Excerpts from Rod Power’s Articles in Military.Com. “What the Recruiter Never Told You”
Rod Powers has covered the US Military for About.com since 1999. He is the author of ASVAB for Dummies, Barrons’ Officer Candidate School Tests, Veterans Benefits for Dummies, ASVAB AFQT for Dummies, Basic Training for Dummies, and 1,001 ASVAB Practice Questions for Dummies. Rod is wholly familiar with military life, having been stationed or deployed to several bases around the world during his 22 years of service, before retiring as an E-8, First Sergeant. His military decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal with three oak-leaf clusters.
Use of this article is not an endorsement by the US Department of Defense and its subordinate agencies. Some of the information presented can change or become obsolete without notice. The resource is used solely as a general description of processes found within the public domain dealing with the military services’ recruiting environment. Excerpts are provided with permission of the author.
As I’ve said, most recruiters are honest. The purpose of this series is not to run down military recruiters, but rather inform potential recruits the truth about joining the military; the benefits and disadvantages of joining the military, whether for a four-year enlistment, or a 30-year military career. The subject matter of this series necessitates that the “tone” be somewhat critical, or negative. I don’t mean it that way. I spent 23 years in the Air Force and enjoyed every minute of it. My primary profession today is to manage this web site and research/write about the United States Military. Both of my daughters are happily serving in the Air Force (one on active duty, one in the Air National Guard). I love the military and every aspect of it.
However, the military is not for everyone. Fully 40 percent of recruits who enlist in the military today will not complete their full term of service. While many discharges will be for reasons beyond the recruit’s control, such as medical problems that develop after joining the military, as a First Sergeant for 11 years, I found that a significant number of the involuntary discharges we imposed on first-term recruits was because they simply stopped trying — they discovered that the military wasn’t what they thought it was going to be.
Should I Join the Military?
First and foremost, you should decide if you should even join the military. As I said, the military is not for everyone, and some people find that out too late. Ask yourself why you want to join the military? Do you need a job? Do you want to serve your country? Are you thinking of making the military a career, or just do a term or two? Is it for the college benefits? Is it to learn a trade? Do you want to travel the World for awhile? Just need some time to “mature?”
Before you join, recognize the fact that a stint in the military is not civilian employment. It’s not just like having a regular job. You can’t just up and quit anytime you want to (See article, Getting Out of the Military). You can go to jail just for being late for work. (Granted, it’s unlikely that a commander would impose non judicial punishment, or court-martial action the first time you are late for work, but it would be entirely legal for him/her to do so — See Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).) No matter how high your rank, no matter which service you join, there will always be someone telling you what to do, and when to do it. Many times you won’t like or agree with your orders, but you take a solemn oath to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the lawful orders of those appointed over you.” Disobeying those orders can have serious consequences. If you can’t live with this simple fact, save yourself and the government some valuable time and money, and don’t enlist. In a civilian job, if you don’t like your boss, or don’t like the job, you can simply quit. Not so, in the military. I get email all the time from recruits who just graduated basic training and/or technical school (job training), asking how they can “quit” the military. The short answer is that you can’t — unless it is for a valid hardship reason (i.e., someone in your immediate family is terminally ill, and your presence is required). The military can throw you out for several reasons, but you can’t simply quit because you don’t like it. If the military decides to throw you out (discharge you), the consequences of the discharge (depending on the type of discharge you’re granted) can follow you the rest of your life.
If you like to smoke a joint once in a while, don’t join. The military uses random, no-notice urinalysis, and — if you’re found positive, you may very well go to jail (as well as being discharged). The DOD urinalysis test can find THC in your urine for three weeks after you’ve smoked a joint.
The military is allowed to discriminate by gender. If you’re a woman, know that there are some jobs and positions which are not open to you (most in the Marines, fewest in the Coast Guard — in fact, all ratings are open to women in the Coast Guard). In a civilian job, if you don’t like your boss, or don’t like the job, you can simply quit. Not so, in the military. I get email all the time from recruits who just graduated basic training and/or technical school (job training), asking how they can “quit” the military. The short answer is that you can’t — unless it is for a valid hardship reason (i.e., someone in your immediate family is terminally ill, and your presence is required). The military can throw you out for several reasons, but you can’t simply quit because you don’t like it. If the military decides to throw you out (discharge you), the consequences of the discharge (depending on the type of discharge you’re granted) can follow you the rest of your life.
It’s often a good idea to bring a parent or relative (or better yet, someone who has served in the military) with you for your first visit.
However, make sure it’s someone you’re comfortable with. The recruiter is going to ask you many personal questions during that first interview (Have you ever used drugs?), just to make sure he knows your basic qualifications and whether or not he can afford to spend his/her valuable time with you. If you don’t want your parents to hear the truthful answer to these questions, you’re probably better off going alone. It’s a good idea to prepare a list of questions to ask, in advance.
Be as specific as possible. While most recruiters will not lie to you, remember that the recruiter lives or dies by the number of people he/she can recruit. He or she may not volunteer information which may chase away a potential quota. It’s up to you to ask pointed, specific, no-nonsense questions, and expect direct answers. Be very suspicious of any unclear, or vague answers. Always press for specifics. If in doubt, ask the recruiter to put the information in writing, and sign it, or to show you in the regulations, guides, or pamphlets that what he/she is saying is true.
If you’re joining the active duty Air Force or the active duty Navy, in most cases, you don’t want to ask too many questions about specific military jobs. Job selections for these branches are performed during your processing at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), and the recruiters have nothing (or little) to do with it. Rather, focus your questions on the general advantages of that particular service (length of basic training, leave (vacation), medical care, barracks/dormitory/housing conditions, education benefits, etc). If you’re joining the active duty Army, active duty Marine Corps, Army or Air National Guard, or the Reserve forces (of any of the branches), the recruiter will have more input about job opportunities (more on this in the next chapter).
