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Officers much happier than enlisted members

Views are split on pay, promotions and quality of life

Mar. 26, 2013 - 04:58PM   |  
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Enlisted service members are significantly less happy than officers with their pay, leaders, promotion fairness and quality of life, according to the latest annual Military Times Poll.

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Enlisted service members are significantly less happy than officers with their pay, leaders, promotion fairness and quality of life, according to the latest annual Military Times Poll.

Reponses from more than 2,100 active-duty troops and mobilized reservists show an enlisted force with a distinctly more pessimistic outlook than the officer corps:

• Quality of life. Almost three-quarters of officers, 73 percent, rated their quality of life in the military as “excellent” or “good,” compared with only 58 percent of enlisted members — down 8 percentage points from the previous year. Among those in paygrades E-5 and below, the split is even starker: Only 50 percent of junior enlisted troops rated their quality of life as excellent or good, versus 74 percent of junior officers.

• Pay. Some 53 percent of enlisted troops feel they are underpaid, compared with just 34 percent of officers.

• Promotion fairness. Among officers, 45 percent said the promotion system is unfair to some degree. Among enlisted members, that figure was 59 percent.

The picture gets worse when it comes to rating leadership.

Asked to rate the quality of officer leaders in the military, nearly 80 percent of officers responding to the poll said “excellent” or “good”; barely 40 percent of enlisted members said the same.

Enlisted members complaining about officers is certainly not new. But the dissatisfaction may be intensifying; in last year’s poll, the percentage of enlisted troops who gave officers high ratings was 44 percent.

An Army staff sergeant who works in information technology said his officer leaders just aren’t as knowledgeable as they should be. “Most of them are good people and I liked working with them, but I often felt they did not know enough,” he said. “I want my senior people to know more than me.”

The staff sergeant, and several other poll respondents, suggested that the demands of repeated deployments during the past decade may have limited the officer corps’ capacity to develop its youngest members.

“I think it’s the op tempo. Officers today didn’t have an opportunity to be mentored and to develop as they did back in the ’80s and ’90s,” he said.

Pay fairness

Both officers and enlisted members received robust increases in basic pay, housing and food allowances, and other forms of compensation over the past decade, even as overall defense budgets are leveling off and many civilians have been under pay freezes.

Yet enlisted troops have grown more likely to feel underpaid, according to the Military Times Poll. The 53 percent of enlisted members who say they are paid less than they deserve reflects a increase from the year before, when about 50 percent responded the same way.

Any number of factors may affect perceptions of pay and benefits, but one that popped up in interviews with poll respondents is the fact that the waning operational tempo has ended many financial perks.

With family separation allowance, hostile fire and imminent danger pay, and the combat-zone tax exclusion that allows all enlisted members and most officers to avoid federal taxes on their basic pay, combat deployments put potentially hundreds of extra dollars in troops’ pockets every month.

At the same time, budget pressures have ended some special pays, and the services are generally reducing opportunities for fat re-enlistment bonuses.

“It’s hard to see all that money coming in and not grow reliant on it,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Sean Sandeen, an explosive ordinance disposal technician who has deployed often over the past 10 years.

In 2007, Sandeen said he was offered $100,000 to re-enlist. When he re-upped in 2011, the offer was $40,000.

“Especially for anyone who has been in long enough to have had multiple deployments, they grow accustomed to those pays, even though everyone knows they’re temporary,” he said. “Same thing with the [re-enlistment] bonuses. People start spending that bonus money before they even get it.”

And that kind of squeeze is particularly challenging for junior enlisted members.

Senior Airman Whitney Tuttle, a 24-year-old single mother stationed at RAF Lakenheath, England, said her biweekly take-home pay is about $1,200 after taxes.

After paying all of her monthly bills — $400 for child care, $200 for groceries, $200 for house utilities and taxes, her iPhone 4 and a couple of tanks of gas for her 13-year-old Volvo, she said she’s lucky to have $300 a week left over.

“It’s tight. It’s difficult. It’s manageable, but it’s not ideal,” she said.

Tuttle, an aircrew flight equipment specialist who spends most of her day moving gear at the flight line, said the pay gap between officers and enlisted members is a source of frequent complaints among her peers.

“My friends and I discuss it a lot,” Tuttle said. “I don’t feel like [the officers] do as much work as I do.”

Promotions

Enlisted members also have a more jaded view of the military’s promotion system, with nearly two out of three poll respondents saying they feel a general sense of unfairness about the system.

Specifically, about 30 percent of the enlisted force feels that racial and ethnic minorities are targets of discrimination in the process, compared with just 20 percent of officers who feel that way.

Some suggest the sense of unfairness is fueled in part by the testing required for early enlisted promotions, which feeds a perception that those who are hard workers but poor test takers are at a disadvantage.

One Navy master chief in Norfolk, Va., said he’s not surprised. He noted that making rank is harder for enlisted troops in the early years of a military career, when competition is tough for midgrade NCO positions, while officers often do not face highly competitive choke points until six or 10 years of service.

