Payroll problems and a perception of low pay hurts morale in the US military. Recently, the Army's new Chief of Staff had a pay problem himself every month since his return to active duty. In addition, DFAS sent a letter to his wife that he had died. These bureaucracies need to get fixed, but they need help. The current system of US military pay is so complex that frequent errors are inevitable. A recent GAO report (pdf) describes major payroll problems for reservists recently mobilized for the war in Iraq. One solution is to eliminate the Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS).
The US military traditionally provided free meals for its troops. As the world became more complex after World War II, compensation for those unable to eat at mess halls became an issue. BAS emerged as a monthly payment to those based away from a mess hall, and for married personnel who live far from their work areas. Unmarried personnel thought this unfair, so Congress now directs all servicemen to receive BAS, which is increased yearly to reflect food costs. For 2004, enlisted are paid $254.46 a month while officers are paid only $175.23 for odd historical reasons.
This seems simple, but some units deduct BAS from some servicemen's paychecks to force them to eat at the local mess hall to make it cost effective. Whenever a GI travels or goes on leave (vacation) pay clerks must adjust their BAS status. Deployments cause continual problems as servicemen are often expected to pay for their meals while away from home. A good example emerged last year when wounded servicemen were billed for hospital meals. Some Congressmen became angry at the practice, yet the Army was just recovering BAS. In many operations, inequalities emerge when GIs living in tents must pay for their meals, while others living in nearby hotels in a TAD or TDY "travel" status are reimbursed for first class restaurant meals.
Congress must fix this mess, and the first step is to eliminate BAS and merge this monthly payment into basic pay. This simplifies the payroll system and more accurately reflects military compensation. Basic Pay for 2004 (pdf) shows an E-1 starts out a $1104 a month. Adding BAS into an E-1s basic pay would boost it 23% to $1358. So when a potential recruit looks at the bottom line (basic pay) he will see a monthly figure 23% higher than today. In addition, this will eliminate faulty reporting in the media and by confused servicemen who just use basic pay when comparing military pay with the private sector.
Merging BAS into basic pay will do wonders for recruiting and morale. This has been proposed in the past, but was shot down by powerful military lobbyists in Washington DC. They noted that BAS is tax free, so this will increase taxes on servicemen. However, all other Americans must pay income taxes for money they will use for food. While basic pay implies that an E-1 earns just $14,320 a year, including food and housing benefits increases that to $26,789 a year, a figure that doesn't include medical, dental, retirement, and other benefits, nor does it include special pays for deployments. Check this link RMC for pay info. In contrast, the federal government's latest data shows that American males ages 16-24 working full-time earn $398 a week or $20,696 a year; E-1s average 19 years of age. Most Americans are shocked to learn that E-1s earn 30% more than civilians their age, yet an outdated myth of poorly paid young GIs persists. Yes, many GIs work more than 40 hours a week, but most do not and still get 30 days paid leave and 12 paid holidays a year, whereas total paid days off in the private sector average 13 a year.
Adding BAS to basic pay helps eliminate this distortion, and will bump many servicemen off the food stamp rolls, since they are only eligible due to a loophole in which BAS is not counted as income. Frequent news stories about GIs on food stamps is bad for recruiting and morale, even though fewer than 1% qualify, mostly because they joined the service with several children in tow. In reality, someone can make $56,000 a year and receive food stamps if they have 14 people living at home. Congress should also eliminate the loophole in the food stamp law in which the value of employer provided housing is not counted as income, so it would be extremely rare for any GI to collect food stamps. Apparently, this loophole was inserted so that household servants to millionaires can collect food stamps to supplement their low wages. However, it is often used by servicemen living in free base housing to supplement their income with food stamps, which provides a misleading impression that servicemen are poor.
Another reason to merge BAS is that it is not counted toward retirement. If BAS is merged into basic pay, base pay and retirement pay will increase by around 6% for an E-8 with 26 years in service. A final advantage of eliminating BAS is that deployed servicemen can be provided with free meals without the continual payroll game of properly deducting BAS. Congress should establish these guidelines as to when GIs are provided free meals.
