The Department of Defense and the Army fail to incentivize and compensate sergeants major at the senior commander level, as demonstrated by increasing authority and responsibility without comparable pay and retirement benefits. Given a focus on people first and being a personnel-based service, the Army needs to initiate a campaign with DoD to petition Congress for the establishment of an E-10 pay grade.
The failure to incentivize and compensate sergeants major at the senior commander level becomes apparent when comparing the pay grade progression of commissioned officers and sergeants major from the organization to the strategic level. Unfortunately, the discrepancy results in the most competent sergeants major with the highest levels of potential retiring from the military before the mandatory retention control point. These circumstances degrade the Army’s ability to compete for and retain the best talent across the public and private sectors.
Overall, defense pay compensation remains comparable to civilian counterparts. When last reviewed by DoD in 2019, regular military compensation sat at the 85th percentile of comparable education civilian wages for active component enlisted personnel and at the 77th percentile for active component officers, well above the DoD recommended level of the 70th percentile.
For junior enlisted personnel and young NCOs, the future may be bright. In June, the House Appropriations Committee voted for a historic pay increase. If the bill becomes law, basic compensation will grow by 5.2% for all military personnel, effective Jan. 1, 2024, and an additional average of 30% for junior enlisted service members. However, the bill does not provide for targeted pay increases for senior enlisted service members.
The sergeant major pay structure remains stagnant despite these soldiers gaining new authority and responsibilities over time. Meanwhile, commissioned officers continue to advance in rank with significant pay increases. From a formal leadership and command perspective, sergeants major serve first with a lieutenant colonel, then retain the same pay grade, E-9, with only a nominal year of service salary increase.
At the same time, officers increase in grade from O-5 to O-10, which correlates with significant base pay increases. From a staff perspective, the sergeant major first serves with a major, broadening the E-9 duties to the O-4 grade.
While enlisted personnel do not carry the same authority and responsibilities as officers, especially at the general officer level, enlisted authorities and responsibilities increase correspondingly with level of command. Despite the increased authority and responsibility, enlisted personnel remain in the E-9 pay grade, creating a stagnation in retirement pay.
For example, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and then-Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, the service’s most senior officer and enlisted member, retired in early August with 42 years and 36 years of service, respectively. McConville earned $17,675.10 in monthly basic compensation and, with 40-plus years of service, will earn 100% of that amount every month for the remainder of his life.
Conversely, Grinston earned $9,786 in basic monthly compensation and, with 36 years of service, will earn 90%, or $8,807.40, in monthly retirement, less than half the amount of McConville. Even if Grinston had retired with 40 years of service, his monthly retirement would have remained 55% of McConville’s.
The average sergeant major retires at 26.8 years across DoD, which most closely aligns with colonels, who typically retire at 27 years. In this instance, a colonel earns $13,310.70 in monthly basic compensation and, with 27 years of service, will earn 67.5%, or $8,984.72 in monthly retirement.
Conversely, a sergeant major earns $8,121.60 in monthly basic compensation and, with 27 years of service, will earn 67.5%, or $5,482.08 in monthly retirement. Despite serving the same period, the sergeant major earns $3,502.64 less than the colonel, which equates to 61% of the colonel’s retirement pay.
Retaining Senior Talent
According to a Department of the Army Career Engagement Survey released in November 2021, of nearly 38,000 soldiers exiting the Army, the top reasons for separating focused on family, with 51.9% of those surveyed citing the effects of deployments on family or personal relationships, 48.3% citing impacts of Army life on a significant other’s career plans and goals, 47.2% citing impacts of Army life on family plans for children, 43.6% citing the degree of stability or predictability of Army life and 43.2% citing the impact of military service on their family’s well-being.
Conversely, the survey found that 45.1% remain in service for retirement pay or benefits, and 37% remain in service for pay and benefits. The compensation differences, coupled with reasons for remaining in or departing from service, create a bleak picture of retaining the best senior talent.
Based on the average years of service for retirement, E-9s across DoD could serve at least three additional years, yet choose not to. The lack of opportunity for growth in base pay and retirement compensation likely influences a sergeant major’s decision about when to retire, especially when considering the additional roles and responsibilities at the senior command level. It’s likely the Army will lose even more talent in the future as new merit-based promotion policies in the Army allow enlisted personnel to achieve the rank of sergeant major more quickly, then retire with High-3 benefits. High-3 represents the highest average basic pay a soldier earns during three consecutive years of service—usually the final three years of service—for purposes of calculating retirement pay. The sergeant major with the highest levels of competence and capability will earn merit-based promotions and advance rapidly in the enlisted ranks; however, recognizing the inability for further advancement, individuals with the highest potential may seek retirement at the earliest opportunity to take advantage of other career opportunities.
DoD must establish an E-10 pay grade aligned to nominative positions to address this discrepancy. An E-10 grade would increase base pay and retirement compensation to a limited number of sergeants major who work directly for general or flag officers. To avoid any expansive growth in funding, the E-10 authorizations could align with the number of general and flag officers authorized by Section 526 of the U.S. Code. Once approved, the Army could use the current force structure and upgrade E-9 positions aligned to general officers to E-10 positions with minimal labor requirements and mission impact.
The Army fails to compensate sergeants major at the senior command level. NCOs serve as the backbone of the Army, and the sergeant major serves above all NCOs. As a sergeant major progresses to serve with senior commanders, a commissioned officer’s pay increases significantly, while a sergeant major’s pay remains stagnant, despite expanded roles and responsibilities.
The result: The most competent sergeants major retire at the first opportunity, weakening the Army in the war for talent. Establishing an E-10 grade across DoD is necessary to compensate senior sergeants major and retain talent across public and private industries.
* * *
Sgt. Maj. Henry Wilson is an Army Congressional Fellow in the office of Rep. Robert Aderholt, where he fulfills the duties of a military legislative assistant. Previously, he served as the Commander’s Initiative Group chief at the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Command. He has two master’s degrees: one in leadership and organizational communication from Northeastern University, Boston, and one in legislative affairs from George Washington University, Washington, D.C.