Some service members said the slide in satisfaction among enlisted members may, in part, be a reflection of the gradual transition back to garrison life after more than a decade of high-speed deployments.

Sandeen, the EOD tech, said the younger generation that enlisted at the height of the wartime deployment cycles may find the transition particularly challenging.

“Everyone sees the recruiting commercials with soldiers running around and doing cool stuff — and if you come in and you go right into deployments, you’re kind of getting what you saw in those commercials,” Sandeen said.

“But garrison life is nothing at all like that. As that op tempo is slowing down, I feel like some people almost feel the need to justify their existence by going around and finding things to nitpick soldiers about just so I feel like I’m doing something.”

Retirement changes

On some issues, age is the primary dividing line among troops. That shows up quite clearly when troops are asked about proposed changes in the military retirement system.

More than half of junior officers and enlisted members said they would welcome the chance to opt out of the current 20-year cliff-vesting retirement system for an alternative such as a 401(k)-style, fixed contribution retirement account.

That was in stark contrast to the older officer and enlisted cohorts, who said overwhelmingly they have virtually no interest in anything other than the 20-year model.

Younger troops say portable, cash-based retirement accounts would offer some benefit to the more than 80 percent of service members who separate before qualifying for retirement pay under the traditional system.

One 27-year-old Air Force lieutenant who has served for four years said he’s not looking forward to the weighty decision he’ll have to make in a few years about whether to stay in for 20 years or leave at around 10.

“Being able to have a little more control over your life would be preferable. It would be easier to keep serving and keep accruing benefits [while] knowing I don’t have to stay until 20,” he said.

Two years ago, when Military Times began asking this question in its poll, 75 percent of overall respondents said they had no interest in alternative pension programs. This year, that number dropped to 64 percent.

Spouse employment

The poll shows that officers are more likely to express concern about their military careers hurting their spouse’s professional opportunities. About 46 percent of officers agreed that “frequent military moves have hurt my spouse’s career,” compared with just 31 percent of enlisted members.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Chang, a dentist stationed in Okinawa, Japan, said his wife gave up her job with an insurance company when he took his current assignment.

Once there, she found that many of the jobs available to a non-Japanese-speaking woman in Okinawa were low-paying and uninteresting, such as fast-food restaurants on base. For now, she is unemployed.

“There’s going to be a gap in her employment record,” Chang said. “She’s adjusted pretty well, but she’s bored a lot.”

Today, many officers’ wives no longer fit the traditional model of a stay-at-home mother who helps run military family programs. Many have bachelor’s or graduate degrees and want to pursue their own careers.

“You can always work at McDonald’s or Burger King, but if your wife has a professional career and some sort of certification, it’s hard,” said an Army lieutenant colonel. “Moving often, especially to geographically remote areas where there aren’t many job opportunities … it can be a problem.”

Dimming views on the wars

Skepticism about the 12-year-old war in Afghanistan spiked this year among many U.S. troops, according to the latest annual Military Times Poll.

When asked whether the U.S. is likely to succeed in Afghanistan, about 53 percent say that is either “not very likely” or “not at all likely,” a sharp rise from the 39 percent who responded that way in the two previous polls.

For troops on the ground in Afghanistan, their interaction with the Afghan people plays a role in making them question the mission.

“We are not going to solve their problems because the people of Afghanistan are not ready to take over their responsibilities once we depart,” said an Army sergeant first class who is now deployed. “There is no self-support for the country to succeed; so I’ll say that it will be a major failure.”

Other troops who have deployed recently to Afghanistan say the so-called insider attacks that have killed dozens of U.S. service members have affected their views of the war and undermined their trust in the Afghan troops they were assigned to train and mentor.

“We didn’t trust them at all. It was kind of an inside joke — but not so much a joke as a reality — that the unit we trained with was infiltrated [with insurgents],” said an Army staff sergeant who deployed there in 2011.

Back home, some troops are troubled by news reports of Afghan President Hamid Karzai making repeated public statements suggesting that the Afghans do not appreciate the U.S. military’s efforts.

“There has definitely been a deteriorating relationship [with the Afghan government] and I think that has got everyone scratching their heads,” said a Marine lieutenant colonel who works at the Pentagon.

The latest outburst from the Afghan government came March 19, when a spokesman for Karzai said “the Afghan people consider this war as aimless and unwise to continue.”

About 66,000 U.S. troops are now deployed to Afghanistan. President Obama’s current policy calls for the removal of most combat troops by the end of 2014.

In the Military Times Poll, 38 percent of troops believe the withdrawal should happen more quickly. A roughly equal number say 2014 is an appropriate time to bring the troops home, while about 24 percent remain strong supporters of the mission and believe a substantial number of troops should remain there beyond that date.

Reponses to the Military Times Poll mirror those of the general public. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington asked: “How well is the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan going?” About 53 percent of respondents said “not too well” or “not well at all.”