Recruiters are busy animals. In fact, recruiters put more hours on-the-job than just about any person in the military. Regardless of what you’ve heard, recruiters do not get a monetary bonus for signing people up. They get their regular paycheck, whether you enlist or not. If you drop by without an appointment, don’t be surprised if your recruiter isn’t there. He might be taking someone to MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) on that day. She might be speaking at a high school or college. He might be at the recruiting squadron (branch, division), taking care of paperwork, or going through a training class. She might be at an applicant’s house, trying to calm jittery parents. He might be taking a few days of well-deserved leave (vacation).
Don’t waste a recruiter’s time. They simply can’t afford to spend time with those not serious about enlisting, or not qualified to enlist. Don’t make an appointment, then fail to show up. Don’t cancel an appointment at the last minute. Treat the recruiter with the same courtesy that you would give if you were at a meeting with the hiring director for a civilian job. If you were trying to get a job with Microsoft, you most certainly would not walk in dressed as a bum, or make an appointment, just to cancel it at the last minute.
Getting Down to Basics
Sooner or later, you’re going to have to stop shopping, and decide on which military service you want to join. During your “shopping trips,” you may have met a recruiter who really impressed you, and/or you may have met a recruiter that left you cold.
It’s important that you not choose your military service based upon your perception of the recruiter’s quality. Each of the services have outstanding recruiters, and each of the services have recruiters who shouldn’t be recruiting. Don’t judge the military service based upon whether or not the recruiter impressed you. Choose your service based upon your interests, not whether or not the recruiter was kind enough to buy you lunch at McDonalds.
Once you make your decision, make an appointment with the recruiter for the service you want to join. The first thing the recruiter is going to do is to “pre-qualify” you. The recruiter will ask you a bunch of questions to see if you qualify for military service. These will be questions about age, citizenship or immigration status, education level, criminal history, drug abuse history, and medical conditions. The recruiter may weigh you, and ask to see personal paperwork (birth certificate, high school diploma, social security card, etc.).
It’s important that you be truthful with the recruiter. It’s also very important that you not allow the recruiter to encourage, advise, or even hint that you lie about any of this important information. It is a felony to give false information or withhold required information on any military recruiting paperwork. (See I Cannot Tell a Lie for detailed information about possible consequences).
As I said in Part 2 of this series, if you’re joining the active duty Navy or active duty Air Force, your job selection is going to be done at MEPS (by “Job Counselors”), not the recruiting office. For the Guard and Reserves, recruiters work directly with Guard/Reserve bases in the local area, trying to fill specific job vacancies in those units, so they have more to do with the job selection process.
Marine Corps recruiters work with recruits to fill job or enlistment program quotas that are given to them from their headquarters.
Army recruiters (including Army Reserves and Army National Guard) have access to a system called called FSR2 or “Future Soldier Remote Reservations System.” Any applicant that is a high school senior in good standing or a graduate of high school may pick their job off of the “Request” system as if they were in MEPS from the recruiting station, as long as they “pre-qualify” for enlistment. They then have seven days to go to MEPS, take the physical and then do the final signing for that job. The system also provides shipping date for the job, enlistment bonus/college fund amounts authorized for that job, etc. Of course the job isn’t “guaranteed” at this point. The applicant will have to meet the qualifications for the job (ASVAB, physical profile, security clearance requirements, etc.), which will be determined during the MEPS trip (more about this on the next page).
To get the job of your choice requires two things: (1) There must be an available vacancy for the job, and (2) you must be qualified for the job. Availability is “luck of the draw.” The services forecast what jobs will have vacancies at specific times during the recruiting year (“vacancies” are determined not only by whether the skill is needed, but also, whether/when there are available training dates for that job). For example, even if the service you’re trying to join needs linguists very badly, and you qualify for the job, if all the school dates are already reserved at the Defense Language Institute for the foreseeable future, you’re probably not going to be able to get that job. Job Qualification. Job qualification is based on several factors. Most significant are your ASVAB “line scores.” The services have assigned minimum ASVAB line scores to each enlisted job. They’ve learned, though years of experience that these specific score requirements are what an applicant needs in order to successfully make it through the training for that job. ASVAB line score requirements for specific military enlisted jobs can be found in our Enlisted Job Description pages.
In addition to ASVAB line scores, many jobs require the applicant to qualify for a Security Clearance. Therefore, if the applicant has anything in their background that may prevent approval of a clearance, the MEPS job counselors are unlikely to allow the applicant to reserve that job. Some jobs require additional testing. For example, any job that requires one to learn a foreign language, requires a passing score on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB).
Different jobs have different physical requirements. When one goes through their medical examination at MEPS, one is assigned a Physical Profile, which is a series of numbers that indicates the member’s medical condition in designated medical areas. In order to reserve a job, one must meet the minimum physical profile required for that job.
Some jobs, especially those designated as “direct ground combat” jobs are restricted, by law, to males only. Some jobs (especially in the Army and Air Force), require a minimum lifting ability, which must be demonstrated before the job can be reserved for the recruit.
“Guaranteed” Jobs. A word about “Guaranteed Jobs.” It’s important that you understand what a “guaranteed job” is in the military. If you have a “guaranteed job” in your enlistment contract, it does not mean you will get that job, come Hell or high water. There may be reasons, after you enlist, that you can’t get the job that your enlistment contract “guarantees.” What happens in that case, depends on the situation.
In general, if you are denied the job in your contract due to something beyond your control (such as the service phased out the job, or downsized the job, or made a mistake and discovered that you don’t qualify for the job, or you are denied a security clearance — not due to giving false information), then you will be given the choice of applying for a discharge, or choosing a new job from a list of available jobs that you qualify for. In this case, the choice is yours (It should be noted that while these situations have been known to happen, they occur rarely).
On the other hand, if you fail to qualify for the job due to a reason within your control (you fail in training, you get into trouble, or you give false information on your security clearance application and are denied a security clearance), the choice is not yours. The military will decide whether to discharge you (throw you out), or to retain you and retrain you into a job that you qualify for. In this case it’s the military’s choice.
Each of the services have different policies/procedures when it comes to “guaranteed jobs.”
