As a U.S. Marine helicopter pilot, an entry was made in my Aug. 27, 1982, leave and earnings statement
As a U.S. Marine helicopter pilot, an entry was made in my Aug. 27, 1982, leave and earnings statement as follows: “Aviation Officer Continuation Pay Onetime entry $7,736.40.”
This was the first of three installments of $7,700 paid over a three-year period, comprising a pilot “bonus” (as we called it then) of $30,000 (minus taxes) paid to keep me in the Marine Corps for three more years. The airlines were hiring, so the Marines were having difficulty retaining pilots who were near the 10 years of service mark.
Once Marines get past the 10-year mark, it’s harder to leave active duty. Beyond 10 years of service, they’re on the downhill slide toward a 20-year retirement and less inclined to look for greener grass on the other side of the fence. The bonus was intended to capture those Marines who weren’t quite there yet and hold them to beyond the 10-year mark.
Paying pilots a bonus was a way to maintain skill and experience levels and to balance the “future force.” Without the required number of captains available to be promoted to major and then lieutenant colonel and beyond, the force could become unbalanced both in skills and rank structure. And it was less costly to pay experienced pilots an extra $30,000 to retain them then it would have cost to train new pilots.
For a Marine captain with a wife and two small kids making about $3,000 a month (that $3,000 included my base pay plus my normal monthly flight pay that pilots rate and the basic pay for housing expenses) back then, $30,000 seemed like a lot of money. For the record, though, I have only one item left in my possession purchased with a portion of that bonus: a burgundy leather upholstered easy chair still in our living room.
So it wasn’t all that much money after all. I think we bought a now long gone used car with a part of that bonus, too. And we may have put some of it into the kids’ college accounts. I honestly can’t remember.
Still, Marines being paid bonuses for “doing their jobs” has been contentious and remains so. The policy individualizes Marines, making one (he who gets the bonus) appear more important — more valued — than another. Marines know fundamentally that they’re one team, one fight. A bonus eats away at that concept.
Paying a bonus sticks in the craw of many “mud Marines,” as it should. Ground-pounders work as hard as aviators do. Paying a bonus, while a business decision, weakens the sacrificial “code” under which Marines serve and the “we’re all in this together” solidarity of the Marine Corps.
Even if bonuses erode teamwork just a little, they hurt the “all for one, one for all” mantra of the Corps. And really, any man or woman worth their genders would, if they were honest with themselves, prefer to be called “Marine” rather than “airman” or “airperson” or whatever silly genderless moniker the U.S. Air Force is being forced to adopt. There’s an intrinsic value — really a priceless one — to earning the title “Marine” that can’t be paid for by any bonus, regardless of the dollar amount. That’s worth a lot.
Apparently, though, the U.S. Air Force doesn’t place the same intrinsic value of their title “airperson.” They’ll pay an obscene amount to keep their pilots. CNBC staff writer Jeff Daniels wrote on Aug. 19, 2016 (www.cnbc.com/2016/08/19/air-force- paying-huge-retention-bonuses-to-fighter- pilots.htm) that, “Fighter pilot retention bonuses could soar to record heights of $400,000 or more, if the USAF has its way.”
On the other hand, Marines can’t work for free regardless of their sacrificial code or the intrinsic value of their title. Once Marine pilots catch on that their Air Force counterparts are getting the better part of half a million more pay than they’ll get, the Marine Corps will have to pay pilot bonuses again, too.
The airlines are hiring. Marine aviator captains — personnel of that rank reaching important decision points regarding whether to stay in uniform or get out — are critically short in some aviation military occupational specialties.
But we won’t see $400,000-plus bonuses for Marine pilots. Marines are not Air Force airpersons. A bonus of that princely sum wouldn’t fit the Marines’ sacrificial code and would erode USMC teamwork.
That $30,000 bonus I got paid 34 years ago would be, today, worth about $75,000 factoring inflation. Hopefully $75,000 and the thought of a burgundy leather upholstered easy chair still in their living room in 2050 will convince enough Marines to stay in the fight as flying Leathernecks.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.