Special pays are very different from combat pay. There’s a slew of special pays out there. This makes it quite complicated for a new military servicemember (or perspective one) to figure out how much they can anticipate getting paid on a monthly basis. Pay periods are on the 1st and 15th of the month so expect to get paid twice monthly.
For instance, as a SEAL we would get regular Navy pay, dive pay, demolition pay, hazardous-duty pay, and parachute pay. In addition to that, we would receive off base housing allowance (BAH) which varies by geographic location. Hawaii is more expensive than Virginia, for example, so a servicemember would get more BAH living in Hawaii than VA.
When deployed to a combat zone there are multiple factors that determine how much combat compensation pay the servicemember is eligible for. It is mostly depending on geographic location.
Typically while deployed to a combat zone, military members are eligible to receive their contract bonuses 100 percent tax-free, as well. This can be substantial for an E-7 SEAL who is looking at a bonus of $150,000.
Combat Pay Explained by Defense.gov
“The principal justification for combat compensation is to recognize military personnel who face significant combat risk. In the past, there was a direct relationship between the risk faced by military personnel and the combat compensation they received. For example, Badge Pay was initially only awarded to front-line units in World War II. That relationship has eroded over time, through numerous actions taken since WWII, to broaden coverage.
Today some members who are in declared combat zones are subject to little risk and receive all elements of combat compensation; others who are in hostile situations but not in combat zones do not fully receive combat compensation. Examining casualty rates, both killed-in-action and wounded-in-action, we find many areas in designated combat zones give rise to very little risk (e.g., Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, as well as ships in the combat zone)—more than half of the countries in combat zones have zero casualty rates. Surveys show that military members recognize their combat-zone deployments are often not dangerous.
Eligibility for combat compensation is determined by the designation and management of combat zones. Military members deployed to areas of combat or to combat support operations receive hostile fire pay/imminent danger pay (HFP/IDP) and the combat zone tax exclusion (CZTE). HFP/IDP provides $225 for any month or part of a month the member is deployed to a combat zone or to a designated imminent danger area.
In a designated combat zone, all pays and bonuses received by an enlisted member or warrant officer are excluded from the calculation of federal and state income taxes.”
Defense.gov makes a great point. What truly constitutes a combat zone should be reconsidered. A great paper on the subject can be found here. Plus, not every combat zone is created equal.
The video below also makes a great job at explaining military pay.
In Summary, Optimization Is Key
Military pay is complicated and should be thoroughly researched to optimize maximum pay and benefits to the warfighter. But, it’s up to you to learn how to optimize it.
An example is that you can claim a tax-free state of residence while stationed in California to avoid expensive CA state income taxes. You simply get an address in TX, FL, WY, or NV and file the form at the military pay office to avoid state tax withholdings.
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