The military draft once chose young Americans for war. Now the Army attracts them with generous pay and benefits. But the heavy cost may be unsustainable.
Painful choices lie ahead: cutting the size of the Army, even as it is heavily engaged in combat, or cutting soldiers' pay and benefits, a step that has proved too politically poisonous even to mention aloud.
To get a fix on the problem, I spent some time at Fort Jackson
, S.C., one of the Army's sprawling basic training bases where, over 10 weeks of very long days, drill sergeants transform gaggles of young men and women into disciplined ranks of soldiers.
There, I met Marlania Sermons, a 19-year-old single mom from Valdosta, Ga. Until recently, she was trying to hold down a job as a telephone sales solicitor, taking courses at a technical college and, at the end of a long day, taking care of her 1-year-old. She wasn't quite making it. Finally, exhausted, she went against her father's advice and enlisted in the Army.
Daniel Herman was also trying to succeed in the civilian world. The 21-year-old was working two jobs in Owings Mills, Md., as a building manager and a sales associate at T-Mobile, plus taking courses at Coppin State University in Baltimore. "I was tired and stressed out 24/7,'' Herman told me. "It was hard paying my bills, and my GPA was going down.''
Randy Wright, 20, said he found work after high school assembling wiring harnesses in a factory in Redkey, Ind. But as the economy sagged, he was laid off. The Army looked like a good future.
"I wanted to live an adventurous life,'' Wright told me after he enlisted. "I wasn't making anything of my life in the civilian world. And with the economy going down, the Army will take care of you.''
Army Pvts. Sermons, Herman and Wright will complete basic training here in May and after additional training will graduate into a war-fighting Army, along with 154,000 other brand-new enlisted soldiers this year.
Of course, they enlist with mixed motives. Many are looking as much for adventure as for economic security. Many of them are seeking self-discipline and leadership skills. Many display a strong streak of altruism, proud of taking a practical and concrete step to serve their country.
They share two other common experiences: they found a lack of opportunity in the "outside'' civilian world, and they had to work past friends and family who tried to steer them away from the peril and hardship of a military life during wartime.
But as they have discovered, the Army pays its soldiers
well. A first-year single soldier, boasting the insignia of a private first class, will earn $35,948.04 this year, with $3,355.43 of that tax-free. That's 10 grand more than the median income for 16-24-year-old civilian males, who will earn $24,596 this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
An Army captain with eight years of service, married with two children, gets $84,299.28 a year, of which at least $6,135.73 is tax-free. All pay in a combat zone is tax-free, as are all danger pay and other bonuses.
An active-duty soldier who has served 15 years and agrees to stay another five gets a $30,000 bonus.
Now factor in the Army's low-cost health insurance -- premiums haven't been raised in 15 years -- college tuition assistance that can top $80,000, and a pension system that will pay $8,000 a month to today's privates if they wait until they're 50 to retire.
The benefits sounded good to Elizabeth Valdes, a 20-year-old private who was working two jobs in Redwood City, Calif. "Before, I didn't have any security," she said. This'' -- indicating her Army surroundings -- "is security. I'm going to make this a career.''
The military's "all volunteer force'' concept, which replaced the draft in 1973, has been a resounding success, but at a resounding cost. In the past decade, the Army's personnel costs have more than doubled, from $27.7 billion in 2001 to a projected $59.1 billion for 2011 -- with an additional $11.9 billion in projected wartime personnel costs for next year.
Why? One reason is pay. Since 2002, military pay has risen 42 percent, while civilian pay grew by 32 percent
. Last year Congress voted a 3.4 percent pay raise for the military, even as much of the country was reeling from the economic downturn and civilian wages were actually falling. This year the Pentagon has proposed a 1.4 percent pay increase, which Congress may also increase. Each pay raise adds billions to the budget and keeps accruing in future years in escalating pay and pension costs.
Soldiers also receive food and housing subsidies that are untaxed. Since 2002, housing allowances have risen 83 percent and the food allowance by 40 percent.
Health care costs are swelling at about 10 percent a year, not counting a massive expansion of physical and mental health services needed for troops returning from combat deployment. The health care costs alone "are eating us alive,'' Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last year.
But there's more. To attract and retain smart and ambitious soldiers, the Army has been quietly investing in an astonishing range of "quality of life'' programs far beyond pay, health benefits and pensions.
Army bases like Fort Jackson, and the towns near them, are a far cry from the squalid wooden barracks, tattoo parlors and strip joints of old. Instead they are model, crime-free communities of quiet streets and neatly trimmed lawns, with their own schools, day-care centers, supermarkets, theaters, college classrooms, hotels, medical clinics and rec centers.
The Army offers free financial planning and family and marriage counseling, babysitting for families of deployed soldiers, and other services.
Just mentioning rising costs of all this seems in bad taste. Certainly, soldiers and other members of the armed forces risk their lives for a high ideal. Their service cannot be measured in dollars alone. Soldiers and Marines on hard combat tours contend that they are underpaid given the difficulty and risk, and I agree. Still, the overall cost is significant.
Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina and a reserve officer, touched on this the other day in a committee hearing: "Well, you know, I want to be generous and fair to all those who serve . . . but there's a cost containment problem'' in the personnel budget.
Speaking specifically of sharply rising costs for military health care, Graham said, "I don't see how we can sustain this forever.''
I recently asked John McHugh, the secretary of the Army, whether he thinks a time is fast approaching when its staggering personnel costs are going to force a retrenchment, either in the size of the Army or its pay and benefits.
"To a large extent personnel costs are out of our control -- they're in the control of Congress,'' said McHugh, a former nine-term Republican congressman from upstate New York.
Pressed, he acknowledged that at some point, something will need to be done, and "the longer you wait, the harder the answer.''
But, he hastened to assure me, "we're not quite there yet.''