Army. In the Army, an enlisted job is called an “MOS,” or “Military Occupation Specialty.” The Army is the only service that offers a guaranteed job (MOS) to everyone. The Army has no such thing as an “open” or “undesignated” enlistment. However, the MOS’s offered to you, might not be the one(s) you wanted. It depends upon your qualifications and what jobs have current/projected openings. If the job you want is not available, your only choices are to choose a different job, or not enlist.
Over the years, I’ve met dozens of soldiers who were (for example) assigned to drive trucks in the motor-pool, even though their MOS’s had nothing to do with vehicles. A while ago, the Stars & Stripes Newspaper published a feature article about an Army Armored Company deployed to Kosovo (without armor) to man security checkpoints. Last year, the Army News Service featured an article about an Army National Guard Supply Company, who deployed to Iraq, and were “re-trained” as a group after arrival in country to perform infantry duties.
Air Force. The Air Force calls their enlisted jobs “Air Force Specialty Codes,” or “AFSCs.” The Air Force has two enlistment options: Guaranteed Job, and Guaranteed Aptitude Area. Under the “Guaranteed Job” program, the applicant is guaranteed training in a specific AFSC (Air Force Job). Under the Guaranteed Aptitude program, the applicant is guaranteed that he/she will be selected for a job that falls into one of the designated aptitude areas. The Air Force has divided all of their jobs into four aptitude areas (General, Electronic, Mechanical, and Administrative). It is unfortunate, but true that a majority of Air Force jobs (approximately 60 percent) are are reserved for individuals joining under the Guaranteed Aptitude program. Therefore, many of the available jobs are not released to the Air Force Jobs Counselor. Instead, they are “reserved” and offered to recruits in basic training, who enlisted under the Guaranteed Aptitude Program.
If one enlists in the Guaranteed Aptitude Program, they will meet with a job counselor around the 2nd week of basic training. The job counselor will give them a list of all the AVAILABLE jobs that they qualify for (medical, moral history, ASVAB scores). Understand that not all Air Force jobs within the aptitude area will be on the list. Only the jobs that have open school seats at that particular point in time. When you receive the list of choices, you have one week to consider it, then you return to the job counselor and give your top 8 choices (from the list). Everyone else in the same week of training, who enlisted in the same aptitude program will also have a list that looks exactly like yours. They will be making choices, as well. The job counselors give each applicant a “rating,” which is derived from their ASVAB scores, medical qualifications, and moral (criminal/drug history) qualifications. If, for example, there is a job that has five openings and six people put it down as there first choice, they take the five highest rated and give them the slots and the sixth person, they go to their second choice (of course, that “second choice” may also be someone else’s first choice, which would affect whether or not the person would get the slot, depending on how many are available, and how many placed it high on their list).
Individuals generally will then find out which job they’ve been selected for, around the 5th week of training, right after returning from “Warrior Week.”
Those wishing to enlist in the Air Force must be very flexible when it comes to job assignment. For the past two years (and currently), the Air Force has done exceptionally well in recruiting. In fact, the Air Force has thousands of more volunteers than they have enlistment slots for. Air Force recruiters didn’t even have recruiting goals assigned to them between May 2004 and May 2005.
Because the Air Force has many more applicants than they have slots for, it is very common for an applicant to process through MEPS, and return enlisted in the DEP (Delayed Enlistment Program) without a reserved job-slot or shipping date. Instead, while at MEPS, they provide a list of job and aptitude area preferences to the job counselor, then they are placed on the QWL (Qualified Waiting List), for one of their preferences to become available. This can take several months. It’s not uncommon, these days, for an Air Force applicant to remain in the DEP for 8 or more months before finally shipping out to basic training.
Air Force recruiters will often refuse to process an applicant who is “job locked.” In effect, it’s a waste of time and resources to process an applicant who is determined to be interested in only a couple of job possibilities, when there are hundreds of other qualified applicants, waiting in line behind him/her, who are willing to be more flexible. Some Air Force recruiting squadrons have established a briefing checklist that recruiters must go over with the applicant and have them initial and sign before they go to MEPS that specifically states that they are going to the MEPS in order to swear into to the Air Force (DEP), and NOT TO JOB SHOP. If the applicant doesn’t agree to this and doesn’t sign this briefing checklist then they don’t go to MEPS. Plain and simple. In order to join the Air Force, one must be flexible with both job selections and dates of availability.
For those with lots of flexibility, the Air Force has a program called the “quick ship list.” Every once in a while, an applicant with a reserved slot will drop out of the DEP at the very last minute. As it would be a waste of time and resources to allow this “bed to go empty” at basic training, the Air Force will allow applicants in the DEP to voluntarily put their name on the “quick ship list,” to take the place of the applicant who dropped out. The down side? You’ve got to keep your bags packed, because you may only get one or two days notice that you’re leaving for basic training, under this program.
The Air Force will — at times — work someone outside of the job they were trained in. This usually happens when someone does something that results in temporary disqualification from their normal job, or if someone volunteers for a special job or project. For example, in some squadrons, there may be a “team” of three or four volunteers to form the squadron “small computer team.” These individuals would be volunteers from within the squadron, to install and maintain small computers or the small computer network within the squadron.
Many of the larger Air Force squadrons have such volunteer teams.
Navy. The Navy calls their enlisted jobs “ratings.” The Navy offers two programs: Guaranteed Job, and Undesignated Seaman. While both programs are available, most enlist under the Guaranteed Job program. Again, whether or not you will be offered the job you want depends upon your qualifications, and the needs of the service. Undesignated Seaman can “strike” for a job after basic training. The Navy also has some “special” enlistment programs whereby you can enlist knowing what “area” you are going into, but not your specific rating (job). An example would be the Nuclear Program. These programs generally require higher ASVAB line scores, and require a longer service commitment, but offer accelerated promotions, greater training opportunities, and higher enlistment bonuses.
Marines. Like the Army, enlisted jobs in the Marine Corps are called “MOS’s.” The Marines also offer two programs: Guaranteed Job, and general field. Very, very few Marine applicants get a guaranteed job (mostly those with college degrees or high ASVAB scores, applying for certain, designated technical specialties).