A Navy chief petty officer who spent part of 2012 in Afghanistan training local police said he understands and shares the pessimism, but he tries not to focus too much on the war’s broader strategic questions.

“It’s a really touchy subject,” the Navy chief master-at-arms said. “The politicians are going to make their decisions. People at my level, on my playing field, we don’t really have a stake in it. We follow the directives from the commanders and the ones put in charge.”

The survey shows that troops’ views on the Iraq War also have shifted since the withdrawal of U.S. forces there in late 2011. Some 54 percent of troops in this year’s poll said the Iraq War was a success — a solid majority, but a huge drop from the 72 percent who felt that way just two years ago.

“I think that’s just from watching the news. You know, how many bombings occurred [in Iraq] last night?” said Army Lt. Col. Gary Mann, who commands a chemical weapons-response battalion in Texas.

“After we left, the sectarian violence took over again, and the indicators are that it’s not going well. But … you won’t really be able to determine success or failure for at least another decade.”

Troops’ changing politics

The military’s longtime affinity for the Republican brand appears to be fading, as a growing number of self-described conservatives now say they are independents or libertarians, according to the latest annual Military Times Poll.

About 36 percent of troops surveyed this year expressed support for the GOP, a big drop since 2006, when about half of all troops identified as Republicans, according to the poll of more than 2,100 active-duty officers and enlisted members.

Yet the underlying political sentiments among troops have changed little. Those describing themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative” dropped only slightly during that same six-year period, to 41 percent this year compared with 44 percent in 2006, the surveys show.

Troops offer a range of possible factors behind that shift, such as the changing dynamics within the Republican Party.

“It may have to do with the rise of the tea party movement,” said a Marine lieutenant colonel who described himself as conservative and agreed that he feels less connected with today’s GOP.

He said the military “may be a more ‘independent’ conservative crowd.”

The poll suggests limited support in the ranks for tea party-style conservatism. Among troops who described themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative,” only 18 percent said they were strong tea party supporters. About half expressed limited support, and about 30 percent explicitly distanced themselves from the tea party.

Other troops suggest the recent budget battles on Capitol Hill, in which a growing number of Republicans are coming out in support of cutting the defense budget, also have eroded some support for the party.

“Republicans kind of used to be seen as the party that took care of the military,” said one Army sergeant first class. “But recently, there’s a feeling that that has kind of shifted, and I don’t think people feel that the party is really looking out for the military the way it used to.”

The erosion of support for the Republican Party in the poll is reflected almost exclusively in growth among independents and libertarians.

The data show no increased support for the Democratic Party; about 14 percent of respondents to the latest poll call themselves Democrats, about the same as in 2006. But those identifying as independents ticked up to 25 percent, from 22 percent in 2006, and libertarian representation tripled, from 3 percent in 2006 to 9 percent today.

Some troops say the slip in GOP support may have roots in the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War.

“I think that has something to do with … the things we were told [by] a Republican administration that turned out to be wrong,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Chang, who describes himself as a moderate.

Others say the shift simply reflects a disdain for the entire political system and the two major parties.

“They both lie and they both say things they think you want to hear,” said a Navy chief petty officer based in Florida.

How we did it: Our methodology

The 2013 Military Times Poll is the latest in a series of efforts to gauge the attitudes and opinions of a crucial but hard-to-measure group: U.S. service members.

To gather military opinions, Military Times began with a list of more than 100,000 current and former subscribers to Army Times, Navy Times, Marine Corps Times and Air Force Times who provided their email addresses. In addition, Military Times posted links to the confidential, voluntary poll on its website and social media pages, inviting online readers to participate. The survey software includes security measures to ensure that online users can take the survey only once.

From Jan. 28 through March 4, a total of 2,121 active-duty members, 768 National Guard or Reserve members and more than 2,900 retirees participated. The figures cited in the accompanying stories reflect only those respondents who said they were active-duty members or currently mobilized reservists.

Chart totals may not equal 100 percent because of rounding.

Junior officers are defined as those in officer paygrades O-3 and below, and junior enlisted members as those in paygrades E-5 and below.

Although public opinion pollsters use random selection to survey the general public, the Military Times Poll is based on responses from those who chose to participate. As such, it’s impossible to calculate statistical margins of error commonly reported in opinion surveys, because those calculations depend on random sampling techniques.

The poll’s voluntary nature could affect the results, as could the dependence on email and the online format because characteristics of email users and online readers may differ from those of the overall military population.

The group surveyed is older than the military as a whole and also has a higher percentage of officers than is in the military as a whole. Conversely, junior enlisted troops, women, and racial and ethnic minorities made up a smaller share of the sample than of the military at large. How those factors affect the results is difficult to predict.

However, given that the demographics represented in this survey have held relatively steady for the past several years, we believe the trends in our data can serve as a bellwether for changing attitudes and experiences among military personnel as a whole.

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