For several years, I was a soldier-medic in the U.S. Army. I saw countless military and family members. Now I am a veteran looking back.
Why are our soldiers poor?
"Support the Troops" everyone says without a second thought. Well, if everyone is supporting the troops why are they so poor?
I couldn't imagine myself writing an article about poverty in the military. Simply put: while in the Army I did just fine. The Army was paying off my student loans and I was receiving my signing bonus as promised. I had no other bills or debts. My food, housing and utilities were paid for because I lived on post (on the military base). I didn't have a car so I didn't worry about the gas, insurance, repairs and so on. I didn't have a wife or any children to worry about. It was gravy.
Money and finances were never an issue with me so I didn't understand how fellow service members could live in poverty. Then, as I talked to more and more of our troops, it became clearer and clearer: poverty in the military is very real.
Our troops are drowning in debt and their children are starving. Here's why it's happening and what you can do about it.
DISCLOSURE: I served in the US Army. I cannot speak for the other branches but based on my conversations with other service members, things aren't any better. Also, in this article I will often refer to the soldier as "he," but only to keep things simple. Don't forget there are many female soldiers out there working and fighting just as hard.
First thing's first: these aren't the reasons our troops are poor
I know what you're thinking: this is all a myth! We love our troops and we stand by them 100%! There's no way we'd let them fall below the poverty line! Leave no man behind! Support the troops! Support the troops! [Sudden, inexplicable chest-beating] There may be a few military families having trouble but that's their own fault!
Think so? How many charities are there for active duty service members and veterans? Now how many charities are there for defense contractors and politicians? Thank you.
But if you still think it's a myth, then keep reading. This article will address reasons that soldiers are poor, specific to the Army and/or military policy. These are challenges no civilian will face.
For now, here are a few reasons soldiers are poor but, in fairness, they can happen to anyone at any time.
- Many recruits joining the Army are already poor and in debt. For them, the Army is their last hope and by then their financial lives are in ruins. It's not fair to blame the military for this. OK...
- Some soldiers turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the stress of combat. Substance abuse can ruin every aspect of life, especially financial. The military provides many facilities and programs to help our soldiers, including inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment. It's not the military's fault they chose this path. Understandable...
- Some soldiers go on spending sprees once they see a regular paycheck. This happens often with young soldiers. DVDs, electronic equipment, pimped out cars and so on. Yeah, I've seen plenty of that before...
- Military wives become complacent and bored. They become "baby machines." It's become so bad that the Army offers free vasectomies! Hm... I'd have put this differently but I'll give you that one... (Yeah, I actually saw this reason in a forum somewhere, it made me sick and I don't get sick easily)
- Unfortunately DFAS (or Defense Finance and Accounting Service) isn't perfect. Sometimes they slip up with pay and a military family can get behind. And yeah, sometimes it takes tons of paperwork and bureaucracy to get things back on track but they always make up lost payments. They don't rip anyone off. This happens in the civilian world too, especially with large companies. Yup, we've all been there...
7. The Army doesn't pay enough
OK, now let's get started...
To put it simply the Army doesn't pay enough. Here is the latest pay scale for our lower enlisted also known as junior enlisted. If you enlist--that is, walk into a recruiter's office and sign up--this will be your monthly pay. If you already have a college degree you will probably start at E-4 (Specialist). Not bad in today's economy. But what if you have a family?
If you have a wife and children, each one is considered a dependent. Like you, they will get free medical and dental coverage. Nice! Also, each dependent will get you extra pay per month. Cool! Oh, if you decide to live off post in private-sector housing you will get extra pay per month for that as well. Wow, does it get any better? Well, none of these extra pay raises match the cost of living! Not cool.
All this is done on purpose. See, the Army cannot outlaw you from having a family but it can "punish" you by not paying you enough. The more it hurts your wallet, the less likely you'll tack on another dependent. Now if you're 18 years old that's fine but what if you're 32? Do you have to stop serving the country you love for the family you love?
As for living off post, the military doesn't want its on-post housing empty so it doesn't pay you nearly enough to cover private-sector housing. It's much cheaper to live on post and many families do. Those who don't will feel the pain.
My drill sergeant once yelled "If the Army wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one!" Yes, Drill Sergeant!
6. You will need a car
Think of military bases as cities. They have just about anything a soldier and his family would need: hospital, restaurants, department store, school--you name it. However, to access any of these places the military family needs a car. It's urban sprawl.
Now, because of the unpredictable or long hours a soldier often works, he and his family will most likely need two cars. This means all the expenses that come with them: gas, insurance, maintenance, fuzzy dice, and so on.