It’s been my experience that a majority of Marines are enlisted in a general field (such as Avionics), and will have their actual job (MOS) designated during basic training. One must remember, in the Marines, one is expected to want to be a MARINE, first & foremost. MOS (job) is a distant second.
Coast Guard. Like the Navy, enlisted jobs in the Coast Guard are referred to as “ratings.” Of all of the services, the Coast Guard offers the fewest guaranteed jobs. One normally enlists in the Coast Guard, undesignated, then “strikes” for a job after a period of on-the-job training in “basic coastguardmanship” at their first duty station. A few schools (and therefore jobs) are offered during basic training. While this system may seem (on the surface) disadvantageous, there is something to be said about having the chance to spend some time scoping out the situation “on the job,” before deciding what job you’re going to “strike” for.
As well as offering the fewest guaranteed jobs, the Coast Guard has the fewest overall jobs (about 23) of any of the services. On the plus side, for the most part, all of the Coast Guard jobs directly relate to a civilian occupation. Additionally, with so few job categories, Coast Guard personnel “specialize” less than the other services. As one Coast Guard member told me, in a 20 year career in the Electronic Tech (ET) rating, he’s worked on communications from radio to satellite communications, radar, all forms of navigational equipment, lighthouses, telephone, computers, crypto, and electronic warfare. Those would be spread out over several different MOS/AFSC/Ratings in the other services.
Reserves and National Guard. The Army National Guard and Air National Guard, as well as the reserve forces of all the branches give “guaranteed jobs” to everyone who enlists. This is because, unlike the active duty forces, who recruit for available slots all over the world, Guard and Reserve recruiters recruit for specific unit vacancies in their local areas. Therefore, when you enlist in the Guard or Reserves, you enlist into a specific job slot in a specific Reserve or Guard squadron/division/company, etc.
Avoiding becoming Job-Locked
Regardless of what some of the military recruiting commercials on TV indicate, the military is not a job-placement agency. When you get to MEPS, you may find that you don’t qualify for the job you wanted, or you may find out that the job you want is simply not available. This is especially true for jobs that everyone wants (like computer programming), or jobs that only have a few people assigned. For example, the Air Force has over 22,000 Security Forces (cops) assigned. Compare that to the 285 physical therapist specialists authorized, and you can see that the chances of jobs being open for Security Forces is several dozens of times greater than openings for physical therapists.
While you are under no obligation to enlist when you go to MEPS, going through the entire process, without enlisting wastes your time, wastes the recruiter’s time, and wastes the time/resources of MEPS. If you are focused on only one or two job possibilities, you are likely to be disappointed. Recruiters call this “job-locked,” and some recruiters will refuse to send a recruit to MEPS unless the recruit is serious about enlisting, even if the job(s) the recruit wants is not available. Retraining/ The Recruiter and/or Job Counselor may tell you that if you don’t like a job, you can apply to re-train at a later time.
This may or may not be true. Each of the services have different requirements when it comes to retraining. In the Army and Air Force, one must usually serve a minimum amount of time (usually 36 months for a 4-year enlistment) and agree to re-enlist to be eligible for retraining. In the Navy and Marines, one must usually serve at least 24 months in the rating/MOS before re-training will be considered. Even then, approval is based upon individual circumstances, and the needs of the service. For all of the services, if the job you are serving in is extremely short-manned, or if the job you want to re-train into is over-manned, your retraining application is not likely to be approved.
Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP)
Once the job counselors have helped you determine what job/enlistment program you are going to enlist in, they will complete the paperwork, and you’ll sign an enlistment contract (and take an oath), enlisting you in the DEP (Delayed Enlistment Program). The DEP is a “holding status” while you are waiting for your scheduled shipping date to basic training.
When you enlist in the DEP, you are actually in the military. You are enlisted in the inactive reserves, and are legally (and morally) bound by your enlistment contract. (Note: The National Guard does not have DEP. When you sign on the dotted line in the National Guard, you immediately become a member of your National Guard Unit. Some units even allow you to drill and receive pay before you’ve even attended basic training).
One final thing about the DEP some recruiters may not want you to know: In this program, you enlist, and “promise” to ship out for boot camp on the designated date. This is a binding contract, and if the military wanted to, they could prosecute you for not shipping out on the date specified on the contract. However, current regulations and policies require the military services to discharge you from the DEP, if — at any time before shipping out — you apply to be released from the contract (the request should be in writing and should state the reason you wish to be discharged from the DEP). If a recruiter tells you that you will go to jail if you back out of DEP, he/she’s lying to you. If he/she tells you that you will never be able to enlist again, he/she is lying to you. If they tell you that you will be “blacklisted,” he/she is lying to you. If he/she tells you that you will be given a “general” discharge, he/she is lying to you. In fact, the only bad consequences to dropping out of the DEP, is that if you later want to enlist in that same service, it will be on THEIR terms, not yours. Most services have policies that require a waiver processing for recruits who previously dropped out of DEP of their service. Because of this, many programs (such as guaranteed job) may not be available, should you change you mind (Note: This doesn’t apply if you drop out of the DEP of one service, then join a different service).
That being said, if you request a discharge from the DEP, expect your recruiter to be (justifiably) angry. He/she’s invested several hours of his/her valuable time in your enlistment, and the military has spent a significant amount of time and funds in your tests and medical physical. Additionally, if you drop out, you’re no longer filling a “slot” that must be filled, and the recruiter must now try and find someone to fill that slot. Don’t enlist in the DEP unless you are 100% sure you want to join the military. See The Delayed Enlistment Program for more detailed information.
All of the services use the same enlistment contract — Department of Defense Form 4/1. This is the contract that is used for military enlistments and re-enlistments. Of all the paperwork you signed during the process to join the military, this is the most important document.
If you enlist on active duty, you’ll actually sign two enlistment contracts. The first one places you in the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP).
