Married Teenage Warriors

      During the past three decades, the number of married GIs grades E-1, E-2, and E-3 has more than tripled. There are now twice as many military family members as GIs, and many young servicemen lack the maturity to deal with marriage. This occurred because our military provides private quarters and extra pay for married personnel. As a result, 34% of enlisted GIs marry before age 21, compared to only 7.5% of civilians. Many teenager warriors believe they have ample pay and benefits to support a family, but later learn that unexpected financial problems force them into debt, and frequent separations often result in failed marriages.  This lowers readiness and costs American taxpayers billions of dollars each year.  

      Readiness is affected whenever family problems require a GI to moonlight, to miss training, to miss deployments, or to take emergency leave while on deployment. Everyone suffers when a GI troubled by family strife acts withdrawn, irritable, and unable to concentrate on the task at hand. Leaders are frequently distracted from their mission in order to resolve teenage marital and associated financial problems, which are a major factor why 30% of GIs fail to finish their first enlistment.  Leaders also find it difficult to punish young servicemen with extra duty or fines knowing their families will suffer.

Pam, and son Ethan hug goodbye husband and father Maj. J.J., AV-8B pilot, who departed with Marine Attack Squadron 223 in support of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) March 5. Photo by: Pvt. Rocco DeFilippis
     Family problems of young enlisted men were noted in 1940 when the US military began to deploy units overseas. Testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee in 1949 cited scandalous problems during World War II caused by "families left behind in distress by men who should not have families." As a result, the 1949 Career Compensation Act continued the pre-war policy of providing family benefits only to career servicemen. This law treated all enlisted men E-4 and below with less than seven years of service as single men. According to the Act, this policy "stemmed from the prevailing view that such personnel make better servicemen and were less apt to create a social problem when they were not married and, consequently, allowances should be structured so as to discourage them from marrying."

     This restriction was suspended when the Korean war broke out in 1950. Congress recognized that it was unfair to deny family benefits to married men who were involuntarily inducted through selective service and reserve mobilization. This suspension continued during the draft years until it was allowed to expire in 1973. However, establishing the all-volunteer force required greater incentives to fill the ranks during the 1970's. New legislation guaranteed family benefits to all enlisted and pay for junior enlisted was doubled in 1971. During the next two decades, anti-military attitudes began to fade while military pay was boosted ahead of inflation.

     These factors resulted in a tremendous improvement in the quality of recruits. However, spartan barracks and shipboard life make the government's offer of private quarters for those willing to marry very attractive.  This is one reason manpower costs have risen 80% since 1983, even after adjusting for inflation.  For example, married E-3s in Hawaii and California are paid $18,000 more per year just for housing, and require expensive support costs like family medical care.

     By 1993, marriage problems became so disruptive and costly that Marine Corps Commandant Carl Mundy announced his desire to ban the recruitment of married Marines. While the great majority of Marines applauded the idea, some living in ivory towers in Washington DC hastily denounced it. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin immediately suspended the Commandant's policy. He then appointed a panel to review the marriage issue, which endorsed his viewpoint that marriage has no affect on readiness. 

     The marriage incentive remains a readiness and fiscal problem. (see "A New look at an Old Idea for First-Term Marriage" by Captain Alfred B. Connable in the October 2002 Marine Corps Gazette).  Captain Connable urged the adoption of General Mundy's idea of banning the recruitment of married people, and punishing those who marry during their first enlistment. This is the right idea, but only the wrong approach. Marriage is a religious matter and our political leadership nor the federal courts will allow restrictions on an individual's right to enlist while married, or right to marry after enlistment. However, the strong marriage incentive could be removed if all E-3s and below receive equal pay and benefits, regardless of marital status.

     A return to the traditional system in which only career servicemen are provided private quarters would mean that teenage GIs could get married, but that taxpayers will not reward them with a private home. This would remove a financial incentive for married people to enlist, and deter them from marriage until they reach the grade of E-4 at around 21 years of age with greater maturity and better pay.

     Eliminating the marriage incentive will discourage hasty marriages by teenage servicemen. It will not reward unmarried GIs for having children in order to qualify for a housing allowance.  (Men receive a housing allowance for having a child out of wedlock.)  Paper marriages would also be eliminated, which occur when a serviceman marries an older "friend" often a divorcee he met at a local bar. The "temporary spouse" gets military medical care and half the housing allowance, or they may share an apartment.

     Equal pay for teenage GIs will have many benefits. A single GI undergoing tough entry level training will not be agitated that the married man in the next bunk is paid 30% more. Bachelor sergeants will no longer be incensed that many newly arrived privates get larger paychecks. Fewer GIs will work extra hours to make up for the absence of married personnel. Fewer military beneficiaries will mean better overall family care and housing for career servicemen. Most importantly, all GIs can focus more mental energy on their mission, rather than family strife.

     A policy of equal benefits for E-3s and below can be phased in by applying only to new enlistments. Since very few organizations in the United States pay employees more money if they are married, civilian leaders nor the courts should object. Obviously, eliminating the married bonus will reduce the number of Americans interested in military service. This will not cause a recruiting problem since only 5% of recruits are married.  Even without a housing allowance, most married recruits will earn more than their current job, if they have one.

      If this proves a bad policy, it can be quickly reversed. Meanwhile, Congress should allow each Armed Service the option of testing this idea to improve readiness and save money. The Marine Corps would adopt it immediately, while the Army and Navy may wait a couple years to see how it affects the Marines. Eventually, Congress may mandate this policy for all Armed Services when they realize that it can save billions of dollars each year through fewer housing allowances, moving expenses, and a reduced demand for family housing, family services, and medical care. The entire U.S. military can become more ready to rapidly deploy overseas without the scandals of World War II caused by "families left behind in distress by men who should not have families."

                                                 Carlton Meyer