Friday, October 29, 2004

WHAT IS A SOLDIER WORTH?

According to the latest statistics posted on the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund web site, the average payment for a person killed because of the terrorist attacks is $2,082,035.

If a soldier is killed, his or her beneficiary typically receives $250,000 from the Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance, for which the soldier paid $240 a year in premium costs. Under a new law, the surviving family member now receives a $12,000 military death benefit, which is double the past amount and is not taxable. You are also given up to $2,000 for funeral expenses. And if you are a surviving spouse, you receive $833 a month until you remarry and $211 per month for each child under 18.

So, if my husband is killed in Iraq and I don’t remarry for another 10 years, I will receive a total of $363,960 over a 10-year period, compared to the more than $2 million that a spouse of a 9-11 victim receives. I know that many of those killed on 9-11 earned six-figure salaries and compensation was based on what they would earn in their lifetime. But is it right that in purely monetary terms, a 9-11 victim’s life is worth almost six times more than my husband’s life?

Meanwhile, the Army Times calculated that according to the hours worked in a combat zone, many guys I know are making between $8-$9 an hour in Iraq. But security personnel working for private contractors are being paid six-figure salaries for doing the same job as soldiers. A trainer at the gym on the base told me a former co-worker, who is a lifeguard, is now earning $125,000 a year in Iraq.

Before I became an army wife, I had no idea that many military families were living on the brink of poverty. I assumed that soldiers earned a decent middle class wage. But a specialist, who is committed to four years in service, earns a base pay of $21,768. If the specialist has a family of four, he/she is earning just $3,000 more than the official federal poverty level, which is $18,850 for a family of four. When I came here I was surprised at how easily people talked about their finances, which is considered unseemly in my world. But I guess when you don’t have that much money, it’s not a big deal to talk about it.

On payday, which comes on the 1st and 15th of every month, the commissary (grocery store on base) is packed because many could not afford to buy food until they got their paycheck. My friend who works at the credit union on the base tells me stories of people coming in a few days before payday with bags of coins to exchange for a few dollar bills. She also tells me about people coming in to take out the remaining $5 left in their bank account. Many military families live from paycheck to paycheck and have to choose between paying bills and putting food on the table. During Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, we gave canned food and Christmas toy donations. Half of the donations ended up going to army families. Yes, some people live beyond their means and are financially irresponsible. But others just can’t make ends meet on a military salary with two to three children.

Some will argue that military families get free housing. Yes, but many families still have mortgages from homes they bought in their hometown. Some will also say that deployed soldiers get additional pay. Most of the extra $475 per month is spent on phone cards and Internet time so soldiers can communicate with loved ones back home. And before the guys left, most of the soldiers I know spent several hundred dollars of their money on supplies they needed for Iraq, like socks, backpacks and additional uniforms.

How we treat our soldiers says a lot about who we are as a nation, especially now that our nation is at war. Rhetoric about troops being heroes on the forefront of the war on terrorism does not pay the bills. We have to put our money where our mouth is and give soldiers what they deserve, in life and in death.