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Amid War, Troops See Safety in Reenlisting

The military offers steady wages, housing and a health plan -- benefits that many service members find scarce in civilian life.

May 21, 2006|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

TACOMA, Wash. — The first time Staff Sgt. Matthew Kruger came home from Iraq, he and his wife, Maggie, went straight into marriage counseling. The second time, she threatened to divorce him if he didn't get out of the Army. The separations were tearing them apart. So in July, to save his seven-year marriage, Kruger quit the service.

Then he looked around the job market, and it didn't take long to figure out that leaving the Army held its own perils. Nothing offered him the financial security of his military job -- especially the generous health coverage for his wife and three small children.

And so, 29 years old and with no other place to turn, Kruger spent his first full day of freedom at a military processing center, signing up for four more years.

"We had nothing. We were scared," Maggie said recently, struggling to keep their rambunctious children entertained in a pizza parlor outside the Ft. Lewis military base. "We suddenly realized there was no way to take the kids to the doctor or dentist for any little reason, as we had been used to."

For Kruger, who returned to a war zone for his third tour in December, the danger of losing his family's health insurance was more real and immediate than the danger of dying in combat.

At military installations around the country, other families cling to the modest but steady wages, the guaranteed housing allowance, the solid retirement plan and the health benefits of the armed forces.

Although the Army missed its recruitment goals last year, in part because of the Iraq war, retention continues at record levels. Reenlistments this year are running 20% above the Army's goal, despite the long overseas deployments. Two out of three soldiers eligible to reenlist do so.

For many service members, it's a matter of balancing risk: Within the military, multiple deployments are commonplace, and more than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and 18,000 have been wounded. Outside the military, 46 million people in the U.S. have no health insurance, and those who do pay increasingly higher prices for it.

"It used to be that General Motors had a health plan equally as generous as the military," said Susan Hosek, a senior economist specializing in military benefits at Rand Corp., a nonpartisan think tank based in Santa Monica. "But GM has cut their benefits, while the military has maintained the level of benefits and even improved it. Being in the military is a risky occupation, but in other ways, it's very secure."

Sixty percent of large companies offered health coverage last year, down from 69% in 2000, and the coverage that is available costs more. Traditional pensions are becoming less common.

The military has moved in the opposite direction. The $12 medical co-payment was cut to zero in 2001. Dental care is cheap. Plus, active-duty pensions are guaranteed after 20 years.

Although the generous benefits package may not matter as much to young, healthy recruits, it is a valuable component for the married soldier with children.

Kruger, a finance specialist now serving in Qatar, has a 6-year-old son, Timothy, with eczema. Madison, 5, was born with a heart condition. Aidan, 4, struggles with aggression. Financially, at least, the war was the safest place for their father to be.

The Army might be considered one of the most family-friendly employers in America, if only the demands of the job didn't pull families apart.

As if to underscore the paradox, the financial incentives get better when a soldier goes to war. Income becomes tax-free; so are the bonuses. There is extra pay for family separation and hardship duty. That comes on top of basic pay, which starts at about $15,000 a year for someone newly enlisted and climbs with rank and length of service.

"The Army has a saying: We enlist soldiers, we reenlist families," said Master Sgt. David Best, a career counselor in charge of retention at Ft. Lewis. As he talked, a young specialist stood against a backdrop of flags and a cannon to take an oath to serve five more years. It was about the 30th such ceremony here in two days.

"We aggressively go after our people, saying, 'We care about you.' We need the continuity, we need the experience," he said. "Certainly no one is getting rich by staying in the Army, so what is it that makes them stay?"

Air Force Staff Sgt. Alex Myers, 24, said that for him, it was Emilie Reese Myers, due to be born any day now -- very much wanted but very much unexpected. The plan had been to leave the military in November when his initial enlistment was up. His job is to provide close air support to Army units, a dangerous specialty at which he excels.

One day, Myers found himself on patrol in combat-ravaged Ramadi, Iraq, bullets flying, his comrades under fire in a nearby sector. He tried to get clearance for an airstrike to assist them, but his superiors decided the Iraqi army should handle things.

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