“Yeah, ketchup, condiments in general.”
“Okay.” The specialist running the DFAC sensing session writes “Ketchup” on his notepad. “Anything else?”
Everyone’s quiet for a moment. “Any chance of getting separate rats?” I ask. I know getting money for separate rations is a dead issue, not even a ghost of a chance, but we have fifteen minutes left and I don’t want to go do combatives training if I don’t have to.
A couple of people chuckle. “With this command? Forget it.”
The SPCIC tries to present the official line: “You can get separate rats if you have a good reason. Like if you’re working hours so that you can’t get to the DFAC.“
“I have a good reason: the DFAC sucks. It’s a bad dining facility. I don’t eat there. Never, ever, ever. I eat at the DFAC like once, twice a month, and that’s usually at 525th. I never eat at our chow hall.”
A discussion arises:
“Yeah, 525’s better….”
“The one — down by the MP’s — “
“Have you ever been to the one on North Fort?” I ask.
“Our DFAC is pretty much the worst one on post.”
“No, it is the worst.”
A sergeant who’s been around for a while shakes his head. “You’re making it worse. The fewer people eat there, the less money it gets, the worse it is.”
“Well, if they make it better, I’ll eat there.”
He laughs and shakes his head again. “It doesn’t work that way. Their budget is based on how many people go through the headcount. That’s why none of those other DFACs will turn you away. You add to their headcount. You’re taking our money over to those other places. That’s what happened — when we first got here from Ft. Polk, the DFAC really did suck. It’s gotten better” — a couple of guys grunt in agreement — “but all of you guys got used to eating at the other DFACs, so all the money goes somewhere else. It’s economics, man.”
Another guy: “Yeah, it’s like a free market.”
“No,” I say, “in a free market they’d be closed.”
Economics in the military is weird. And it’s more than just twisted DFAC finance logic. Most people choose to join the military at least in part for financial reasons. I certainly did. On paper, our pay is not that great — as a specialist with three years in, I make $1842.60 a month. Not starvation wages, but for someone with college and marketable skills, it seems, at best, non-competitive.
But look again. The military is obliged to provide housing to its soldiers — either barracks, money for off-post housing, or on-post housing (usually for married soldiers). I’m in the barracks, which is hardly high living, but it saves me the $600/mo I used to spend on rent. Even assuming I wouldn’t pay that much for this little cell, still, that’s at least $400 in added value.
Food, as noted above, is a sore point. But in theory, Basic Allowance for Sustenance is $272.26. Soldiers who live in the barracks are electronically charged most of that money back in exchange for three meals a day at the dining facility. Married soldiers or single soldiers who are eligible for “separate rations” (usually E-5 or above, or those who work odd hours) get the full pony. But then, they don’t get the great chow.
Then there’s health insurance — $90 or so a month when I paid for it myself, and that was in my 20s. Now I’m over 30, and it’s probably more. And life insurance, generous coverage for less than a pittance, and discounts and whatnot.
And then there are bonuses — I get $20,000 over the term of my enlistment, plus about $30,000 in student loan repayment. That puts my income easily above the base pay of a 2nd lieutenant. And we haven’t even included special pay — I make $150/mo in language pay, which might go up (any day now, according to endless and silly speculation among linguists), while airborne soldiers get jump pay, and those in the war zone get combat pay.
The Army Times, an unofficial but well-known newspaper for soldiers, occasionally publishes comparisons of Army jobs and their civilian counterparts. In its 2005 report, it lists an E-2 airman making $40,323 a year as an Air Force photojournalist. As a young man with, presumably, no college degree (or he’d be higher-ranked), who had to be trained by the military, he’s essentially equivalent to someone trying to get a job on a newspaper’s photo staff with no qualifications. The Army Times puts the equivalent civilian salary at $25,000 a year. About ten years ago, I considered trying to get a job as a video journalist at CNN; starting salary was roughly the same. The job market in news and entertainment is relentlessly tight. “Airman Justin Weaver” made a smart choice.
The salary gap can work the other way — attorneys, air traffic controllers, and pilots make less than they would in private practice. (Generals seem to get hosed the worst — they make only 2% of their counterparts’ salary, assuming that “Chief Executive Officer, Fortune 500 company” is a reasonable analog.) But cops, dentists, medical technicians, nurses, telecom repairmen, network administrators, machine shop supervisors, and meteorologists tend to do about the same or somewhat better in the military. With the possible exception of the dentist, these tend to be people who entered the military without their skills, and who would have to hustle to establish themselves in the civilian world if they left the military.
Some jobs, of course, have no clear civilian counterpart. What is the real-world equivalent of an infantryman, an artilleryman, or even an unmanned aerial vehicle operator? These people, who often (though not always) come into the military with no saleable skills, will likely leave it without them, too. They may come away with college money, but most of the compensation for combat arms soldiers comes in the form of prestige and even a lionizing mythology that puts them at a level above “POGs” (persons other than grunt — pronounced like the Celtic rock band).
