Senior leaders worry DOD pay models don’t reflect demands on troops

by Vern Evans

Lawmakers and senior enlisted leaders cast doubt over whether current military models for troops’ pay really reflect the roles and responsibilities of their jobs, and said more overhauls may be needed to make sure service member compensation is fair.

“We should be looking for a comparison model that isn’t about someone’s age and education. It should be more about the level of responsibility, and the expectations of the work in the service,” Master Chief Petty Officer James Honea told members of the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

“If a 19-year-old is working at Starbucks, that’s not the same thing as being in the military. We’re asking our 19-year-olds to serve in harm’s way.”

Honea’s comments during a committee hearing on military quality of life issues come as Defense Department leaders are conducting a comprehensive review of military pay and benefits issues, with an eye towards potential major changes in the future.

Members of the appropriations committee have already proposed targeted pay raises for junior enlisted troops in coming years as a way to combat low basic pay and food insecurity for some of the youngest military members and families.

Under current military pay tables, the newest enlisted troops can earn as little as $23,000 in annual base pay, not including housing allowances and free medical coverage. House plans could raise all service member base pay to $31,000 annually, and are expected to be included in lawmakers’ annual defense authorization bill proposals later this spring.

Senate lawmakers have voiced support for the idea, but the White House has opposed any dramatic pay table overhauls until after the Defense Department completes its quadrennial military compensation review sometime next year.

Senior enlisted officials from each of the services told lawmakers that pay issues remain key for recruiting and retention efforts.

But Honea said he is not sure if historic models for salary comparisons fully reflect the demands of military service. He suggested that future models focus more on jobs like first responders, who can receive higher pay for more dangerous work.

Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., expressed similar concerns and backed Honea’s remarks.

“As a former Navy dependent and enlisted man, I can tell you I’ve heard all these discussions at the kitchen table,” he said. “So, I’m glad to hear that you are concerned about what to do with this.”

Whether those concerns will translate into concrete changes for troops remains unclear. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and head of a special congressional panel on military quality of life issues, said that defense budget limits adopted by Congress last summer could limit planned reforms for military pay.

The White House has proposed a 4.5% pay raise for all troops in 2025 as part of their federal budget request for next year.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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