• September 15, 2014

Wood misses hidden cost of military life

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Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 4:30 am

A January article by David Wood for Huffington Post has risen from the dead, and it’s making many military families mad — again.

The article, “Defense budget faces cuts to personnel after decade of war,” has more than 60 pages of comments, half of which were made within days of its release on Jan. 30. On page 31, however, after nearly a month of silence, the comments picked up again March 11. Soon after, it went viral in the military community.

I don’t know who dug up this relatively old column, but according to an editor’s note at the bottom, “language has been added [post-publication] to clarify” some calculations, making this piece of walking-dead commentary something like Frankenstein. It’s been patched up and given new life, and now it’s terrorizing the military community.

Oh, and the “monster” is still evolving.

Under pressure and scrutiny, Wood has revised his text multiple times. His original opening sentence was probably the scariest of all — “For more than a decade, Congress and the Pentagon have lavished money on the nation’s 1.3 million active-duty troops and their families.” — but the word “lavished” has since been deleted.

Semantics and edit-and-rewrite-as-you-go journalism aside, Wood’s biggest problem is his apples-to-apples approach to military versus civilian pay that overlooks the hidden costs of military life.

“Since 2001, total military compensation ... grew by 20.5 percent, while comparable private-sector civilian pay did not increase at all,” Wood wrote. “The cost of military compensation rose steeply even though the size of the active-duty force grew by only 3 percent during that period.”

We military families don’t understand Wood’s confusion with this. The pay grew by 20.5 percent because of everything that the slightly increased force has been expected to do since 2001 — mainly, more frequent and longer deployments.

To make his point about military and civilian pay, Wood stated that an Army master sergeant who has been in the service since 9/11 and is stationed at Fort Drum makes about $85,000 a year.

This number is deceiving. Also, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would rise to the rank of master sergeant in 10 years. Even so, the base pay for a master sergeant with 10 years of service is about $50,000/year. Allowances for housing and cost of living would be added to the base pay according to the location of the duty station.

But let’s go with Wood’s figure anyway.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website CareerOneStop, an accountant in 2011 could expect to make about $109,900 in a year.

But the accountant is coming home every night. He doesn’t leave his family for a year at a time (which often increases child care expenses). And, in general, he doesn’t move every three years (more on this below).

His life isn’t at the whim of the U.S. government. He can wear what he chooses, take vacation when he prefers, and besides a boss and his customers, he doesn’t answer to anyone.

Yes, the accountant probably has to pay for health care, and he doesn’t get tax-free groceries, but, well, he’s making $20,000 more than the guy who’s risking his life overseas.

All of the above is why Wood’s whining about military shoppers’ 30 percent savings on groceries at the commissary falls on unsympathetic ears. Yes, we have access to tax-free groceries, but my husband is required to buy, out of his own pay, many of his uniforms — the same ones the military forces him to wear.

We don’t get a company car. And our “free health care” equates to being seen at government-run hospitals that are equivalent in inefficiency and frustration to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Wood leaves these comparisons out, focusing only on what military families get on paper. But even those facts don’t always add up.

Wood wrote, “(T)he Pentagon pays all housing costs for families who live off base.” This is absolutely false. The military gives us a housing allowance based on local civilian housing markets. And it’s not the “lavish” market, either.

That same hypothetical master sergeant making $50,000 in base pay would get an additional $2,300 monthly for housing if he was stationed in Washington, D.C. The average rate for a two-bedroom apartment near D.C. is $2,341.

But these figures say nothing to the fact that military families can rarely build equity in a home. In 13 years of marriage, Dustin and I have moved a half-dozen times, and we’ve lost money in real estate every single time.

I agree with Wood that there are many areas of wasted spending in the military. As with any government agency, it is full of redundancies, inefficiencies and frustrations. The general public will learn more about this when they, too, are in government-run health care. But to say that service members have an overabundance of allowances and bonuses is inaccurate and frankly offensive.

While Wood is hurriedly deleting his words and “facts,” making edits as the pressure ensues, may I suggest that he go ahead and backspace over the whole thing, sending this Frankenstein back to the lab?

Sarah Smiley is a Navy spouse and the author of “Shore Leave,” a nationally syndicated column.

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