Some of this is understandable because many soldiers work in dangerous facilities far from residential areas. These are places where soldiers practice tank maneuvers and target missile systems. There's no mass transit.
I didn't have a car. It was a blessing from above that the hospital I worked at wasn't far from the barracks so I walked to and from every day--even when on call. Most weekends I stayed on post, going to the library or hanging out with friends in the barracks. This saved me a lot of pain and suffering because...
5. Predators are everywhere: used car dealers, mechanics, payday lenders*, pawn shops...
You know you're getting closer to a military base because the landscape suddenly changes. From being in the middle of nowhere, businesses you'd expect in our nation's finest inner cities start popping up. These include used car dealers, payday lenders* and pawnshops. There are also cheap apartment buildings and strip malls.
All these cater to the military population. All of these are here to suck money out of you. You'll find strip malls and fast food restaurants anywhere you find people so I'll give them a pass but everyone else is out to get you.
Want to live off post? Live in an apartment nearby! Sure the rent is steep but it's better than a two-hour commute. Are times tough? Pawn some jewelry or get a payday loan*! Need a car but can't afford a new one? Get a used one! Oh, did that used car explode on you? Get it towed and repaired!
The predators are out there and their strike is deadly and cruel. These businesses have no problem gouging service members and their families because they know two things. First soldiers cannot run away or just disappear--if they do they are deserters. Next soldiers get paid every month, no matter what.
The used car dealers are especially tough. They know you need a car so they offer cheap clunkers with high interest loans. It goes in and out of repair shops where the mechanic will be sure to squeeze even more out of you.
You won't feel a much bigger bite until you realize that...
4. Soldiers are reassigned frequently
One day you get a piece of paper. You've been re-assigned to another base. This is called PCS (or permanent change of station). You have three days to wrap things up at your current base and two more to get to your new one. This happens to soldiers all the time with no warning. Your first thoughts are not of your loving wife and family but your piece of cr*p car.
Your new duty station is a thousand miles away. You know that your car can't make the trip (it can barely make it to work). So you have to sell it. But to who? Who will buy it? You'll never find a buyer in time. So, it's back to the dealer and he's waiting. He knows your desperation and will take advantage of it.
Then there are the costs and headaches of moving. Like many people who move, especially families, stuff has to be left behind. It's not worth taking some things so they are sold for pennies on the dollar or just given away.
You'll move so often during your career that these costs add up over time. The Army knows this and compensates you. All you have to do is fill out this form but...
3. Some forms are impossible to fill out
While in the military I moved only twice: from Basic Combat Training (BCT) to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) then PCS to my first and final base. I had no family and all my possessions I could carry on my back so it wasn't so bad.
Whether you're moving or you have orders to travel for classes, courses, medical testing or whatever, you must pay for a lot of expenses beforehand: travel, lodging and dining. Then when the traveling is all finished, you must fill out a form (it's called the "DD-forget-it-you're-screwed") and attach original copies of all receipts to get reimbursed. This form looks like a checker board that's been chewed up by your dog.
I have nightmares just thinking about it. Every time I filled one out, it was returned to me because I forgot something. Every time. When I finally do get things "right," I only get some of my costs reimbursed. It's hardly worth the time.
Some people have the talent to glide through bureaucracy and some don't. Many just don't have the time. Why are things so perversely complicated? Things should be fine as long as you have all your receipts--unless the Department of Defense doesn't want to reimburse you for your costs.
Sometimes forms don't even apply because...
2. Army issue versus Army regulation: there's a big difference
There are two types of equipment in the Army: Army issue and Army regulation. Army issue means that the Army gives it to you for free to use. This includes things like your rifle and helmet. Army regulation is stuff you can buy (out of pocket) and use. Any civilian can buy this stuff. There are strict guidelines on what qualifies as Army regulation but it's reasonable. Army regulation includes equipment like your watch and knife.
OK, this could get me in a lot of trouble. I can feel the hate mail brewing but I'll say it anyway: some of the stuff the Army issues is junk. This isn't often but it is frustrating. When the Army issued me a flashlight it didn't work. My buddy's flashlight didn't work either. We had to buy our own, out of pocket. I'd like to give you more examples but the jingoist chicken hawks might lynch me.
Then there's lots of equipment that the Army just doesn't provide. Technically, the soldier doesn't "need" it but it makes his job a lot easier. Look below and you'll see the Camelbak HydroBak. It's not Army issue but it's Army regulation: you can use it but you'll have to buy it if you do. If you ask your boss why the Army won't pay for it, he'll tell you to shut up and use your Army issue canteen--and he's right. The canteen does its job.
