Service Members Put Their Lives on the Line for Us. Now Congress Must Raise Their Pay to Match Inflation

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Lance Cpl. Freddie Richardson, disbursing clerk, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, assists Sgt. Mohamed R. Muhidin, night crew supervisor, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364, 15th MEU, in setting up his Marine Cash card.
Lance Cpl. Freddie Richardson, disbursing clerk, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, assists Sgt. Mohamed R. Muhidin, night crew supervisor, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364, 15th MEU, in setting up his Marine Cash card, July 29, 2012. (Cpl. John Robbart III/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

James R. Schenck is president and CEO of PenFed Credit Union and CEO of the PenFed Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

In a recent memo from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the Pentagon announced a number of changes to help service members and their families offset the rising cost of housing, child care, and essential goods and services.

The expected increase to service members' basic allowances is a welcome step in the right direction, but is inadequate without an across-the-board pay increase that keeps up with inflation. The president's proposed budget for the Department of Defense includes a 4.6% pay increase for service members, but that still doesn't keep up with the current annual inflation rate of 8.2%.

With pay cycles for the upcoming fiscal year under budget consideration by Congress, our nation's leaders must fulfill their sacred obligation to take care of service members and their families.

A majority of Americans say inflation has affected them financially, according to recent polling. The latest inflation report found that energy prices in particular surged almost 24% in the last 12 months, the largest one-year increase in four decades. At the same time, the cost of food products has risen by 11.4% over the past year, fueling concerns of food insecurity.

These price hikes are having a devastating impact on active, Guard and reserve service members and their families, many of whom are having to choose between putting gas in the tank or feeding their families.

Military families have reported that their savings are running dry as a result of inflation. Many are relying on the commissary for their grocery needs -- despite persistent problems with shortages -- while others are going to food banks.

Like other financial leaders, I've made it my mission to do whatever it takes to deliver for our members and help them build a secure financial future. And that holds especially true for the military families who make up our core membership at PenFed Credit Union.

I've seen firsthand the impact that inflation is having on these families and the increased need for support services among the defense community. I recently visited San Diego, where I met with members of Support the Enlisted Project (STEP). This organization helps active-duty service members and recently discharged veterans in Southern California attain financial self-sufficiency.

At a distribution drive organized by STEP, I witnessed service members and veterans waiting in line for food and essential items, not to mention other in-demand goods like car seats for children.

The effort these groups are making on the ground is admirable, but they can't do it alone. Congress must make it clear that an across-the-board pay increase for service members will be a priority in the next budget.

It's not just a matter of our commitment to the men and women who protect our freedoms; it's also a matter of national security. Inaction will break the force and render the military unprepared to deal with our nation's many threats.

The military is already facing challenges around mission readiness, troop retention and recruitment. Inflation and rising costs are doing no favors, especially as a report from the Pentagon in July found that many veterans are struggling with economic and food insecurity.

Most troubling, the annual base pay for a number of military roles is rapidly falling behind their civilian and private-sector equivalents, reducing the incentive for individuals to join or remain in the military.

The median annual wage of engineers across all military branches is around $80,000, whereas engineers in civilian and private-sector positions can expect a median annual wage of around $100,000 without being required to deploy around the world, away from loved ones, for months at a time.

Similarly, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in 2020 found that physicians and other medical practitioners in the military made tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars less on average than their private-sector counterparts.

But it isn't just compensation that's lower; service members aren't seeing the same growth in their annual pay. In January 2022, the annual basic pay raise for all members of the military was just 2.7% on average. That's lower than the 3.4% average increase that U.S. employers are projected to pay their employees this year.

This glaring asymmetry means that service members in specialized roles have a stronger incentive to leave the military for the private sector rather than serving. It's a serious recruiting and retention issue that needs to be addressed by both military and civilian leaders in Washington. The red flags are already there for trouble ahead in meeting the personnel requirements to maintain a strong military. 

It's long past time to move beyond empty promises and platitudes. Actions matter.  Pay matters. Congress must increase military pay and ensure that service members never have to choose between fueling their cars or feeding their families. Surely, it's the bare minimum we can do for the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedoms.

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