Of all the traditions of military service, few are as entertaining as the annual receipt of the Servicemember’s Statement of Military Compensation. I don’t remember the first time one arrived in my inbox, but I never forgot the sarcastic laughter that always accompanied its arrival. Comments would echo down the hallways. “I wish I was paid this much!” “If I actually made this kind of money, I wouldn’t be working here!” “I think they sent this to the wrong person.” And a few more that probably aren’t suitable for print.

So, I was no less amused when I perused the recent RAND study, “Setting Military Compensation to Support Recruitment, Retention, and Performance.” Among the key findings of the study was a blockbuster, answering “the question of whether military pay is set too high relative to civilian pay.” As Meghann Myers, the Pentagon bureau chief for the Military Times, noted in a recent story, “You’re definitely never going to find a service member who thinks he or she might be overpaid.”

The fundamental basis for comparison of military and civilian pay is the regular military compensation (RMC) construct, developed by the Gorham Commission in 1962. Initially RMC considered only basic pay and subsistence and housing allowances, but later was expanded to include the added “benefit” of receiving those allowances tax-free. Those allowances and the associated tax advantage can increase relative compensation significantly. For a junior enlisted member, RMC is nearly double that of basic pay; for a mid-grade officer, RMC adds roughly 43% to basic pay.

The Myth of ‘Free’ Military Benefits

While not included in RMC, the RAND study specifically mentions other forms of military compensation, including retirement and “a host of in-kind benefits, with the most major elements being health care, on-base housing, and training and education.” Here, the author of the study – Dr. Beth Asch, a senior economist specializing in labor economics and defense manpower – touches on a sensitive subject: the myth of “green privilege” and all the associated “free” stuff – health care, housing, and retirement – we supposedly receive. Except none of it is really free.

At some point, most of us have had enjoyed a friend or relative telling us just how good we have it. “Free housing! Man, that must be awesome.” “I can’t believe you get paid to work out in the morning!” “Free health care? Wow!!” Sure, you can trade your entire housing allowance for the convenience of living on the installation. Assuming your quarters are livable, you’re still paying a premium over local real estate costs. Most of us would rather add that “allowance” to basic pay, but that would increase our “free” retirement, something Congress would rather avoid. Frankly, none of the people who ever remarked about being paid to work out in the morning ever came home for a quick shower at 7:30 a.m. covered in mud, sweat, and blood. And, while I’ve always appreciated our medical care, most of the ailments that plague our bodies in later years begin as relatively minor injuries that needed more treatment and less Motrin.

When you peel back the proverbial onion on military compensation, it might seem to some as if we’re overpaid. Certainly, on paper at least – the Servicemember’s Statement of Military Compensation is a great example – that argument can be made. Sarcasm aside, the level of compensation touted by that document made most of us look like members of Fortune 500 companies at the ten-year mark. If only. It’s probably a good thing that most of us who make the military profession a career do so out of a sense of duty rather than greed. As my father used to say, “Nobody chooses a career of government service to get rich.”

The RAND study produced some interesting, if somewhat controversial conclusions. But, to be completely honest, most of the findings are open-ended or vague, leading to more questions than answers and, very likely, more research, more studies, and more revenue. All of this, of course, leaves me with the same question we started with – are we paying our servicemembers too much? When a study can put a price on what we ask of our men and women in uniform, then we might actually have an answer. Until then, maybe we should set aside the complex formulas and agree that they’re worth a lot more than we offer.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.