Things were tricky not long ago with how the military handled body armor. First the Pentagon was not issuing any so the troops had to buy their own, which cost them over $1,300 each. Then the higher-ups said that the body armor was no longer Army regulation! How is a soldier barely making ends meet supposed to handle this news? How can he not take it personally?
It's been a few years since body armor has been in the news. I can only pray that things are better. However, there are still thousands of soldiers who buy their own equipment, out of pocket. As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said, you "go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
1. The Army won't always hold up its end
The enlistment bonus is pretty sweet. Do your time and get paid. It can easily reach $40,000. If you have student loans, the Army can pay those off, too. All you have to do is sign up, right?
Wrong. See, once you're in, you're in. At this point there are only two reasons to pay your bonus as promised. First, if they want you to re-enlist. Second, so you spread the good word to your civilian buddies. Aside from that the Army doesn't care whether you get your money or not.
In fact, it might do everything it can to get out of its end of the deal. Didn't finish BCT or AIT on time? Bonus canceled. Was your promised MOS (military occupational specialty) overbooked? Bonus canceled. Didn't do you're whole time because you were killed or injured? Bonus canceled. The list goes on.
Just ask Chelsea Wells of Oregon or Jordan Fox of Pennsylvania. There are also the countless cases that don't make the headlines. It's only when these stories are shown on national television does the military wake up.
Then there's this whole student loan business. It's pretty sweet but there are strings attached. There is a ceiling of around $50,000. Also, student loans that are in default or late don't qualify. What? $50,000 barely covers two years of school these days! And late or default student loans don't qualify? Aren't these the soldiers who can benefit the most from this?
Some military families need this extra money. They expect it and plan ahead for it. Then, to see it pulled out from under them is too much of a shock. They are suddenly broke.
Don't get me wrong, the Army pays its bonuses when things run smoothly but when it doesn't it hurts.
Then it's just as tough after you serve
About payday lenders and the military...
* Yes, I know about the Military Authorization Act of 2007. It is very helpful but many businesses are sneaky so only the truly desperate soldiers find a way. Then they're trapped for life. It's pretty much "don't ask, don't tell."
Is this fair? - Be honest here
What do you think? - Comment below
CashBlog LM on October 13, 2013:
Support the troops!
Lorelei Cohen from Canada on March 11, 2013:
I don't like to see anyone shafted out of what they are promised and that should never happen. But tough economic times are hurting many individuals and families. There is only one way out and that is to start lowering our national debts so our countries pay less in interest and have more money to offer to it's citizens.
pawpaw911 on January 09, 2013:
They sure don't make it easy. Well done. It took my son a while to recover from being stop lossed, but he is doing fine now.
myspace9 on December 29, 2012:
Very informative and intreresting lens. thanks for squidliking my lens.
Gloria Freeman from Alabama USA on November 09, 2012:
WOW! what a great read, learned so much about the soldier life. Thanks for sharing, blessed and added to my lens..Squid Angel flinnie.
Earnlat on September 30, 2012:
Extremely enlightening work! I've always known of some of the military shortcomings, but this lens is truly intense! Thank-you for the education.
Oh yes, thanx for squid-liking mine as well!!
Lori Green from Las Vegas on September 25, 2012:
Fantastic Lens. BLESSING
Rankography on September 16, 2012:
Thanks for this informational lens. You have put a lot of work into it. Blessings.
Tobint44 LM on September 08, 2012:
This is crazy, thanks for the lens and the enlightenment. We definitely need to do more to assist our troops!
eccles1 on September 08, 2012:
I remember when my father was in the military my parents were always fighting about not having enough money, and I guess it is still happening today some things don't change.
LaurenIM on September 05, 2012:
I agree with the predator issue. Soldiers are recruited when they are very young, without social skills and not enough life experience to be able to handle the extreme world they embark on. Most, grow up in those extreme environments. Anyway, I don't think it's about the money they receive or no. I do believe, we should spend that money on educating them on self-development.
Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on September 04, 2012:
I just hate reading this, but I know it's true. I know that predators are a huge problem for immature military personnel. I think worse, though, is that so many people are raised without being taught how to handle their money. Young people go into the military and fall into so many of the traps you listed. It's not their fault when the military doesn't come through for whatever reason (and probably because of the bureaucracy in more cases than not) but it's really each person's responsibility to live their life being responsible for themselves and their families. Credit isn't the answer, but society seems to think that it is. I don't have a simple answer for poverty in the military community, but I'd certainly like to see some peer counseling that could be effective in educating these young guys and gals on how to live debt free. Neither of my sons had these problems, but they were taught how to handle money as they were growing up. What a huge difference that made. Excellent lens!