COMMENTARY: What are your benefits?

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- Have you ever really thought about the benefits we receive as members of the military? Regardless of a military member's career path, great benefits are guaranteed but often either misunderstood or taken for granted. I would like to share some information about them.

The first benefit all Airmen are aware of is our pay. All Air Force members receive regular pay increases based on rank and duration of time in service. They also receive a yearly cost-of-living increase, a yearly clothing allowance, a monthly food allowance and are eligible for tax-free housing. Some career fields even receive special incentive pay, substantial annual bonuses and/or continued educational opportunities.

Another benefit offered through the Air Force is healthcare with benefits offered at competitive insurance rates. As Airmen and dependants, we receive comprehensive medical and dental care, and service members receive full pay and allowances for any sick days taken.

Additionally, Airmen who achieve the rank of technical sergeant are eligible for retirement after 20 years of service -- one of the earliest retirements anywhere! Another great aspect of an Airman's retirement plan is that it doesn't require payroll deductions from one's salary while on active duty.

When it comes to housing, lower ranking enlisted Airmen live in dormitories located on base. Higher ranking enlisted Airmen, married members and officers have the option to live in on-base housing or apartments; their living expenses (including utilities and maintenance) are covered by the Air Force. If they decide to live off base, they receive a monthly tax-free housing allowance based on their rank and geographic location.

Finally, the Air Force provides a food allowance. Military members receive a Basic Allowance for Subsistence. Enlisted Airmen residing in the dorms are eligible to receive "Rations in Kind" meal accounts allowing them to eat as many as four meals a day for free in the on-base dining facility, which provides a nice variety of "home-cooked" meals as well as fast-food options.

There are other benefits I think we take for granted, and I bet a lot of non-military families wish they had access to. These benefits are actually considered base organizations.

One of these is the Defense Commissary Agency. DECA provides groceries to military personnel, retirees and their families in a safe and secure shopping environment. Although there is a surcharge of 5 percent, this cost covers maintaining existing commissaries and building new ones. Shoppers still save an average of 30 percent on their purchases compared to commercial prices!

Another benefit is the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. I used to think AAFES ran the world because not only does AAFES operate our Base Exchange, Bxtra, gas stations, shoppettes and clothing sales, it also operates in more than 30 countries and in all 50 states in some form or another. It operates our car care centers as well as our book stores, and concessions and restaurants on our installations. Lastly, approximately two thirds of AAFES earnings are paid back into the military Morale, Welfare and Recreation funds. In fact, over the last 10 years, AAFES has contributed $2.4 billion towards MWR activities. Thank you AAFES!

The last benefit I'll highlight is our Airman and Family Readiness Centers. These facilities provide services and activities focused on community readiness and personal and family preparedness. These benefits include relocation services, employment counseling for families, local area information, loan lockers for new arrivals, personal financial management in the form of budgets and counseling, Air Force Aid Society assistance and Falcon Loans (small personal loans). These are just a few services; there is much more they can do for you! For more information about the A&FRC programs, call DSN 238-3406 or commercial at 01638 543406.

These are several of the "hidden gems" within the military, and I hope you will continue to support and utilize these benefits.

Editor's Note: The information in this article came from www.airforce.com/benefits. Please visit the website for further details.