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The added benefits and incalculable hardships faced by U.S. troops make it difficult to compare their pay to similar careers in the private sector, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Past studies have shown that servicemembers are compensated favorably when compared to their civilian counterparts, especially when adding in benefits such as food, housing and health care. For instance, a 2006 study by CNA Corp., sponsored by the Department of Defense, found that enlisted servicemembers earned an average of $4,700 more per year than comparable civilians, while officers made $11,700 more. Add in health care, retirement and additional tax breaks, and the difference between military and civilian pay jumped to $13,360 for enlisted servicemembers and $24,870 for officers.

Yet the GAO report, which was released Friday, said the military might be underestimating compensation because past studies often failed to take into account health benefits, retirement, commissary privileges, burial expenses and other forms of payment, such as hazardous duty pay or signing bonuses.

The GAO study — required by the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act — compared troops’ pay and benefits with those of comparably situated private-sector employees to assess how the differences affect recruiting and retention of members of the armed forces.

For some careers, the GAO found when benefits such as health care, retirement and commissary privileges are added in, serving in the military might be more lucrative: a military registered nurse’s total compensation is $37,000 more than a civilian nurse’s, according to GAO estimates. And a military truck driver earns about $13,500 more than a civilian driver, according to the GAO. But in other sectors, such as information technology, civilians are better paid.

Still, the GAO noted that comparisons between compensation packages in military and civilian careers are often nebulous because the benefits provided by military service can easily shift. The study recommended the DOD standardize an assessment method for making year-to-year comparisons.

While recruiters are eager to tout the military compensation, they are less likely to discuss the fact troops often deploy to places where they could die, the study found. The study also said there are other hardships unique to servicemembers, including hardscrabble working conditions, myriad deployments with long separations from family members, and frequent moves that make it harder for spouses to establish careers in one place.

“Nonmonetary considerations complicate military and civilian pay comparisons because their value cannot be quantified,” the report said.

Another challenge when comparing civilian and military compensation packages is the military cannot hire experienced employees. The military must grow and train its leaders because there is no outside labor market for an infantry battalion commander. Therefore, the loss of such an experienced commander to the private sector must be taken into account when total compensation packages and bonuses for troops are calculated.

“Unlike nearly all other organizations, the uniformed services have closed personnel systems,” the report said. “By contrast, most other organizations can and do hire from the outside at all levels. Thus, the failure to meet recruiting or retention goals at lower levels in a given year can have significant consequences for a service’s ability to produce experienced leaders for years to come.”

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