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Troops may not be as concerned with pay raises as elected officials

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
  • Politicians dare not support a cut or freeze in military pay
  • Troops, however, don't count pay raises as a reason for their service
  • But troops get other tax and pay benefits civilians don't receive

Washington (CNN) -- The current version of the Defense Authorization bill that's stuck in the Senate contains more than one controversial provision.

It's opposition to repealing the military's policy barring gay men and lesbians from serving openly that is keeping the bill from a vote. But the bill also contains a 1.4% pay raise for the men and women in uniform.

Despite President Barack Obama's pledge to freeze all federal pay, except for military pay, many say the raise -- or even the 1.9 percent raise the House is supporting -- is too small.

It's the latest example of how pay for troops is becoming another untouchable line item in the grossly out-of-balance federal budget.

"There's no mystery there. Dealing with military pay, benefits and health care is a classic third rail of defense planning. It's extraordinarily difficult to do inside the Pentagon," said Gordon Adams, a Professor of Foreign Policy at American University.

The term "third rail" refers to a political issue that no one will touch -- like the electrified third rail of a subway track -- out of fear of killing a career. Social Security has been called the "third rail of American politics" for years.

The president himself spelled out his support of military pay raises during a recent visit to troops.

"I took the step of freezing pay for our federal work force. But because of the service that you render, all who wear the uniform of the United States of America are exempt from that action," Obama said.

But are the troops themselves not as worried about their pay as the politicians?

There are clues, in of all places, the Defense Department's survey about its anti-gay "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy.

The survey, done to prepare the department in the event the policy is repealed, was one of the largest surveys ever of men and women in uniform, and many of the questions had nothing to do with homosexuality.

Among the questions: "Why did you join the military (choose 2 that best apply)"

Only 15.6% of the 115,000 troops who replied to the survey said "pay and allowances" was a reasonsthey joined the military. More than half -- 53% -- said they joined "to serve my country or defend the nation." And 41% said they joined because of "education benefits/GI bill." Nearly 18% said they joined the military "to see the world."

The survey also asked "What THREE factors do you consider most important to you when deciding whether to remain in the military?"

Pay, allowances and bonuses for troops who sign up for another tour of duty were a factor for just 26% of the respondents. While one out of four is a large number, more cited job satisfaction, retirement benefits and slightly more --26.5% -- "current economic situation and civilian job availability."

America's service members' pay has climbed by about a third since the start of the war in Afghanistan. In 2010 an E-5 (sergeant in the Army and Marines, staff sergeant in the Air Force and petty officer 2nd class in the Navy) with two years of service earns a base pay of $26,391. That's up from $18,212 in 2002. The base pay for an O-6 (a colonel in the Army, Air Force and Marines and captain in the Navy) with 10 years experience now earns $85,590 a year, compared to $65,383 in 2002.

And that's just base pay. The men and women in uniform have benefits unlike what most the civilian world get. Enlisted troops who serve in war zones pay no income tax while they are overseas. Officers in war zones get a tax break as well, but still pay some income tax. And troops in a war zone get what used to be called combat pay but is now referred to as "hazardous duty pay." Enlisted troops also get money to go towards the cost of uniforms, and all troops get a housing allowance if they don't live for free on a base.

One question not asked in the DADT survey is "do you want a raise?" But CNN recently asked a similar question during a segment on "The Situation Room." Commentator Jack Cafferty asked viewers to write in their answers to this question "In light of the economy, do members of the military deserve the lowest pay raise in nearly 50 years?"

A viewer who identified him/herself as KJ wrote, "Active duty here. I am willing to forgo a pay raise to help the country. Yes, I know we are fighting two wars, but for those of us who deploy, we get additional pay for this effort, sometimes up to 50% of our pay."

Other viewers responded to the question on Tom in NC responded "As a Service Member, I am disappointed, but not upset that our pay raise is so low. Two facts will always remain; the rich will always get richer and the military will always be there to keep this nation safe. No matter what a pay raise amounts to, we will always be there to protect this amazing country and ensure our freedom that we all enjoy. Don't forget, we in the military will benefit from the tax cuts as well and we are getting a raise in a time when not many will."

Still many of the responses the Cafferty's question were supportive of a much bigger pay raise for the troops.

Ed in Texas wrote, "A soldier in Iraq carries 45 pounds of gear in 119 degree heat and has seconds to determine if the car speeding towards him carries an expectant mother to the hospital or a suicide bomber. For that, he gets a 1.4 to 1.9% pay raise? A Wall Street banker's bad bets are covered by the U. S. taxpayer and he gets a million dollar bonus?"

Jo wrote, "It is a big joke and slap in the face. I don't know anyone personally in the military. I'm American Muslim (non-practicing) and I think this is ridiculous. Our country is prioritizing all the wrong things and it is continuing to get worse."

As you would expect, veterans organizations are pushing for a larger raise.

"Our organization has been pretty vocal and stating that we think the pay raise is pretty paltry," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "You've got men and women who are fighting and dying for their country and if anyone deserves a pay raise, it's them."

But at least one very influential leader in Washington is willing to at least raise the issue of controlling the rising cost of compensation for troops.

"Just over the past decade, fueled by increasing health costs and pay raises and wartime recruiting and retention bonuses, the amount of money the military spends on personnel and benefits has nearly doubled, from roughly $90 billion in 2001 to just over $170 billion this year out of a $534 billion budget," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told an audience at Duke University in September.

And it's taken Gates a while to figure out how Congress deals with the issue.

"Three years ago, I went up with a two-and-a-half percent pay raise for the military and the Congress voted 3 percent. So, thought -- thinking I had learned my lesson, the next year I went up with a 3 percent pay raise. Congress voted a 3.5 percent pay raise. So I'm finally onto the game here," Gates told sailors on board the USS Lincoln during a visit earlier this week.

But Gates, who said he will retire next year agrees with those who say tackling the issue of military pay is hard. "It's an uncomfortable and politically fraught question."