The Wages for Facing Death

by Kassandra Lamb

After five years of blogging, I was facing yet another Memorial Day post. I’ve given five reasons why we should honor our troops, made the case for honoring them even if one is a pacifist, contrasted Memorial Day as the launch of summer fun against the sadness of remembering fallen heroes, and one year we copped out and did a group post on favorite summer recipes.

flag at half mast; sailor ssaluting

This year, I wanted to take a different approach. I wracked my brain for ideas, and finally came up with this: we honor fallen members of the military on Memorial Day, but are we honoring them while they are still alive by paying them a decent wage?

I didn’t really know the answer to that, so I did some research. This is what I found:

An E-1 (lowest rank in each branch) entering the military in 2017 receives a base salary of $21,116/year. When housing allowance, healthcare, and other benefits are added in, his/her total compensation is $41,246. This is definitely a living wage for a single person, and some allowances are increased depending on the cost of living in the area deployed and the number of people in the soldier’s family.

To an able-bodied young man or woman with a high school diploma or GED, this may seem like a good alternative to becoming a factory worker, whose average annual income is $27,000.*

(*I’m rounding most figures off somewhat to make this easier to read. Most of these figures came from the US Department of Labor Statistics; some are from the official military pay scale or from other websites.)

It’s also competitive with entry-level firefighter and police officer incomes. The salary range nationwide for firefighters is $24,000–$65,000 (average is $50,500). Police officers’ range is $34,000–$78,000 (including detectives and supervisors) with an average of $53,500.

firfighters with flag

New York, NY, September 25, 2001

Also, all things considered, the risk to life and limb is probably similar. Firefighters and the police take calculated risks every day on the job while the military are usually only at risk when deployed into combat, but then they are at much higher risk of harm.

An average Joe or Jane who enlists in the military has the potential to eventually work their way up to Staff Sergeant (or comparable ranks in other branches). A Staff Sergeant with 6 years experience makes $37,166 base salary—with benefits and allowances, approximately $57,300.

This compares adequately to master plumbers and electricians who must go through an apprenticeship and eventually average $56,000-57,000 per year. And it is more money than the average computer technician with an AA degree will probably make—$52,000.

It even compares fairly well with the first-line supervisors in manufacturing (average $61,500) and the lower end of the range of middle management in the business world ($55,500).

IF you don’t consider the risk factor.

destroyed tank

Burned-out shell of U.S. tank in Iraq (Dept of Defense photo by LCPL Jennifer A. Krusen, public domain)

Noncommissioned officers in the military are actually paid as well as, if not better than, many teachers, who must obtain a bachelor’s degree plus teaching certification, and often need a master’s degree to get permanent credentials.

  • Elementary/Middle School Teachers: average $59,000 (range: $36,500–$71,000)
  • High School Teachers: average $61,400 (range: $38,000–$74,000)

Okay, let’s look at military officers. Candidates must have a college degree to apply for officer training.

An O-1 (Second Lieutenant in the Army or equivalent rank) with 2 years of experience gets $36,400 base pay plus allowances** and benefits, for a total of $59,450.

An O-4 (Army Major or equivalent) with six years of experience gets $73,100 plus allowances**, etc., for a total of $102,550

(**For a single officer; those with families get higher allowances.)

Compare that to these average annual incomes (minimum requirements in parentheses):

  • Nurse (RN; AA to Bachelors): $72,000
  • Middle Manager in Business (Bachelors to MBA): $55,500–$97,000
  • College Professor (PhD): $85,000
  • Member of Congress (Ability to produce unlimited hot air—Sorry, I couldn’t resist): $174,000

And last but hardly least, business CEOs receive an average of $1,654,000 in total compensation. Some, of course, receive far more. The highest ranking Generals/Admirals top out at $190,042 total compensation.

Here are the two conclusions I drew from this information:

One—Teachers, police, and firefighters are definitely underpaid.

Two—Military officers seem to be doing okay but enlisted men and women in our armed services should probably be making more, especially considering these three factors:

  • Risk to life and limb
  • Lack of control over their lives
  • Sacrifices made by their families

And here’s another factor we should keep in mind. Inappropriate compensation, especially for highly stressful occupations, can lead to shortages and a lowering of standards.

The medical field learned this the hard way. In the late 1970s, there was a severe shortage of hospital nurses. Salaries had not kept up with inflation. In 1976, a hospital nurse made $11,820/year, which was barely a living wage for a single person. (I know, because I was single then and making close to that amount myself.)

Many nurses were changing careers, and admissions to nursing programs were down. The remaining hospital nurses were assigned more patients and were working extra shifts. Training programs started lowering their standards for admission and/or graduation. The current practice of loved ones often spending the night in a hospitalized patient’s room came into being, because so many mistakes were being made.

We still have too few nurses today, but the severe crisis ebbed when hospitals finally raised nursing salaries to sufficiently compensate them for their hard work and long, often inconvenient and frequently stressful hours.

Air Force Airman saluting flag

But getting back to our men and women in the armed services… to some degree I was pleasantly surprised to see the comparisons above. The military is not doing as badly pay-wise as I had feared.

However, the nursing shortage of the 1970s-80s should be a cautionary tale for our country. We need to make proper compensation of our military a priority. If we let the incomes of our service people fall too far behind, we may no longer be able to attract enough qualified men and women who are willing to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in protecting our safety and freedom.

On this Memorial Day and all those to come, let’s make sure we honor the living military personnel as well as those who have made the ultimate sacrifice!

HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY, EVERYONE!

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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8 thoughts on “The Wages for Facing Death

  1. Vinnie Hansen

    Since you mentioned teacher pay . . .

    On the surface, the charter school movement is about better education for students. However, underneath is a concerted effort to destroy teachers’ unions, not only to reduce their political clout, but also to reduce teachers’ salaries.

    The charter school movement is an effort to privatize education, knocking down free public education, one of the pillars of democracy, according to none other than Noam Chomsky.

    I’ll stop here before I go in to full-scale rant mode. Good post, Kass.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Of all the jobs/careers I looked at, teachers were the most out of sync, considering the education required. And I personally think teachers should get combat pay! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Sandra Wagner-Wright

    Thanks for researching compensation issues. As in many other low paying fields, enlisted personnel have stressful jobs in which they have little control. Yet they fulfill their missions without complaint.

    Reply
  3. Barb Taub

    (Now that I’ve finally found this post…) I thought your approach to the pay comparison was fascinating. And I was especially impressed that you included a reference to the sacrifices families are asked to make when their loved ones are in such high-risk and high-stress professions.

    Great post!

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Thanks, Barb! Glad you found us 🙂

      I probably should have said more about families. Maybe that will be next year’s post.

      Reply

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