The DEP is actually the INACTIVE RESERVES (inactive reserve members do not perform weekend drills, such as active members of the Reserves, nor do they receive any pay — however, technically, they can be called to active duty in times of emergency: Note: There has NEVER been a case where a member in the DEP has been involuntarily called to active duty). When your time in the DEP is up, and it’s time to go onto active duty and ship out to basic training, you are discharged from the inactive reserves and sign a new enlistment contract to enlist on active duty. See Part 3 of this series for more information about the DEP.
Promises. I don’t care what your recruiter promised you, if it’s not in the enlistment contract, or in an annex to the contract, it’s not a promise. Also, it doesn’t much matter what is in the DEP enlistment contract — if it isn’t in your active duty enlistment contract, it’s not a promise. If you were promised an enlistment bonus, for example, it needs to be in the final active duty contract, or chances are you’ll never see that bonus.
Once you get out of basic training and job training and go to the personnel office at your first base, they’re not going to give one hoot about what anyone “promised” you — they’re only going to care about what is in the enlistment contract.
In fact, the bottom of the very first page of the enlistment contract contains the following clause:
The agreements in this section and attached annex(es) are all the promises made to me by the Government. ANYTHING ELSE ANYONE HAS PROMISED ME IS NOT VALID AND WILL NOT BE HONORED.
Let me clarify a couple of points: First of all, incentives and entitlements which are available to everyone won’t be, and doesn’t need to be in the contract. This is because military members are already entitled to it by law. For example, medical care, base pay, and the Montgomery G.I. Bill won’t be specified in the contract, because these benefits are available to everyone who enlists in the military.
Second, those enlisting on active duty will have at least two enlistment contracts — the initial contract for the Delayed Enlistment Program, and a final contract that one will sign on the day they go to MEPS to ship out to basic training. The contract that COUNTS is the final contract. It doesn’t matter if your enlistment bonus, advanced rank, college loan repayment program, college fund, etc., are not included in the first contract. However, you need to make sure all of your desired incentives are included in the final active duty contract (if your enlistment program/job choice entitles you to those incentives).
Enlistment Periods. Thought you were enlisting for four years? Think again. It may surprise you to learn that ALL non-prior service enlistments in the United States Military incurs a total eight year service obligation. Yep. When you sign that enlistment contract, you are obligating yourself to the military for a total of eight years. Whatever time is not spent on active duty, or in the active Guard/Reserves (if you enlisted in the Guard/Reserves) must be spent in the inactive reserves.
Paragraph 10a of the enlistment contract states:
a. FOR ALL ENLISTEES: If this is my initial enlistment, I must serve a total of eight (8) years. Any part of that service not served on active duty must be served in a Reserve Component unless I am sooner discharged.
This means two things: Let’s say you enlist in the Navy for four years. You serve your four years and get out. You’re really not “out.” You’re transferred to the INACTIVE Reserves (called the “IRR” or “Individual Ready Reserve”) for the next four years, and the Navy can call you back to active duty at anytime, or even involuntarily assign you to an active (drilling) Reserve unit during that period, if they need you due to personnel shortages, war, or conflicts (such as Iraq). This total 8 year service commitment applies whether you enlist on active duty, or join the Reserves or National Guard.
Here’s the second thing — the military may not let you out at the end of your active duty tour. Under a program called “Stop Loss,” the military is allowed to prevent you from separating, during times of conflict, if they need your particular warm body. During the first Gulf War (1990), all of the services implemented “Stop Loss” preventing pretty much anyone from separating, for an entire year. During the Kosovo Campaign, the Air Force instituted “Stop Loss” for those in certain “Shortage” jobs.
During Iraq and Afghanistan, The Army, Air Force, and Marines instituted “Stop Loss,” again, directed at specific individuals with shortage jobs, or (in the case of the Army), sometimes directed at specific units. The key is, once you join, if there are any conflicts going on, the military can hold you past your normal separation or retirement date.
Up until October 2003, the Army and Navy were the only services that offered active duty enlistments for periods of less than four years. However, as part of the FY 2003 Military Appropriations Act, Congress passed the National Call To Service Plan, which mandated that all of the services create an enlistment program which offered a two year active duty enlistment option, followed by four years in the Active Guard/Reserves, followed by two years in the Inactive Reserves (still the total eight year service commitment).
But, let’s talk reality here — While Congress mandated this plan, they gave the services wide latitude in implementation. The Army and Navy already had two year active duty enlistment plans that they were happy with, and the Air Force and Marines had no recruiter problems, and weren’t really interested in shorter-term enlistments.
However, because of enlistment shortages, the Army has dramatically expanded slots under this program in 2005 and 2006. The Air Force and Marine Corps still have little interest in a two-year active duty program. So, they implemented the very basics and applied many restrictions — you probably have a better chance of hitting the lottery than getting one of the very few National Call to Service slots in these two branches. For example, under the Air Force Plan, the program is limited to one percent of all enlistments (about 370 total recruits, out of 37,000), and the program is limited to 29 Air Force jobs. The Marine Corps limit their National Call to Service enlistments to only 11 MOSs (jobs).
The Army and the Navy are the only services which have active duty enlistment options of less than four years, which are not part of the National Call to Service program. The Army offers enlistment contracts of two years, three years, four years, five years, and six years. Only a few Army jobs are available for two and three year enlistees (mainly those jobs that don’t require much training time, and that the Army is having a hard time getting enough recruits). Most Army jobs require a minimum enlistment period of four years, and some Army jobs require a minimum enlistment period of five years. Additionally, under the Army’s 2-year enlistment option, the two years of required active duty don’t start until after basic training and job-school, so it’s actually longer than two years.
The Navy offers a very few two year and three year contracts, where the recruit spends two or three years on active duty, followed by six years in the Active Reserves.
The other services offer four, five, and six year enlistment options (The Air Force only offers four and six year enlistments). All Air Force enlisted jobs are available for four-year enlistees. However, the Air Force will give accelerated promotions for individuals who agree to enlist for six years. Such individuals enlist in the grade of E-1 (Airman Basic), or E-2 (Airman), if they have sufficient college credits or JROTC. They are then promoted to the grade of E-3 (Airman First Class) upon completion of technical training, or after 20 weeks after basic training graduation (whichever occurs first). Six year enlistment options are not open to all jobs, at all times.
