Amid War, Troops See Safety in Reenlisting
The military offers steady wages, housing and a health plan — benefits that many service members find scarce in civilian life.
By Faye Fiore
Times Staff Writer
May 21, 2006
TACOMA, Wash. — The first time Staff Sgt. Matthew Kruger came home from Iraq, he and his wife, Maggie, went straight into marriage counseling. The second time, she threatened to divorce him if he didn’t get out of the Army. The separations were tearing them apart. So in July, to save his seven-year marriage, Kruger quit the service.
Then he looked around the job market, and it didn’t take long to figure out that leaving the Army held its own perils. Nothing offered him the financial security of his military job — especially the generous health coverage for his wife and three small children.
And so, 29 years old and with no other place to turn, Kruger spent his first full day of freedom at a military processing center, signing up for four more years.
“We had nothing. We were scared,” Maggie said recently, struggling to keep their rambunctious children entertained in a pizza parlor outside the Ft. Lewis military base. “We suddenly realized there was no way to take the kids to the doctor or dentist for any little reason, as we had been used to.”
For Kruger, who returned to a war zone for his third tour in December, the danger of losing his family’s health insurance was more real and immediate than the danger of dying in combat.
At military installations around the country, other families cling to the modest but steady wages, the guaranteed housing allowance, the solid retirement plan and the health benefits of the armed forces.
Although the Army missed its recruitment goals last year, in part because of the Iraq war, retention continues at record levels. Reenlistments this year are running 20% above the Army’s goal, despite the long overseas deployments. Two out of three soldiers eligible to reenlist do so.
For many service members, it’s a matter of balancing risk: Within the military, multiple deployments are commonplace, and more than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and 18,000 have been wounded. Outside the military, 46 million people in the U.S. have no health insurance, and those who do pay increasingly higher prices for it.
“It used to be that General Motors had a health plan equally as generous as the military,” said Susan Hosek, a senior economist specializing in military benefits at Rand Corp., a nonpartisan think tank based in Santa Monica. “But GM has cut their benefits, while the military has maintained the level of benefits and even improved it. Being in the military is a risky occupation, but in other ways, it’s very secure.”
Sixty percent of large companies offered health coverage last year, down from 69% in 2000, and the coverage that is available costs more. Traditional pensions are becoming less common.
The military has moved in the opposite direction. The $12 medical co-payment was cut to zero in 2001. Dental care is cheap. Plus, active-duty pensions are guaranteed after 20 years.
Although the generous benefits package may not matter as much to young, healthy recruits, it is a valuable component for the married soldier with children.The Army might be considered one of the most family-friendly employers in America, if only the demands of the job didn’t pull families apart.
As if to underscore the paradox, the financial incentives get better when a soldier goes to war. Income becomes tax-free; so are the bonuses. There is extra pay for family separation and hardship duty. That comes on top of basic pay, which starts at about $15,000 a year for someone newly enlisted and climbs with rank and length of service.
“The Army has a saying: We enlist soldiers, we reenlist families,” said Master Sgt. David Best, a career counselor in charge of retention at Ft. Lewis. As he talked, a young specialist stood against a backdrop of flags and a cannon to take an oath to serve five more years. It was about the 30th such ceremony here in two days.
“We aggressively go after our people, saying, ‘We care about you.’ We need the continuity, we need the experience,” he said. “Certainly no one is getting rich by staying in the Army, so what is it that makes them stay?”
Air Force Staff Sgt. Alex Myers, 24, said that for him, it was Emilie Reese Myers, due to be born any day now Ôø? very much wanted but very much unexpected. The plan had been to leave the military in November when his initial enlistment was up. His job is to provide close air support to Army units, a dangerous specialty at which he excels.
One day, Myers found himself on patrol in combat-ravaged Ramadi, Iraq, bullets flying, his comrades under fire in a nearby sector. He tried to get clearance for an airstrike to assist them, but his superiors decided the Iraqi army should handle things.
Myers was frustrated. Three tours in the war zone, living in bombed-out shacks and taking cold showers. Krissy, his soon-to-be wife, at home missing him. What was he doing here? They teach you to do a job, he thought, then they don’t let you do it. Myers decided he was getting out. Then he came home and got married, and Krissy got pregnant. His father helped him put together a resume, and he checked Monster.com for job prospects. But there was no call for people trained to work with lasers and small arms.
