Posted on Saturday, 22nd March 2014 by

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I recall a bleak winter day in the late Sixties when I heard that Stanley, a childhood friend, died in Vietnam  after only 3 weeks in country.  I was on a school bus when I heard the news and many were shocked that he was gone and never to return.  Stanley, an energetic, friendly, and hard working young man, quit high school in his Junior year to join the Army with his parents consent.  I received my draft notice a few weeks earlier and was scheduled for my physical at the time. I was more than a little concerned about my prospects and future. Yet, like so many others did during those trying times I knew that I had no choice and mentally prepared for the inevitable.

I passed my physical and the group was advised that we would be called to report within two weeks and until then had the opportunity to join any other branch of service.  I, without hesitation, immediately walked across the hall and joined the Air Force.  After raising my hand and swearing to protect and defend our country I was enlisted and was given a deferred reporting date to close out my personal affairs. This was a traumatic day in my life to say the least.

What brought all this to mind was a recent article about reforming military pay and compensation. Today a new enlistee with no experience earns a base salary of about $18,000. It was recently reported that after four months in the military, a new E1 enlistee receives total pay with benefits of about $29,959.80 annually including benefits.  When I reported to training camp in April of 1969 I was paid $97 a month and when I married 6 months later my pay increased to $150 a month including separate rations before taxes!  We paid $68 a month rent and after utilities, taxes, and food had little if anything left over each month. We didn’t have a car and walked to a local laundry mat in Biloxi Mississippi with our clothes in my duffle bag.  To make ends meet I got a part time bar waiter job at the local NCO club.

In January of 1970 my squadron leader offered to sell me his 1963 Chevy Impala however the Credit Union refused my $500 loan application.  The seller agreed to cosign and we picked up our first car and when we went to do our laundry that week we ended up in Mobile Alabama!  It was exciting to just hop in our car and drive to any destination we desired.  That was not only how my military career started it was also the start of our 44 years of marriage to date with hopefully many more years to come.

The median income in 1969 was $8,632 and last year it hovered  around $52,100. As a percentage of median income my 1969 enlistee salary was about 13% of median income and today an enlistee’s starting salary is approximately 34% of median income.  If you look at salary comparisons based on the minimum wage the comparisons are dramatic. The federal minimum wage in 1969 was $1.60 an hour compared to $7.25 today. A new enlistee currently earns $8.62 an hour not counting benefits based on a 2087 hour work week which doesn’t hold true for military personnel that can work unlimited hours based on the circumstances of their service.  In 1969 I made 55 cents an hour,  about 34% of the minimum wage at the time.

All that being said, it appears to me that we as a country are finally paying military personnel fairly for their service and sacrifice. Considering  a new enlistee earns only $1.37 over minimum wage, not counting benefits, everyone benefits.  You can’t compare military service to someone working at McDonalds or any other minimum wage job.  I believe the so  called reformers have little to no military service and are simply focusing on statistics, not reality. When you join the service or prior to 1973 when you were drafted you give up your freedom of choice and to determine your own fate. You march to a different drummer and take orders, serve blindly and faithfully, for the good of our country.

What perplexes me is that administrations, politicians, and bureaucrats focus their cost cutting efforts on those who are contributing the most including the military and federal civil servants that are making a difference and performing valued services. Sure, there are ways to improve efficiencies in all areas including the military and federal civil service. However, they should be addressing the gorilla in the room;  overspending in all areas, purging outdated and duplicate programs, realistic entitlement reforms to ensure Social Security and Medicare will be there when needed, fraud, waste, and abuse.  There are so many ways to cut if they only had the courage to do so starting with a balanced budget and like the vast majority of us government too must live within its means.

Growing up, I and my family were what many would consider poor.  My father died when I was a year and a half leaving my mother at age 36 with four children to raise on her own. we moved 10 times before I entered the service, we didn’t own a car, home, or have what many take for granted today. Yet, we were raised to be proud, independent, and our mother did without encouraging her children to pursue their desires and dreams with whatever resources she could muster. Growing up in that environment was priceless and doing without teaches us much including that to get ahead you have to work hard and constantly strive to be successful in whatever you pursue.

Many federal employees and retirees served in the military and a good number of retirees didn’t have a choice, they were drafted.  President Kennedy at his inaugural  speech said “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and I think we’ve somehow lost that over the past half a century.  We need to return to that mentality.

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