In 2004 I was a junior enlisted soldier working on a Human Intelligence Team in Iraq. In my headquarters unit back at home base we had a contractor who made something like 180k a year. He stayed on base, made bank, had good food and air conditioning while my team was running essentially 24/7 combat ops for 365 days. It sucked and it was grueling and I was jealous and directed my anger towards this contractor. 10 Years later I find myself deployed for my 4th time – 2nd as a contractor in Afghanistan and thinking back to how I viewed this man makes me feel ignorant, naive & immature.
Pay: Yes they probably make more direct income than you. No they probably do not have the benefits as you – not even close. I have done the calculation and so have Government auditing agencies and it is far more expensive to deploy a soldier to war for a year than a contractor. On top of that if you calculate your total benefits – and lets not even include health – suddenly your salary goes up much higher. Consider adding your GI Bill benefits or Loan repayment benefits and training and food and full income including housing together and divide that by how many years you served and tell me again how a contractor making 120k for a year in Iraq or Afghanistan makes more than you.
Never ask how much they make. If anything this is good training for the civilian world where you generally do not know how much your supervisors and colleagues make. Only in government employee land are you able to accurately tell how much someone makes based off their rank albeit O-4, E7 or GS-14. People generally do not get out of the military and come back into it as a contractor because they love the work – often they need the work. Ask any contractor how much child support, college loans or alimony they pay every month and that will give you a better idea about whether contractors are rolling in cash.
Service: I cannot begin to count how many times someone asked me “You were in the Military??!!” I always responded with “No, I studied “Armyology” in college. Yes of course I was in the military you jackass, how else would I have gained the skills & clearance for this job. Nearly every contractor I have ever worked with – at least 9 out of 10 – were either prior service or still in the reserves. They will respect your service if you respect theirs.
Proficiency: Most contractor positions I have reviewed or worked on required at least a 4 Year degree and 4 years of experience plus a clearance or certification for that particular position. Few contractors “walked into” their position because they simply applied online. Most have a 4 year degree and at least a term of service under their belt which is more than you can say for probably 50% of the military that. This means they are probably fairly educated and skilled to do the job they were hired to do. Never try to compare your contractor to your Private by saying “this guy gets paid 150k to do a job that my Private does” – no, your private probably does not have a BA, Top Secret clearance & over a decade of experience in this field.
Camaraderie: My best time (and least paid) was my first 6 months deployed to Afghanistan with 1st Cavalry Division. The Director of our sections was Colonel who ensured the 3 civilians (two GS and one contractor) were always included in every unit function. This made us feel as part of the team, to a degree that we were in the unit, because quite frankly in a world of individual augmenters, contractors, civilian employees, guardsmen, reservists & cross-service joint ops; we were. This led to an amazing working environment where I had no problem working 15 and occasionally 18 hour days despite only being required to work 12 and only annotating 12 on my time sheet. I was part of that unit and my performance reflected this.
Contrast this when the new unit came in and the Director was now a LTC who banished civilians from unit meetings, VIP visit invitations and once straight up kicked me out of a meeting despite me being the SME on the topic that we were engaging. This guy ended up splitting the unit by effectively pushing out and marginalizing the civilians (at the time we comprised of roughly a third of the section) to the point of counter-productivity.
Continuity: I spent nearly 2 years on my first tour as a contractor in Afghanistan, my coworker who arrived a month after me (a GS Civilian Employee) ended up spending 2.5 years. I watched three units come through and each one changed everything they and often back again when they realized it did not work. We truly held the continuity of wisdom in that section. We had a longer memory and had attempted the same job multiple ways learning which worked and which didn’t. It would for lack of a better word behoove you to at least take into consideration your contractors’ advice