The military is obviously a focus of our country’s attention, especially now that we’ve had recent elections, and presidential hopefuls are starting to make their moves. You may know some people who are in the military, or you might know someone related to them. You might even be considering joining yourself. However, everyone’s got an opinion about what it’s like to be in or part of a military family and the benefits attached. Hopefully this article will help dispel some myths.
1. We get “free” housing. I am a jet engine mechanic for the Air Force. After almost 10 years of service, my take home pay is less than $28,000. If I lived off base, I’d take home $47,000. If you live in California and have a family of four and you worked the same job for 10 years, should you be making less than 50k and be expected to live in a decent house in a decent neighborhood? Probably not. The average salary outside of the military is $79,000, and I’m pretty sure those guys aren’t anywhere near away from home for up to 6 months a year, or gone at a moment’s notice.
Since we can’t afford to live off base in California, we live on base. On base housing quality varies from place to place. Sometimes you get good housing, sometimes you get moved out because of exploding water pipes or black mold because the houses have been here since the 1930s. None of those are exaggerations because we had to move for the first reason. Some bases have great maintenance, while others you may have to wait a week or 10 to fix that drainage issue in your yard (we are currently on month 5 for the drainage issue). Either way, base housing isn’t too bad of a deal, but it is, by no means, free.
2. We don’t get charged taxes on base, so everything is cheaper. Yes, and no. The commissary is generally cheaper with a lot of items, but could be open under limited hours. One commissary we went to closed at 6pm, when most of the dayshift workers got out at 5pm. That gave you maybe an hour to get all your week’s grocery shopping done. And yes, the commissary is overall cheaper, but you do have to pay a surcharge of 5% that goes to keeping it running.
The Base Exchange and/or AAFES is another story. Most of their clothing, equipment, tools, and other needs are more expensive than Wal-Mart. Even the very same products that you can get at the commissary are more expensive! Our two buildings are 100 yards across from each other. The commissary sells a one pound bag of brand name coffee is $6.49. The very exact brand at the Base Exchange is $7.79. And don’t even think about comparing medicine! Also, most Base Exchanges are very limited in what brands they can offer. They seem to think that men and women only buy Dockers for casual wear. Sure, there’s no sales tax, but you still pay a price.
3. We have job security. Recently, this has become less of a reality. There is a military drawdown in some branches, surprisingly. The Air Force has plans to cut out 40,000 people. Some of those guys are officers that just got in. They’ll get a severance pay of some sort, but that money won’t last very long. Even officers don’t get paid nearly what they are worth. A general that commands a 10,000 man division of freedom fighters and makes very high-security decisions still might pull in $100,000. I wonder how much a Fortune 500 CEO with half as many employees makes?
The only branch that seems to have real job security is the Army. Just watch the news and see what price that comes with.
4. Join the military and see the world! A lot of people in the Air Force don’t. Recently, they’ve cut down the amount of moves for people who are going from one stateside base to another. If you’re lucky enough to get stationed in countries like Germany, Spain, or Japan, you’ll get plenty of opportunity to see the world. If not, most Navy people get to see the OCEANS of the world, and the Army and Marine Corps? They see the sands of the world. There were times in my career where I had to go to other countries to repair aircraft and I saw the hotel rooms of the world because once the aircraft was fixed, we got on it and went back home.
5. Healthcare is free. Again, this is also dependent on where you are stationed and what branch you are in. Most bases are supported by clinics. If you need anything major done, you get referred to another off-base establishment. I had to get some dental work done that couldn’t be handled at my clinic. I had to drive 500 miles round trip for 6 appointments because that was the closest place that military insurance, or Tri Care, could cover. Getting my wife’s wisdom teeth pulled cost us $800 out of pocket. Getting my children’s fillings done cost us $300 more. Had all those issues taken place at my current base, it would have cost next to nothing because my base has an actual hospital on it and much cheaper referral clinics.
Believe me, I’m not complaining about my job. I know at any moment I could get that tap on the shoulder that says “pack your bags. You’ve gotta go” and I would go in a heartbeat. We’ve done o.k. these last few years and thankfully I haven’t had to go on any major deployments, but I’ve worked long hours keeping those planes in the sky or making sure our squadron was ready to support those who were deploying.
And, despite our outward rivalry, the Air Force appreciates those Army guys on the ground, and the Army guys appreciate the Air Force for bringing them safely into battle and quickly home when they get hurt or their tour ends. But if you get a chance, recognize what the military family is really doing and for what little monetary compensation. Recognize that for our society, being part of a military family IS a sacrifice and a service that they volunteer to be a part of.