Myers looked around at what the military had provided them Ôø? a two-story home at the foot of magnificent Mt. Rainier, a comfortable income, healthcare so complete that he pays more in vet bills for Louie the dog than for doctor visits.
In the Air Force, he is a rising star with a job he is proud of. Out of it, he is just another guy with a high school diploma.
When Krissy told him she would gladly give up the creature comforts to have him at home, it was not a promise made in ignorance. A cardiac care nurse, she once helped discharge an uninsured patient who was afraid to go home because his electricity had been cut off. She also knows what it means to grow up without a father, and she didn’t want that for Emilie.
“I don’t want to raise our kids on my own. I saw my mom do it. It’s not an easy life,” Krissy said in the cheery living room of her home in Spanaway, Wash., near Ft. Lewis, a changing table in the corner awaiting the baby who would soon arrive. “It breaks the kids’ hearts. It breaks everyone’s heart.”
But Myers has decided to reenlist in November for four more years. A $40,000 bonus cinched the deal. “It all came down to financial stability,” he said. He is scheduled to return to Iraq in January for his fourth tour.
Incentive bonuses are an Army tradition that date to the Battle of Trenton in the American Revolutionary War. But the military now uses them in more creative ways to retain qualified and experienced soldiers in a war that is stretching the ranks to their limits. Last year, the Army paid half a billion dollars in reenlistment bonuses; nearly three-fourths of soldiers who renew their contracts receive one. The average is $11,000. The longer the commitment, the bigger the bonus.
Career counselors and officers monitor soldiers who become eligible, pointing out the challenges of leaving the military’s cosseted universe that provides everything from first-run movies for $1 to free prescription drugs.
“We ask them: ‘Where are you going to live when you get out? Do you know how much it costs to set up a kitchen? Did you save any money?’ ” said Best. “The bottom line is, what are they going to do five years from now to put food on the table?”
As a result of those efforts, the Army has retained 48,666 soldiers so far this year Ôø? 120% of its goal of 40,446. That exceeds reenlistment levels that were 108% of the Army’s target last year and 107% in 2004.
Of course, a commitment to the military is not all about financial well-being. Patriotism, sense of mission, camaraderie, pride and adventure are all powerful incentives.
But in recent interviews at Ft. Lewis and other outposts, soldier after soldier spoke of a civilian world that seemed ever more unwelcoming and unreliable, and of a military cocoon that was the opposite.
Sgt. Angela Carter, a 35-year-old single mother of two, lost her Oklahoma teaching job six years ago and enlisted. When her daughter needed braces and her son broke his wrist swinging on monkey bars, the Army paid.
And when the Army needed her to go to Afghanistan for a year, she left her children with her mother and went.
Even with a bachelor’s degree in management and ethics, Carter could find no civilian job that offered benefits as generous as the military’s. She has signed up for five more years, with a bonus of $22,500. She will almost certainly go back to war. “It’s something I struggle with all the time,” she said.
Spc. Brian Cornett, 33, a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief, has one of the most dangerous jobs in the war zone: airlifting out the wounded. Any thoughts of leaving after his initial enlistment vanished when his son Tanner was born four years ago with cerebral palsy, brain seizures and other complications. The Army takes care of the doctor bills, occupational therapy, speech therapy, the walker and wheelchair.
In exchange, Cornett is awaiting his third deployment to Iraq, where, in his line of work, enemy fire is an everyday occurrence.
His wife, Shannon, prays for him. But when considering the civilian options for her husband, a former drywaller with no college degree, she concludes: “It’s scary getting out of the Army.”
On average, service members are recommitting 15 months before their terms expire and are agreeing to stay in for nearly five years, the Pentagon reports.
But those as conflicted as Sgt. Michael Anthony Barnes take the decision to the last day. A former sous chef in Las Vegas, he was plunged into debt by the birth of his first child. He joined the Army eight years ago, and the next three babies were free. His wife got her teeth fixed.
Then Barnes was deployed to Iraq. Ask him if he got hurt and he responds: “Not physically.” His job in personnel meant he helped process the dead and wounded. He stopped going to funerals after a while because of the emotional exhaustion.
Barnes came home to his daughters last summer and spent three months thinking about what he wanted from life at age 42. On the last day of his enlistment, he went to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio and signed up for four more years.
“I wish I could say it was the great Army life, but it was the financial stability,” Barnes said. “The Army takes you away from your family, but it keeps your family safe.”