in the world for today's GI but why do they get better VA benefits than we get?  My kids did not get college tuition. Why should there be different groupings among GI's.  We all signed up to give our lives for our country if need be.
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