Old habits die hard, and that could explain the next complaint you hear from a military colleague about an "erosion of benefits." But in light of compensation gains approved by Congress over the past two years, the statement shouldn’t pass unchallenged.
Military pay still doesn’t stack up well against compensation offered by some burgeoning sectors of the U.S. economy. Pilots, skilled technicians and others continue to be enticed into civilian life by higher salaries, shorter workweeks, more creature comforts and reduced danger. Despite a tough recruiting environment, the military hasn’t received in recent years the kind of double-digit, catch-up raises that in 1980 and 1981 rescued the all-volunteer force.
For all of that, the competitive trend line for military compensation is rising, thanks to wide-ranging pay increases and benefit reforms passed in the year 2000 and 2001 defense authorization bills. As Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan, chief of naval personnel, explained in a recent interview, the services are in a "war for talent" and, with help, are becoming better armed.
Highlights from last year’s defense bill included January’s 4.8 percent pay raise and a commitment to set annual raises through 2005 a half percentage point above wage growth in the private sector. The services also got a targeted raise in July to "reform" the military pay table and a sharp boost in the value of military retirement for those who entered service for the first time on or after July 31, 1986.
Besides these gains, Congress last year pumped an added $225 million into Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), enhanced many special pays and bonuses, authorized a military tax-deferred Thrift Savings Plan and ended dual compensation penalties on retired officers working as federal employees.
In the fiscal 2001 defense bill, which President Clinton is expected to sign this month, Congress focused again on pay and allowances but also on health care benefits. As described in recent Military Updates, lawmakers passed a Tricare-for-Life package with enhanced pharmacy benefits that will cost an estimated $60 billion over the next decade.
The bill contains other improvements for service people including:
The current maximum is $275 for most recipients, $375 for recruiters. Service and Defense officials still must decide how the higher ceiling should be used.
As Congress adjourns, it leaves military problems unsolved like the intense pace of operations, shortages in spare parts, dwindling inventories of ships and aircraft. But recent votes on behalf of service people suggest the erosion of benefits has ended, and the war for talent has intensified.
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