TIME Military

The Devil Dogs Turn Pavlovian

Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal P. Barrett, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Cody, testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Personnel at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Marionne T. Mangrum)
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal Barrett testifying before the Senate. Sgt. Marionne T. Mangrum / Marine Corps

Reaction to top Marine's comments show how tough military compensation reform will be

The top enlisted Marine called for a little bit of sacrifice by his fellow devil dogs last week that has set off a firestorm that’s still raging. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asked Sergeant Major Micheal Barrett what would be the impact of slowing the rate of growth in military compensation. He responded:

Marines don’t run around and ask and what’s on their mind is compensation, benefits or retirement and modernization. That’s not on their minds…Hey, you know what? Out of pocket, you know what, I truly believe it will raise discipline and it’ll raise it because you’ll have better spending habits, you won’t be so wasteful.

The independent Marine Corps Times newspaper lit the fuze with its headline on a story about the decorated combat vet’s comments:

Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Barrett: Less pay raises discipline

That led him to issue a clarifying letter:

Recent reporting of my testimony may have left you with a mistaken impression that I don’t care about your quality of life and that I support lower pay for servicemembers. This is not true.

In fact, despite the headline, no one is talking about cutting troops’ pay. But like Pavlov’s dogs—trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell—some troops pounce at any suggestion of scaling back military compensation.

“If you consider the benefits military members exorbitant like the Sgt Maj does that’s your right, bought and paid for with the blood of the millions you think are overpaid,” said one commenter who said he earned $40,000, including combat pay, for the year he spent in Sarajevo during the Balkan wars. “It boggles my mind that anyone can justify that as well compensated considering I was working minimum 13 hr days at that time, living in a shared space with 17 other guys sharing a single bathroom and even in a fairly friendly (as war zones go) environment was shot at twice and almost stepped on a landmine,” he said. “Pardon me if I have a tough time considering that equal to managing a Kinko’s, working as an intern or selling cars.”

“Enlisted troops are rather well compensated for their education/experience level,” a second poster noted. “Not saying they deserve a pay cut by any means, but for someone in their early 20s to gross 45-55 thousand a year is nothing to sneeze at.”

“Enlisted troops are paid better than some civilian counterparts,” a third countered. “But the fact their life is on the line, there isn’t enough pay. If you didn’t serve, shut the heck up!”

A common theme among posts by readers of the Times story is that those who didn’t serve in uniform don’t have the bona fides to discuss military compensation. That, of course, is what has happened on Capitol Hill. With fewer veterans in Congress, lawmakers—perhaps feeling just a tad guilty—routinely have boosted annual military pay raises beyond what their commanders and Pentagon civilians have recommended.

Last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he wants to take the $2.1 billion a year saved by modest trims in compensation and invest it in training and weapons. Those are the changes Barrett was discussing. Here’s what Hagel said:

We need some modest adjustments to the growth in pay and benefits…First, we will continue to recommend pay raises. They won’t be substantial as in the past years—as substantial—but they will continue. Second, we will continue subsidizing off-base housing. The 100% benefit of today will be reduced, but only to 95%, and it will be phased in over the next several years. Third, we are not shutting down any commissaries. We recommend gradually phasing out some subsidies, but only for domestic commissaries that are not in remote locations. Fourth, we recommend simplifying and modernizing our three TRICARE programs by merging them into one TRICARE system, with modest increases in co-pays and deductibles for retirees and family members, and encourage using the most affordable means of care. Active-duty personnel will still receive health care that is entirely free.

The firefight suggests just how tough it is going to be to tame military spending. After all, the Marines have the largest share of first-termers among the four services, many of whom stay for only a single four-year hitch before moving on with their lives. If words from the senior enlisted leatherneck can set off such a storm among his troops, it’s likely to be even tougher to convince soldiers, sailors and airmen that they may be forced to relax their webbed belts a little more slowly than they had planned.

But this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The fealty the nation has shown its warriors since 9/11 has put it into this predicament. Granted, it is impossible to place a price on the blood U.S. troops have shed on behalf of the 99% of the citizenry who elected not to serve, nor on the mental wounds more than a decade of war has inflicted on many of them.

But it’s also true that U.S. troops—all volunteers—earn more than 90% of their civilian counterparts with similar education and experience.

“In my 33 years, I have never seen this level of quality of life ever—we have never had it so good,” Barrett told the Senate panel. “If we don’t get a hold of slowing the growth, we will become an entitlements-based, a health-care-provider-based corps, and not a warfighting organization.” Those are words you often hear in private, but rarely out in the open.

In some quarters, the military is increasingly sounding less like a service, and more like a guild.

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