By Marilyn Lewis

Top-notch benefits, high-tech training and money for college make the armed forces a passport to middle-class stability — for those willing to accept the risk of combat.

Would you risk your life for a steady paycheck and a better future? That’s a question many high-school graduates who are considering military service face.

Their grandparents endured the draft and the likelihood of a tour in World War II, Korea or Vietnam. Their parents weighed careers in an all-volunteer military; the Cold War still loomed large, but prolonged combat was rare. The payoff was training and benefits that lifted generations of families into the middle class.

Today, the toll in Iraq continues to make headlines, yet the want ads aren’t exactly friendly, either: Even when the jobs are secure, the safety net of health insurance and retirement plans is not. Certainly, for some portion of the 1.4 million Americans currently on active duty, service is an economic decision as much as a patriotic one.

So the question persists: Does military service still pay?

On purely economic terms, the experts say yes. A high-school grad with few prospects and no way to pay for college can find unmatched benefits, marketable skills and bonuses for enlisting and then re-enlisting, even as much as $38,000 for later schooling.

“Military personnel in general make more than their civilian counterparts, except for the most senior of the senior,” says Beth Asch, a military manpower expert at Rand.

“Now you could say, on the one hand, (civilians are) not getting sent off to Iraq to get shot at. But on the other hand they’re not getting high-tech training which, once they leave, they can use in a civilian job.”

Obviously, military life isn’t for everyone. Your chances of success using today’s military as an economic springboard depend on three things:

• What you want: Are you looking for a career? A way to pay for school? Skills can use as a civilian?
• What you bring to the table: How willing are you to risk your life? Do you have any particular skill the military needs?
• The deal you cut when signing up.

Back in the day
A tour of duty sure paid off in Grandpa’s time. In World War II, 16 million Americans — about 12% of the population — put on a uniform. Around half those recruits used the GI Bill to get a college education, and when they got out of school, they swelled the American middle class.

“It’s an incredible story,” says Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “They became the scholars and the scientists and the captains of industry.”

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