BACKBONE OF THE ARMY

Speaking of Ralph Peters, he has a superb piece in today’s NY Post about the debt of gratitude we owe to the men in the trenches, the career NCOs.

They were proud men. The best of them were master teachers, rigorous but fair with the young soldiers entrusted to their care and determined to make “their” lieutenant the finest in the battalion. They cursed and mocked and worked miracles.

None of us fully appreciated them, of course. We said we did and meant well. But we were officers. We would serve our troop-time, then move on to staff jobs and schools, returning to tactical units now and then to punch our tickets.

We made a great display of waiting until the enlisted men were fed before we ate, of being fitter and fleeter than the NCOs, of leading by example. We shared their hardships, sleeping in the snow or rain, competing to show how tough we were. But as we moved on to further our careers, “old sarge” remained behind, shifting from one Infantry battalion to another, perhaps drawing the odd staff job he hated automatically because a good NCO despised “staff weenies.”

We meant to treat them fairly, but the truth is that we didn’t. We relied on them, but they could never fully rely on us. We were only passing through. The battalion – some battalion – would always be their home. They welcomed us as tourists.

After Vietnam, those men faced constant complaints from civilians about the generosity of military pensions. Half-pay after only 20 years? It was an outrageous waste, according to those who avoided serving their country. Yet far too many of the NCOs I knew were unlikely to live to collect their Social Security. They did the work the Harvard grads would never have dreamed of doing and gave us the best of their lives. And got half-pay in a broken-health retirement.

Grocery chains campaigned against the military commissaries that allowed soldiers to feed their families more cheaply. The system was “unfair competition,” according to the business execs whose families never had to stretch the chili-mac.

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And the NCO is still my candidate for the most underpaid professional in any walk of life.

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The thanks of a grateful nation? A proposal to add a mere 10,000 troops to our overstretched Army died a rapid death. Instead, we’re buying nearly useless F-22 fighters at $150 million each. While our soldiers in Iraq don’t have enough body armor. There isn’t much profit in equipping infantrymen, you see.

Quite true.

While things are radically better for our NCOs than they were even 20 years ago, their pay still lags. DFAS has collected pay charts from over the years here; the 2003 chart is here. A typical platoon sergeant (SFC/E-7) with 14 years service makes $2990.40 a month in base pay, which is taxable. He gets additional tax free allowances for food ($262.50) and housing ($698.70 plus locality adjustment). That comes to $47,419.20 annual pay, part of which is tax free. That’s pretty decent pay in the rural areas where most of our soldiers live, at least compared to what we used to pay. Still, it’s not much in an era with constant overseas deployments away from the family.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.