1) Servicemen in hospital
This exemption is already in place after some bad press about returning casualties receiving a bill for meals while in the hospital. The US military was not acting ungrateful because it paid those soldiers a monthly food allowance and just required them to refund a portion for hospital food. Nevertheless, Congressmen considered this awkward, and now hospital meals are free, and will remain so under this proposal.
2) Prepackaged Meals (MREs) including snacks/meals distributed on aircraft
These are not proper meals and should be free for GIs who eat these "meals" while working long hours away from home. They will also be free if served as meals during local training or emergencies. They will be free in any circumstance where access to proper meals is not practical.
3) Meals served from field kitchens
Good commanders will ensure that troops in the field receive hot chow whenever possible, even during training exercises. This is less common as the Army and Marines phased out their messmen in favor of private contractors. However, private contractors can set up field kitchens or deliver hot meals to troops in the field. These may be great meals, but collecting cash in the field is awkward, and troops living in field conditions deserve a benefit. Therefore, these meals should be free.
In expeditionary environments, hot meals may become routine, causing confusion as to what is considered a "field kitchen". For example, when soldiers first deployed to Bosnia and later Kosovo they were fed from field kitchens based in tents. However, permanent mess halls were built within a year, so a basic definition of a "field kitchen" is required, which is best defined as those without permanent floors. So if GIs are served while standing on concrete or wood flooring, they must pay. If they are standing in mud or sand, it is free. Hopefully, officers will act professionally and not allow this standard to become a game and have engineers build permanent mess halls without flooring just for free chow. On the other hand, this allows any permanent mess hall to deliver free food to GIs during outdoor recreational events or nearby field training.
4) Meals in a combat zone
Combat zones are dangerous, so GIs deserve a benefit. In addition, GIs in combat zones have difficulty cashing checks and units have more important tasks than accounting for and transporting bags of cash collected from mess halls. This is mostly the case today, although it depends upon commander's discretion and funding rather than law.
5) Meals served on ships
Shipboard sailors work twice as many hours as most servicemen. Young unmarried sailors live packed aboard ship with the worst living conditions of any GI. Free meals will be a bonus to compensate for living aboard ship. Married sailors and officers have quarters ashore so they will have to pay for their meals when away from the ship. However, free meals on ship provides them some compensation for working late or pulling a 24-hour "watch", while young sailors forced to live aboard ship have the advantage of three free meals daily.
Merge BAS into Basic Pay
Increased costs for these free meals will be offset by income taxes collected from adding tax-free BAS into basic pay. If some units want young GIs use their mess halls, they can require the purchase of a monthly meal card. Fixing continual screw-ups in military pay has been a problem for decades. Sending out directives and forceful speeches will not fix the problem. The system is far too complex. The idea behind BAS is outdated and confusing. Moreover, it suggests that young GIs earn much less than their real paycheck. Potential recruits will certainly notice a 23% increase in the basic pay chart. In addition, GIs involved in field training or deployments and sailors living aboard ship will feel better knowing that those back at base have to pay for their meals. This may not seem like an important issue, but simply merging BAS into basic pay and permitting free meals for overworked GIs will improve morale and recruiting.
Carlton Meyer editorG2mil@Gmail.com
BAS is Unfair
Those powerful military lobbyists in Washington need to take in account that the Commander's are not maintaining the system, the way it should work. I have been in the Army for four years and I am a CPL, I see PFC's with two years of service getting paid more than me because they have BAS. Not to mention there a large amounts of people that hold meal cards and receive BAS. I don't care about the BAS being merged into our basic pay, I care that there is a system in place for soldiers authorized BAS or a meal card but it is not being maintained by commanders. In our barracks we have a ton of soldiers that have meal cards and BAS, I have mentioned this to the command several times, I guess they believe they are taking care of their soldiers. This is why this month I am ETSing from the Army, this Army is a joke.
CPL Baumer V Corps
Ed: The system is broke because it is so complex. Eliminating BAS makes the system fair and simple. If you are in the field or deployed, you get free food.