Most Navy jobs are available for four-year enlistees, but some special programs (such as Nuclear Field) require a five year enlistment. These special programs usually offer increased training opportunities, and accelerated promotion.
All of the services offer programs called “enlistment incentives,” which are designed to attract recruits, especially to jobs that are traditionally hard-to-fill. As I said above, each of the below incentives needs to be included on the enlistment contract or an annex to the contract — otherwise they are not likely to be valid. An enlistment incentive is different than a military benefit in that not everyone is eligible, and it must be in the enlistment contract to be valid. For example, an enlistment bonus is an enlistment incentive. Not everyone qualifies for an enlistment bonus. It depends on qualifications and job selected. Therefore, to be valid, it must be on the enlistment contract.
The Montgomery G.I. Bill, or Tuition Assistance, or military medical, or amount of base pay, etc., on the other hand, are military benefits or entitlements. They are available to everyone who enlists, and therefore you won’t find them mentioned on the enlistment contract.
Keep in mind that you can’t negotiate enlistment incentives. Military recruiters and the job counselors at MEPS have no authority to decide who gets an incentive and who doesn’t. Incentives are authorized for specific jobs or specific enlistment programs by the Recruiting Command Headquarters for the individual service. In other words, it’s either been authorized for your specific job or enlistment program, or it’s not. If it’s authorized, you’ll be offered the incentive. If it’s not authorized, all the “negotiating” in the world won’t get it for you.
Following are the current enlistment incentives offered by the services. Military benefits will be discussed in later parts of this series.
Enlistment Bonus. Probably the best known of all enlistment incentives is the enlistment bonus. Enlistment bonuses are used to try and convince applicants to sign up into jobs that the service needs really bad. When they passed the Fiscal Year 2006 Military Authorization Act, Congress authorized the services to increase the maximum active duty enlistment bonus cap from $20,000 to $40,000. Keep in mind, however, that Congress allowed the services to do so — they didn’t mandate it. The maximum amount of enlistment bonus is set by each of the services (up to the $40,000 maximum allowed by law), based on their own individual recruiting needs.
The Air Force and Marine Corps offer the fewest enlistment bonuses. At the time of this annual revision to this article, the Air Force was offering active duty enlistment bonuses to only 6 AFSCs (jobs), and the top bonus authorized was $12,000. The top Marine Corps enlistment bonus is currently $6,000.
The Navy still caps enlistment bonuses to a maximum of $20,000. The Coast Guard presently offers a top enlistment bonus of $15,000.
Of the five active duty services, only the Army has elected to increase their maximum active duty enlistment bonus cap to the $40,000 authorized by law.
Sometimes, the services will offer an additional bonus for recruits who agree to ship out to basic during a designated time-frame, or for recruits who have college credits (Note: The Army & Navy do this the most often).
In general, the greater the enlistment bonus, the harder time the service is having finding enough qualified applicants who agree to accept the job.
In most cases, this is for one of three reasons:
1. The job doesn’t sound very interesting, and the job counselors are having a hard time getting recruits to select this job.
2. The job has high entry qualifications (ASVAB score, criminal history requirements, medical qualifications, etc.), and job counselors can’t find enough applicants who qualify.
3. The job training is extremely difficult and lots of people wash out.
The Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps will usually pay the entire bonus amount (lump sum), after arrival at the first permanent duty station, following basic training and job-school (usually within 60 days of arrival at the first duty station). The Army will normally pay the first $10,000 upon arrival at the first duty station, with the remainder being paid in equal annual installments during the term of enlistment.
In most cases, if you are discharged early, or you re-train out of the job, you must repay any “unearned” portion of the enlistment bonus. For example, if you enlisted and received a $12,000 enlistment bonus for a 4-year enlistment, but only served in that job for three years, you would have to repay $4,000.
College Fund. All of the services, except the Air Force offer a “college fund.” Some of the Services offer “College Funds,” for individuals who agree to enlist in hard-to-fill jobs. The amount of money offered in the “college fund” is added to the amount of money you are entitled to with the Montgomery G. I. Bill (We’ll talk about the G.I. Bill later). You can’t have the college fund without participating in the G. I. Bill. One word of warning — the amount of the “College Fund” shown on your enlistment contract usually includes the amount you are authorized under the Montgomery G.I. Bill and the amount of the extra funds provided by the service. So, if your enlistment contract says you have a total $40,000 “College Fund,” $37,224 (2006 rates) would be from the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which you would have been eligible for anyway, “college fund,” or not. So, in this case, the actual amount of the “College Fund” (ie, “extra” education money given by the service) is only $2,776. Usually (but not always), if you accept the college fund, this will decrease the amount of any monetary enlistment bonus you may be entitled to. The Navy and Marine Corps offers up to $50,000 (combined college fund and G.I. Bill) for their College Fund Programs. The Army offers up to $71,424. Again, the exact amount offered often depends on the job selected.
As with other enlistment incentives, if you were promised the College Fund, you must ensure it is listed on your final active duty enlistment contract or an annex to the contract.
Advanced Enlistment Rank. All of the services offer advanced enlistment rank for recruits with a certain number of college credits, or for participation in other programs, such as Junior ROTC in high school.
• The Army offers advanced enlistment rank up to E-4 for college, and up to E-2 for other programs (such as JROTC). The Army also offers accelerated promotion to recruits with certain civilian-aquired job training or skills, through the Army Civilian Aquired Skills Program (ACASP).
• The Air Force offers advanced enlistment rank up to E-3 for college and participation in other programs. The Air Force is the only service which offers accelerated promotion for six-year enlistees.
• The Navy offers advanced enlistment rank up to E-3 for college and participation in other programs. The Navy also offers accelerated promotion up to E-4 for individuals who enlist in certain designated enlistment programs (Such as the Nuclear Field).
