Report: Tough duty earns low base pay for US military personnel

Dodging enemy fire and hunting for chemical weapons may be among the most intimidating jobs around. But according to one survey on military salaries, combat troops make little more for waging war than those who help theatergoers to their seats or help schoolchildren cross the street.

A survey by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that military personnel are among the lowest-paid employees in the United States.

"These people are putting themselves on the line," says John Challenger, the firm's CEO. "It is very high risk, and compensation does not seem to square up."

A private with one year in the service is paid a base salary of $15,480 a year. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, theater ushers made $14,144 a year in 2002. Crossing guards made $15,080.

But base salaries only tell part of the story, says Christopher Michel, the CEO and president of Military Advantage, a San Francisco-based company that helps current and former military members gain access to their benefits.

Housing and food alone can expand salaries by a third. Troops get other bonuses, like combat pay - an additional $150 a month while they are at war. A private making $20,000 may see $31,000 at the end of the year. Education benefits add real value.

There is still room for improvement though, Mr. Michel says, given the stakes. "You can't pay them enough, and they should be paid well, so the military remains competitive."

Many agree. Military personnel expect to see an average pay raise of 4.1 percent in 2004. Their salaries then increase with rank and years of service.

Still, Mr. Challenger calls the disparity between the military and the private sphere unfair, especially at the highest levels.

Top chief executives average $11 million in annual compensation, according to a 2001 Standard & Poor's survey. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of United States Central Command overseeing the military action in Iraq, makes $153,948. "That's way out of whack," Challenger says.

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