When I compare my first deployment to Afghanistan with my second deployment to Iraq, one thought remains lodged in my cerebellum: I didn’t deserve my combat pay.
My first deployment, to eastern Afghanistan in 2007, sent me as part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade to Korengal Valley, which Vanity Fair dubbed the “valley of death.” Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, a soldier in my battalion, last year became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. Twenty-four of our battalion’s soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice.
We slept on cots. I roomed with eight other people. In the winter, snowmelt leaked through our roof. In the summer, temperatures routinely passed 100 degrees and our AC units would crash. It took several minutes to get hot water in the shower, if it came. Food consisted of two warm trays of heated . . . stuff, if we didn’t eat MREs. A snowstorm could knock out the satellite television feed and the Internet, as one did on Super Bowl Sunday.
In short, conditions were spartan.
As for my most recent tour, I don’t tell people I deployed to Baghdad. I say that I deployed to Victory Base Complex (VBC) — the largest, most luxurious base wartime soldiers have ever had the pleasure of visiting. I never set foot in Baghdad proper. The only gunshots I heard were from our shooting range. I never fired a weapon or rode in a convoy or on a helicopter. The only improvised explosive devices I saw were in pictures.
On our compound, the water was always warm (sometimes too warm). The chow hall had a Caesar salad bar, a sandwich bar, an ice cream freezer, and shrimp and steak Fridays. My (personal) room had a working AC unit and Internet connection. VBC hosted multiple PXs, coffee shops and nightly dance parties. I could buy pillows, microwaves, televisions or any video game.
Conditions were plush.
Yet as different as these deployments were, I earned the same benefits for them. (Actually, since I was promoted between deployments, I got paid a lot more the second time.) My tax exemption was probably as much as some soldiers earn in base pay. And since I left Iraq, I can’t shake the feeling that I didn’t deserve my combat pay. I can’t stop thinking about my deployment: Why should I have received hostile-fire pay when no one died on VBC while I was there? I still hated leaving my wife for Iraq, but I can admit that VBC doesn’t compare to Konar province.
Given the debate over the federal budget, I wonder whether Congress could find some savings by restricting what places are deemed combat zones. There is a mammoth difference between life on our bases in Bahrain and the company-size combat outposts or forward operating bases (FOB) in rural Afghanistan. Should troops on all these bases earn the same combat entitlements? Consider:
l Every general (and aide) who attended the change of command in Iraq last August earned two months’ worth of combat pay even if they spent only a handful of days in Iraq. Combat benefits pay out for the month you arrive and the month you leave, not how many days you are in theater. Holding the ceremony on the first of the month, not in the middle, cost our government tens of thousands of dollars.
l Pilots who fly into the Bagram air base in Afghanistan earn a month’s worth of combat pay for a single trip. Pilots who fly over Afghanistan in support of ground operations earn the same combat pay as the infantrymen on the ground, even though no fixed-wing plane has been shot down by the enemy in this war.
l The thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines deployed to Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait earn the same tax-exempt benefits as the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sailors in Bahrain can bring their families to live with them while still earning $225 a month in imminent-danger pay.
Military commanders say: Don’t just complain about the problem; offer a solution. Here are mine: First, Congress should review which countries qualify for hostile-fire pay, imminent-danger pay and the combat zone tax exclusion. Second, generals, their civilian counterparts and aides should have their combat benefits prorated by day, not by month. Third, a Defense Department committee should revamp our combat pay and benefits to encourage combat deployments, not deployments to forward operating bases. (A good rule of thumb is how close you keep your body armor. If you’re wearing it, it’s combat.)
I absolutely do not mean to disparage troops who deploy but don’t see combat. Yet our country needs to recognize and reward the sacrifices of those who really do fight on the front lines. I’ve learned to live with my deployment, but I can’t live with our military’s benefits system. The documentary “Restrepo,” about the Korengal Valley experience, illustrates why men there deserve way more than 225 bucks a month, the same amount earned by generals who live at VBC.
Michael Cummings writes and edits for www.onviolence.com, a blog on military and foreign affairs he co-publishes with his brother, a pacifist. He recently returned from Iraq.