For a young person just finishing high school, unsure about what he (or she) wants to do in life, the military offers glory, adventure, and the chance to serve one’s country. It also promises more tangible rewards: a steady job, money for college, the potential for career advancement. Military recruiters and advertisements rely on images of heroism and duty, but they also tout the practical benefits of service. The question is, do these promises pan out?
A new study from RAND finds that there are long-term career benefits to joining the military. Individuals who enlist see a short-term jump in earnings of about 40% and a longer-term income boost of about 10%, compared to what they would be expected to earn if they didn’t enlist. The long-term boost is mostly among people who stay in the military, suggesting that military service may not help you find a better-paying job outside the armed forces but can pay better than the private sector if you stick with it. (This analysis doesn’t even factor in the free healthcare and other valuable benefits veterans receive.)
Interestingly, military service has a limited impact on the likelihood of completing college. Funding for postsecondary education has been a big enticement to potential soldiers since the G.I. Bill passed over 60 years ago. The RAND study finds, however, that those who serve are slightly more likely to complete a two-year college degree but slightly less likely to complete a four-year degree than those who don’t enlist.
President Obama’s new policy to send formal condolence letters to the families of active duty soldiers who commit suicide has brought increased attention to the serious mental health challenges our troops face during their service and after they return home. Military suicide rates have reached record highs, nearly doubling in the past decade, and suicide now rivals the battlefield in the number of deaths it causes.
Of the 2.25 million American soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade, an estimated 20% report symptoms of PTSD or major depression. Unfortunately, only half of these individuals seek treatment each year and less than a third of those who do receive high-quality care that follows proven therapeutic models (known as EBT or “evidence-based treatment”).
The moral obligation to provide our soldiers and veterans with proper mental healthcare is strong enough for most citizens to insist it be a high priority, regardless of cost. A new RAND study shows that proper treatment also saves money by reducing the social costs of PTSD and depression among veterans. Though providing EBT to all soldiers who need it is more costly than the alternatives – less expensive, less effective treatment or none at all – in the end it more than pays for itself by increasing veterans’ productivity and ability to support themselves; reducing costs related to suicide; and diverting money wasted on ineffective treatment.
While military leaders have made increasing efforts to prevent suicide, much remains to be done. Providing proper mental healthcare for our troops is one of those rare issues where there is not only widespread agreement about what we should do, but the right choice is also the cost-effective one.
Invisible Wounds, Visible Savings? Using Microsimulation to Estimate the Costs and Savings Associated with Providing Evidence-Based Treatment for PTSD and Depression to Veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom
Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy // Beau Kilmer, Christine Eibner, Jeanne S. Ringel, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula // RAND // June 2011
(A brief summary of the study is available here.)