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Beyond the military pay chart

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- A few years ago during one of my breakfast meetings with the Airmen in my squadron, we entered into a lengthy and insightful discussion stemming from a newspaper quote that an Airman had read.

The reporter stated, "The starting salary of a fast food employee in New York City is now $9.18 - sadly, this is more than a young enlisted member in the Armed Forces earns."

Coupling basic math skills with the year's current pay chart did surprisingly support the reporter's statement. However, our discussion that morning also indicated that the reporter was not aware of the benefits enlisted service members receive.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of these benefits, which often go overlooked -- benefits that reflect significant differences when compared to the fringe benefits enjoyed by the loyal fast food employee.

First of all, enlisted servcie members each receive money above and beyond their military base pay, which includes a tax-free housing allowance, the worth of which is determined on a person's local cost-of-living. I'll bet a fast food employee in NYC would love to have an extra $1,500 per month for housing.

Also, the Air Force's enlisted members are given a tax-free stipend of roughly $348 per month for food. Depending on one's career field, skills, and duty location, one can also earn special incentive pay, which may include flight pay, foreign language proficiency pay, hostile fire pay, family separation pay, recruiter pay, first sergeant pay, and some members can even receive all base pay tax-free while serving in a combat zone.

Access to tax-free shopping in a local Base Exchange and Commissary and access to a free well-equipped fitness facility are also notable benefits. None of these possibilities are available to the average fast food employee.

Furthermore, enlisted members are given 30 days of vacation per year and the opportunity to claim retirement benefits after serving for 20 years - an incomparable service that few corporations are able to provide for their employees.

Free legal advice, a nonexistent service found in NYC, is also offered to enlisted members, as well as full medical and dental care, including mandatory annual appointments. Opportunities for travel are also advantageous - during my time in the Air Force I've traveled to almost every country in Europe, to several Asian countries, to areas within the Middle East, to most states in the US, and to a few countries in Africa.

Educational benefits abound beginning with a member's initial enrollment in tech school, followed by attaining one's Community College of the Air Force degree. Bachelor's and advanced degrees can later be obtained with 100 percent tuition assistance.

Lastly, many service members can also benefit from the post-9/11 GI Bill, which covers the full cost of any public state college, as well as a housing allowance and $1,000 stipend for books per year. Clearly any fast food employee would be jealous of these benefits.

Even the intangible benefits of military service are considerable. First off, service members have a formidable career path buoyed by the opportunity to retrain intoanother career field if they are unhappy with their current career field.

An unbeatable awards and recognition program, coupled with early opportunities to supervise people and to manage high-dollar projects also provide a positive work environment with a great sense of accomplishment and camaraderie. And when members do choose to separate from the Air Force, they leave with a resume of success that will serve them well in any career path they choose to pursue.

Hopefully this article illustrates the many benefits that extend well beyond the basic military pay scale that must be considered when discussing a military member's salary. In fact, compacting the above benefits together makes one's base pay almost pale in comparison.

However, none of these benefits compare to the greatest benefit of being an enlisted member in the military: the rare opportunity to serve one's country is a benefit in which we take the utmost pride, and it is one that we guard closely.

It is also why we are proud to serve.