I deserved my combat pay

Paul Hair Contributor
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The other day, I read an article in the Washington Post entitled “I didn’t deserve my combat pay.” The author, Michael G. Cummings, is right that some deployed servicemen have tougher lives than others. In fact, I readily admit that I had an easier life in Iraq than many other servicemen, especially the ones who deployed during the initial invasion.

Like Mr. Cummings, I too deployed to Victory Base Camp (VBC), although my experience seems to have been slightly different from his.

The Army assigned me to work in an office at VBC, and I only left the base a few times. Nonetheless, I remained gainfully employed throughout my deployment. I worked seven days a week (although I occasionally got days off) for 12, 14, 16, or more hours per day. I think the longest I worked during one shift was around 30 hours, but I might be wrong about that.

I don’t dispute the conditions on VBC that Mr. Cummings describes. But I don’t believe that means that troops there, or on other forward operating bases (FOBs), do not deserve combat pay.

I can also sympathize with Mr. Cummings when he writes, “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.” And like Mr. Cummings, I agree that we shouldn’t just complain about a problem; we should offer solutions to it. Therefore, I suggest that if members of Congress feel that some troops deserve more combat pay than others, they should consider raising the deserving troops’ combat pay instead of reducing the combat pay of the rest. (Congress currently is considering increasing combat pay in general, so now is an excellent time to address this issue.)

It may seem like I missed Mr. Cummings’ point that, “Given the debate over the federal budget, I wonder whether Congress could find some savings by restricting what places are deemed combat zones.” But actually I didn’t miss his point; I just find it odd to suggest cutting the combat pay of troops in order to save money. After all, defense is one of the few things that our Constitution allows, and cutting combat pay would hardly make a dent in the deficit.

I’d only support cutting combat pay on one condition: we trim the rest of the federal budget first. And for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that the cuts that John Stossel suggests in “I Can Balance the Budget” are a prerequisite for any potential negotiations on combat pay cuts. (And yes, I realize that Mr. Stossel suggests cuts to the Defense Department). If we accept the idea that some servicemen receive undeserving combat pay while deployed in a war zone, then every other federal worker’s job should be reviewed to see if their entire pay is undeserved.

For instance, some State Department workers hinted at refusing to deploy to Iraq in 2007, with one saying that it was a “potential death sentence.” Something similar may have happened in 2009 when State Department workers refused to go to Afghanistan. I’m not sure what the final outcome of either of these incidents was, but if the State Department workers in question ultimately refused to deploy, they should have been fired and barred from ever being employed by the federal government again. In other words, if they refused to deploy (or if they complained enough that the government tasked someone else with taking their place) and still are employed by the federal government, then all — not just a portion — of their pay is undeserved.

But it’s not just people like these State Department workers who should have their jobs reviewed. Before cutting the combat pay of troops who are following orders, we should review the salary of every federal employee. If other federal employees follow Mr. Cummings’ lead and admit to feeling guilty about receiving pay they don’t deserve, then the process could be very simple.

However, I realize that this will never happen. Therefore, I stand by my belief that the combat pay standards for troops are generally fair. And while Mr. Cummings and others may believe that they didn’t earn their combat pay, I know I earned mine.

Paul Hair serves in the U.S. Army Reserve as a non-commissioned officer. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and wrote or contributed to approximately 50 reports and assessments while in Iraq on an eight-month deployment during 2009-2010. He has worked as a civilian in both the government and private sectors. His views are his own and he in no way represents the Army Reserve or any other part of the U.S. government.