• The Marine Corps offers advanced enlistment rank up to E-2 for college and participation in other programs.
• The Coast Guard gives advanced rank up to E-2 for college and up to E-3 for other programs.
With the exception of the Air Force six-year enlistee advance rank program, recruits who join with advanced rank are paid the rate of base pay for that advanced rank right from the first day of active duty. However, in most of the services, recruits do not get to actually wear the rank until they graduate from basic training (in basic, everyone is treated the same — ie, just lower than whale droppings).
For Air Force six-year enlistees, they enlist and go through basic as an E-1 (or E-2 if they were qualified, such as college credits) and are then promoted to E-3 20 weeks following basic training graduation, or when they graduate technical school (job training), whichever occurs first. Date of Rank as an E-3 is then back-dated to the date of basic training graduation. Airmen don’t receive “back-pay” for this, but the earlier date-of-rank makes them eligible for E-4 earlier.
As with other enlistment incentives, advanced enlistment rank must be included on your enlistment contract.
College Loan Repayment Program. All of the active services, except the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, offer a college loan repayment program (CLRP). The Army Reserves, Navy Reserves, Army National Guard and Air National Guard also offer a limited college loan repayment program. In a nutshell, the service will repay all, or a part of a college loan, in exchange for your enlistment. Loans which qualify are:
• Auxiliary Loan Assistance for Students (ALAS)
• Stafford Student Loan or Guaranteed Student Loan (GSL)
• Parents Loans for Undergraduate Students (PLUS Loans)
• Federally Insured Student Loans (FISL)
• Perkins Loan or National Direct Student Loan (NDSL)
• Supplemental Loans for Students (SLS)
Guaranteed First Duty Assignment. The Army and the Navy are the only active duty services which can offer a guaranteed first duty assignment. However, since the invasion of Iraq, the Army rarely offers this incentive anymore. When authorized, under the Army Program, you can get a written guarantee in your enlistment contract for your first duty assignment following basic training and job training (of course, there must be open positions for your particular job on the base before the Army will give it to you). This option is only available for certain, hard-to-fill Army Jobs. Additionally, the guarantee is only good for 12 months. After that, the Army can move you anywhere it wants.
The Navy program is a “sort of” guaranteed first duty station. Under the Navy program, you can be guaranteed a first assignment in a designated geographical area. In other words, while the Navy can’t guarantee that you would be assigned to a particular base, they can, for example, guarantee an assignment on the West Coast. However, under the Navy program, there is a catch — the program is not available to those who sign up with a guaranteed rating (job).
It’s only available for those who enlist under the GENDET program. Under the GENDET enlistment program, applicants pick a “general field,” such as “aviation,” rather than a specific rating. Then, following basic training, they spend a year or so at a Navy Base, doing general duties as an “undesignated seaman” before they get to choose their rating (job) and go to job-school.
Note: The Guard and Reserves also guarantee the duty station because they are recruiting to fill specific, open slots in specific Guard & Reserve units. When you enlist in the National Guard or Reserves, you will know, right from the start, where your drilling unit is located (generally within 100 miles or so of where you live).
Buddy Program. All of the services offer a “Buddy Enlistment” program. Under this program, two or more individuals (of the same sex) can enlist together, and — at a minimum — be guaranteed to go through basic training together. If the individuals have the same job, the services can also guarantee that they will go through job training together.
In some cases (with the exception of the Air Force), the service can even guarantee that the “buddies” will be assigned to their first duty station together.
Split Option. Some of the services offer “split option training” for members of their National Guard and Reserve. Under “split option,” the member attends basic training, and then returns to his Guard/Reserve unit, where she/he drills (one weekend per month) for up to a year before attending job training. This program is designed for those in school, who wish to spit their full-time training so they won’t miss too many college classes, and for those who do not wish to be away from their civilian jobs for too long a period of time for military training. In most cases, “split option” isn’t a very good idea, and you should avoid it, if you can:
1. You are generally “worthless” to your unit until you have completed job training. You can’t do the “job” you were “hired” for, and the unit can’t begin your advanced training.
2. If something happens to your job training date, it can sometimes take forever for the Guard and Reserves to get another training slot. When dishing out job training slots, the active duty forces get first crack, and what is left over is offered to the Guard and Reserves.
3. If you attend job training immediately after basic training, you will still be in shape. It’s easy to fall out of shape in a year’s time, when you’re only drilling one weekend per month. However, under the “split training” option, you’re thrown back into a training evironment, right along side those straight out of basic training, and you’re expected to keep up with them.
4. “Split Option” members undergo the same job-training restrictions as those straight out of basic training. That means, for the first month or so of job-school, your off-duty time is strictly regimented. That’s pretty easy, when you’re straight out of basic training. It’s not so easy, once you’ve spent up to a year in the relatively relaxed environment of weekend drills.
Active Duty Montgomery G. I. Bill
The ADMGIB is the same for all of the active duty services. The choice of whether or not to participate in the program is up to the recruit, and is made (after a briefing) in basic training. This is a one-time-choice, and you don’t get the chance to change your mind later.
If a recruit elects to participate, his/her military pay is reduced by $100 per month for 12 months ($1,200 total).
In return, the recruit receives education benefits worth $37,224 ($30,240 for a two year enlistee). Under the current law, Congress can increase these amounts each year to match inflation.
The active duty G.I. Bill Benefits can be used while on active duty, or after (honorable) discharge (Note: Benefits expire 10 years after discharge).
To use MGIB while on active duty, you must serve two continuous years of active duty.
To use MGIB after (honorable) separation from active duty:
• With 3 Years of Active Duty. You must have served three continuous years of active duty, unless you were (honorably) discharged early for one of for one of a very few specific reasons (such as medical).
• With 2 Years of Active Duty. You only need two continuous years of active duty if
o You first enlisted for two years of active duty, or
o You have an obligation to serve four years in the Selected Reserve (the 2 X 4 program). You must enter the Selected Reserve within one year of your release from active duty. OR
o You were separated (honorably) early for one of the very specific reasons allowed (such as medical).
