Since 2008 the U.S. Army has greatly reduced pay for troops in dangerous areas while continuing to provide bonus pay to entice troops to stay in jobs that require special skills or job responsibilities. This is called SDAP (special duty assignment pay) and comes in six levels (SD-1 to SD-6) with more money per month ($75 to $450) as you go from SD-1 to SD-6. So the army tries (with some success) to cope retain key people by offering troops SD pay, or more of it, when a particular job is losing to troops to more attractive civilian careers. Thus the army is spending $113 million on SDAP in 2015 for over 24,000 soldiers. That averages over $4,500 a year of additional pay for each soldiers receiving SD pay. An example of the adaptability of this pay was adding SD pay for troops capable of handling Cyber War jobs. In this area the monthly bonuses were $150, $225 and $300 a month depending on skill level.
Troops who get SD pay often find that their skills qualify them for similar civilian jobs, often for more money and always under more comfortable living conditions for them and their families. It’s cheaper to pay the SD bonuses than to replace the people with the needed skills.
SD pay is nothing new. The army, and other services, all have long used their own versions of SD pay, mostly for service in combat or other dangerous situations. Dangerous duty pay has been greatly reduced since most troops were withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2014 the military cut "imminent danger pay" ($225 for being in a combat zone) for American military personnel in some 20 places. This included most of the Persian Gulf countries, those serving off Somalia, personnel in Guantanamo Bay and most of those based in Central Asia. This saved about $100 million a year, and cost the some 50,000 troops the same amount. Over $300 million in imminent danger pay still went to troops in places like Afghanistan and other areas where there is definitely some imminent danger. This is another sign that the war on terror is winding down.
Until the war on terror came along the most dangerous assignment for American troops was the Balkans. You knew it was dangerous, because the mass media said it was, and the army was giving you the imminent danger bonus while you were there. Turned out that the place wasn't that dangerous. But none of the troops were complaining. There were very few combat injuries, and no combat deaths after over a decade of Balkans peacekeeping. Rather nice bases were built for the troops, and much attention was paid to base security. In addition to the combat and hazardous duty pay, there were the tax breaks (you did not have to pay taxes on what you made in a combat zone.) OK, there was no booze, and not much opportunity to party with the locals but at least you were making more money.
After September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq, the troops in Kosovo got razzed by their buddies going off to Iraq and Afghanistan. Collecting combat pay, when there was no combat, seemed too good to be true for the troops in the Balkans. It didn’t last and the imminent danger pay for the Balkans was cut, but by then there were few American troops left in there.
The U.S. military has several kinds of bonuses for troops going into dangerous areas. For example, although Haiti isn't a combat zone, U.S. troops serving there were given additional "special duty" pay for being in a disaster zone. In addition single troops get an additional $430 a month (Hardship, Temporary Duty and Imminent Danger pay), while married troops got the same plus an additional $250 a month for Family Separation.
This additional pay for a disaster relief mission arose from the several different special duty pay programs implemented since September 11, 2001. As a result, the Pentagon has been having difficulty in sorting out who qualifies for what. Some of these program ran into problems with technology. For example, the air force, faced with morale issues when pilots were switched to operating UAVs for three year tours, allowed them to continue getting flight pay. Some of the problems were bureaucratic. For example, active duty and reserve troops are entitled to different types of benefits. But when the reservists were activated, it was found that, while they were doing the same work as the active duty troops, especially in a combat zone, they were getting paid less. Worst of all, their dependents were eligible for fewer services. This has been a sore point for years, and the Department of Defense eventually had to do something about it.
One of the more irritating problems has been some troops gaming the system. For example, a soldier could fly into a "special pay" zone, stay or a day or two, and qualify for a months’ worth of special benefits. This annoyed the troops who are there all the time, as well as those who could exploit the system like this, but didn't. Efforts to crack down on this were more difficult.
The current "special duty pay" system began during World War II. Back then, the average enlisted soldier got paid (adjusted for inflation) about $500 a month. They received an extra $100 a month if they were overseas, and an extra $100 if they were in combat. Sailors were also given extra pay for being at sea, and flight crews got a similar bonus. Paratroopers did best of all, getting the equivalent of $500 a month extra. Ironically, paratroopers ended the war with a lower casualty rate than most regular infantry units. That was mainly because airborne units were pulled out of the fighting to be rebuilt and train for their next jump, while regular units just kept getting replacements while they continued fighting.
The "hazardous duty pay" concept continued after World War II, with more categories being added as the Cold War continued (until 1991). Eventually there was the "family separation allowance" ($250 a month for being away from your family), "imminent danger pay" ($225 for being in a combat zone) and "hazardous duty incentive pay" for particularly dangerous jobs (using a parachute regularly, working on a Carrier Flight Deck, Demolition/handling explosives Duty, Experimental Stress Duty, Handling Toxic Fuels or Propellants Duty, Handling Toxic Pesticides Duty, Dangerous Viruses or Bacteria Lab Duty, Handling Chemical Munitions). For some very dangerous jobs, like high altitude parachute (HALO) jumping, you get an extra $220 a month. This all adds up, increasing the pay of many troops by more than fifty percent.
Many senior officers are OK with dangerous duty bonuses, but don't want to set a precedent for extra pay for those who are inconvenienced. This "inconvenience pay" is a pet project among some politicians. The other side of the argument is that the dangerous duty pay IS an "inconvenience pay" issue. Getting shot at is an inconvenience and bad for morale. So is being away from your family and in a combat zone for extended periods of time.
What is often forgotten in all of this is that soldiers have always received "combat pay." Until the last century or so it was better known as plunder (given permission to loot enemy territory). In times past, the prospect of plunder was more of an incentive to join an army, than the promise of regular pay. It was like the lottery, and many soldiers got very rich. During the 14th century Hundred Years War between France and England, many English farmers joined up as archers, and came back wealthy men (after capturing a French aristocrat and holding him for a huge ransom). Since the 18th century, Western armies have gradually decreased the opportunities to loot, at least on a large scale and with permission. The whole "distress pay" concept says, in effect, "if some of you can't strike it rich, at least all of you will be a little better off," for going to war. Times change, but many customs don't go away.