TRAPPED IN THE MILITARY — OR, HOW A CENTURION CLASS IS BORN.

Los Angeles Times

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.”

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