When used after getting out of the military, the G.I. Bill pays more. When used while on active duty, the G.I. Bill only pays for the cost of tuition for the course. Because of this, most people do not use the G.I. Bill while on active duty, but — instead — use the military’s active duty tuition assistance program (discussed below).
It’s important to note that if you are separated early, and lose your G. I. Bill qualification, you do not get your money back. This is because (under the law), the money taken out of your pay is not considered a “contribution,” but rather a “reduction in pay.”
For detailed information about the Active Duty G. I. Bill, see The Active Duty Montgomery G. I. Bill.
Reserve/Guard Montgomery G. I. Bill
Basically, this is the same as the Active Duty Montgomery G. I. Bill, with a few exceptions:
Your military pay is not reduced for this program. However, your monetary benefits are not nearly as generous as the Active Duty Program. Education benefits for the Guard/Reserve Montgomery G. I. Bill are worth a total of $10,692. You must enlist for a period of six years or more. You can begin using the benefits immediately after boot camp and AIT/Tech School/A-School, but benefits terminate if you don’t serve your entire enlistment contract period. Benefits expire 14 years after the date you become eligible for the program (even if you don’t separate). Fore detailed information about the Reserve Montgomery G. I. Bill, see The Guard/Reserve Montgomery G. I. Bill.
Active Duty Tuition Assistance
All of the services offer 100 percent Tuition Assistance for courses taken while on active duty. However, there are limitations. All of the Services limit TA to $4,500 per year, per individual. Additionally, there are limits on the amount of TA available per semester hour.
• Army Tuition Assistance Policy
• Air Force Tuition Assistance Policy
• Navy Tuition Assistance Policy
Guard/Reserve Tuition Assistance
Both the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard offer Tuition Assistance. The Army National Guard allows 100% tuition assistance not to exceed $250 per semester hour, up to $4,500 annually.
The Air National Guard offers 100% tuition assistance not to exceed $250.00 per semester hour, or $166 per quarter hour, up to $1,000 annually.
Additionally, many states offer additional education benefits for members of their National Guard (National Guard is controlled –for the most part–by the individual States, not the Federal Government, so benefits can vary widely from state-to-state).
The Air Force Reserves give 100% Tuition Assistance for undergraduate degree programs. TA is limited to $250 per semester hour, or $166.67 per quarter hour, up to $4,500 annually. For graduate degree programs, the Air Force Reserves offer 75% TA, limited to $187.50 per semester hour, or $125 per quarter hour, with a $3,500 annual maximum.
The Army Reserves offers 100% TA for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. TA cannot exceed $250 per semester hour, or $166.67 per quarter hour, up to $4,500 annually.
The Coast Guard Reserves offer TA for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. TA cannot exceed $250 per semester hour, or $166.67 per quarter hour up to $4,500 annually.
The Navy and Marine Corps Reserves do not offer a Tuition Assistance Program, at present. However, (for all of the reserve service), military members who are called to active duty under Title 10 — Federal Call up — get the same TA benefits as their active duty counterparts. That means, for example, that a Reserve Marine, called to active duty, would be eligible for the Marine Corps Active Duty Tuition Assistance Program.
College Degrees and Commissioning Programs
The Air Force is the only service that actually issues college credits and college degrees. The Air Force does this through the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF), which is a fully accredited community college (The largest community college in the World). The CCAF does not itself offer college courses. CCAF issues fully accredited college transcripts, and awards Associate of Science Degrees to Air Force Members in educational areas of their military specialties, using a combination of credits for off-duty college courses, military schools, and military experience.
The other services do not issue college degrees, nor do they actually award college credits. However, the American Council on Education (ACE) has recommendations for college credits for almost all military schools/jobs for the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard, and most colleges and universities in the United States accept those recommendations for current/former military members enrolled in degree programs in their institutions.
I’m often asked if one can really get a college degree while on active duty. The answer is yes. Several hundred enlisted military personnel do this every year.
Each military base has an Education Office, who have arranged for colleges and universities to conduct college courses on-base, leading to various degree programs. However, one should realize that it takes much more time, then if you were going to college full-time as a civilian.
For the most part, you’re taking college courses, part-time, while off-duty on the weekends and evenings. Additionally, what your job is, and where you are assigned will play a large part in determining how much “free time” you have to attend college courses. A finance clerk assigned to a squadron that rarely deploys will have a better opportunity to attend off-duty college courses than an infantry troop, assigned to a company that trains “in the field” often.
However, even for those who don’t work a “regular schedule,” distance-learning has changed the face of getting an off-duty education. There are now several universities (some associated with the military, some not) who will allow you to take most (if not all) courses via the Internet. The Army even has a program where they will issue a free laptop computer to recruits enrolled in authorized distant learning programs. The Navy takes college professors with them on some of their larger ships, so they can offer off-duty college courses to sailors at sea.
In addition to taking courses off duty, each of the services have programs which allow some enlisted to remain on active duty and attend college full-time (receiving full pay and allowances). Some of these programs lead to a commission as an officer, some do not. Most require that you commit yourself for a longer hitch in the military. Most require that you obtain some college (usually two or three years) on your own, first. ALL of these programs are extremely competitive. There are many, many, many more applicants for these programs than there are available “slots” each year. So, if you plan to compete for one of those few available slots, you need to be the “best of the best.” That means top grades, outstanding military record, and “walk on water” written recommendations from your supervisors and commander. For details, see our Education & Training Resources.
Enlisted members who do obtain a college degree while on active duty can apply for a commission through Officers Candidate School (Officer Training School for the Air Force). Again, there are generally many more applicants each year then there are available “slots,” so — if you want to be selected — you have to be among the top.
The Army and the Coast Guard are the only services in which an enlisted member can obtain a commission without having a 4-year college degree. Enlisted members in the Army can attend OCS and be commissioned with only 90 college credits. However, they must complete their degree within one year of being commissioned, or they risk being reverted (rifted) to their previous enlisted rank. See Army Officer Candidate School (OCS) for more information