updated 1/26/2006 6:16:48 AM ET 2006-01-26T11:16:48

Most military reservists who left their civilian jobs to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan made more money there than in their regular jobs, according to a study that contradicts the notion that citizen soldiers lose money when they go to war.

The study, by RAND’s National Defense Research Institute, found that 72 percent of the troops surveyed made more while on war duty in 2002 or 2003 than they did in their civilian jobs in 2001. More than half made at least $10,000 more.

On average, the reservists made $850 more per month while on duty than in their civilian jobs, the report found.

It went on to say, however, that there is still a sizable number — 28 percent — of the reservists who lost money, including some who saw their earnings drop by more than 10 percent.

Higher salaries, combat pay supplements, family separation allowances and tax-free earnings all have combined to boost troops’ pay on the front lines. But RAND senior economist Jacob Alex Klerman said researchers are still working to understand why this study differs so dramatically from earlier surveys and anecdotal reports about families struggling to get by when a primary wage-earner went to war.

Klerman said the study uses earnings data supplied by the Social Security Administration, and therefore is likely to be more accurate than earlier surveys, which often relied on information volunteered by soldiers. Also, he said, those surveys did not reflect the fact that reservists serving in combat zones do not pay federal income taxes on their pay.

“You should not interpret this as saying no one has losses,” said Klerman. “We need to think carefully about what is the appropriate response for those people with losses.”

Less of a problem than believed
Still, he said, since earnings losses are less of a problem than earlier surveys suggested, legislative efforts to supplement reservists’ pay may not be as necessary or require as much funding as previously thought.

He said the study does not imply that reserve pay is adequate. Those troops, he emphasized, are still getting shot at, sleeping in tents and spending months away from their families.

Noting that some reservists are in school, and therefore have no jobs or a very low-paying jobs, Klerman said the study also broke out earnings for those who made at least $10,000 or more in their civilian jobs. Even in those cases, he said, reservists made an average of nearly $7,000 more while on duty.

Overall, the study looked at 212,500 reservists and compared their civilian pay in 2001 to the amount they made while on duty in either 2002 or 2003.

To get a good idea of the impact on a full year’s pay, it also provided statistics for the 51,200 reservists who were at their regular jobs for most if not all of 2001, and then on duty for more than 271 days in either 2002 or 2003. For those reservists the study found:

  • The average civilian pay was $39,300, compared with $56,400 while on combat duty.
  • 83 percent made more on duty than at their civilian jobs.
  • 66 percent saw their pay increase more than $10,000 while on duty.
  • 7 percent lost more than $10,000 while on duty.

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