I was attached to a platoon of cavalry scouts for a week, and they looked at me with a certain amusement and sense of superiority. They kind of understood the need for linguists, but in general their position was that anyone who wasn’t in the combat arms (and, preferably, a cav scout) wasn’t really in the Army. I was treated a little like a civilian on a ride-along; the platoon sergeant was actually surprised, several days into our time together, to learn that I’d been pulling watch shifts. (I probably didn’t help the perception that I was an outsider by opting for sitting quietly on the roof of the Stryker at night instead of getting into the impromptu wrestling matches … er… combatives training… going on below.)
For these soldiers, who are not learning skills that have clear civilian uses, the compensation package and the prestige (or, more nobly, the honor) associated with soldiering become all-important. They also become the honeytrap keeping people in the service.
I’m standing in the hall outside the Soldier of the Quarter Board in my Class A’s — another soldier in my squad is up for the board, and I’m filling in for our squad leader as his sponsor, who’s TDY to Fort Gordon for training. My squadmate also happens to be the alternate Retention NCO in our troop, and he steps into a nearby office to consult with the squadron Retention guy. Bored, I follow him; this proves a mistake. After they go over who’s eligible to re-up in each platoon, the squadron RNCO turns his attention to me. “You’re in your re-enlistment window.”
“Are you going to re-enlist?”
“No.” Best to shut this down quickly.
“I’d rather not say, sergeant.”
“If you don’t want to tell me, I’ll have to send you to the brigade Retention NCO.“
“What can we offer you to get you to re-up?” (“What can I do to put you in this car today?“)
“There’s nothing you can offer me.”
Fortunately, someone else catches his attention — another sergeant leaning in the doorway. “Are you going to re-enlist?”
“Fuck no!” He considers it. “If you can get me free gas for a year.”
The retention guy nods and grins: “You know how many guys we’d get with that, if we could do that?”
“One year of free gas, for four more years.”
“Sure, I’d do it.”
“Not four from now — four added on to the end of your contract.”
“Shit — you know how much gas is now? That’s….” He looks up, doing math in his head.
This is the kind of short-term calculus that keeps people in the Army.
Leaving the Army is a scary proposition. When I left my job at a photography studio in Atlanta to join the Army, I gave about 2 months’ notice. I took my fair share of shit from friends who opposed what looked increasingly like war (this was early 2003), as well as a lot of unearned praise from people who mistook my rational calculations of benefit (not to mention my irrational desire for adventure and a change of course) for patriotic fervor. But overall, my employer was cordial and supportive about my leaving. Plus, I was looking forward to a situation in which my new employer could hardly fire me (although I couldn’t quit, either), where all my needs would be met, where for five years I would always have food, a place to live, medical care, and a place to live.
When I leave the Army, however, the reverse is true: I’ll be returning to the scrapping world of civilian jobs, where I had never been entirely successful in finding the jobs I wanted. I’ll try to save a little money between now and then, but the truth is that I’ll have to hit the ground running as soon as we get back from Iraq just to have a job when I get out three months later, and if I don’t…. I’ve already done college, the next logical step for a lot of guys. If I don’t find work in a creative field or in languages fast, what will I do? I have no network now, like I did when I was a freelancer; I’ll have to start from scratch in any field I pursue. And if I don’t make it? If I can’t leap smoothly from this wide, safe shore to some delicate economic lily pad? Then it’s Starbuck’s or Wal-Mart, doing a teenager’s job, maybe moving back to New York where my parents are and we can have a race to see whether I find a real career before they officially become old people and want to retire. It’ll be fun, like a family field day.
Meanwhile, although there is some transition counseling available, by far the greatest preponderance of the Army’s resources and effort are devoted to retention. Transition counselors are not judged by how many soldiers find the jobs they’re looking for after the Army, but retention NCO’s are under enormous pressure to keep a certain number of soldiers in the Army. (Check here for a brief discussion of some of the ways they intimidate and browbeat soldiers.)
Two friends of mine recently ETS’ed from the Army; one of them decided to enter the Reserves while he’s in college; the other almost rejoined Active Duty during his first month home. And he hated the Army. (Driving away on his last day, he threw a piece of trash out the window of his car and hit the brigade sergeant-major, who almost revoked his terminal leave and brought him back here.) And these are guys who have options — they’re young, college-bound thanks to the GI Bill, with language skills and still-valid top secret security clearances. What about guys coming out of the Army without useful skills, maybe without a clear shot at college? As an infantryman I know likes to say, somewhat ironically justifying the higher status of combat arms MOS’s in the Army, “God loves the infantry.” But does that get them jobs?
Ultimately, most soldiers will do just as well in the civilian world as they do in the military, if not better. Even the infantrymen and cav scouts, most of them — the ability to live a spartan, disciplined life, to make hard decisions and accept their consequences, to live and work among a diverse group of people and figure out how to get along — these are incredibly useful life skills. But as in skydiving or hang-gliding, the initial drop is steep, and stepping off from it takes a lot of courage.