War Stories

I Want You … Badly

A complete guide to Uncle Sam’s recruiting incentives.

U.S. soldiers rest in a temporarily occupied Iraqi home

Last month, Pentagon officials proudly trumpeted their recruiting and retention results, announcing they had met or exceeded the past year’s goals for every branch of the service except the Army and Air National Guard. According to Undersecretary of Defense David Chu, the results show the continuing viability of the “all-volunteer” military, even as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars grind on. Top Pentagon officials say these numbers also refute arguments that Iraq is breaking the force, or that we need a return to the draft. However, critics charge that the huge and varied incentives being offered to recruits show the desperation of the all-volunteer force and its inability to cope with the sustained demands of the Iraq war. Others point out that these recruitment programs focus too much on quantity, rather than quality, leading to a lower-caliber military.


Slate’s comprehensive list of Army recruiting and retention programs illustrates how the service is stretching to make manpower ends meet.

Quick-ship bonusesRecruits who ship out within 30 daysTo push new troops out to the field faster, the Army started offering $20,000 bonuses this summer to new soldiers who would ship out for basic training within 30 days. In some cases, this resulted in troops transitioning from their living rooms to the battlefield in less than four months. Of the 4,149 recruits who signed contracts between July 25 and Aug. 13, 92 percent took the bonus. The program was revamped Sept. 30 to provide recruits with bonuses of $6,000, $15,000, or $20,000 depending on their chosen operational specialty.
Enlistment bonusesAll recruitsIn 2006, the Pentagon spent more than $1 billion on enlistment bonuses. In November 1999, new recruits could enlist and receive up to $20,000 for joining. Today, they can join for a total signing bonus of up to $40,000 for a four-year hitch. Recruits with certain skills, such as fluency in Arabic, can earn an additional $5,000 for joining the Army. Those holding bachelor’s degrees can get $8,000 for signing a two-year enlistment contract. Recruits opting for the Army Reserve can also earn large bonuses—up to $20,000 for a six-year enlistment plus at least two years in the inactive reserves.
Deferred-enlistment bonusHigh-school seniors who enlistAimed at snagging high-school seniors early, encouraging them to finish school and then head on to boot camp, this new program pays $1,000 to students for each month they spend in the Army’s Future Soldier Training Program. High-schoolers receive an additional $1,000 when they graduate. This bonus can be combined with other enlistment bonuses. So, if a senior enlists for a specialty with a $20,000 bonus, spends seven months in the Future Soldier Training Program, and graduates, his total bonus would be $28,000.
Fifteen month + training enlistment bonusRecruits who answer the Army’s “National Call to Service”In response to market demand from young people for shorter tours of duty, the Army began offering two-year enlistments that allow a recruit to sign up, deploy to Iraq, and get out of the service. This means recruits go to boot camp, then individual training, then to their units for 15 months. New soldiers taking this path are eligible for the GI Bill and can choose between a $5,000 cash payment or up to $18,000 in student-loan repayment, but are not eligible for the other signing bonuses.
Money for collegeAll recruitsAll service members can sign up for the active-duty Montgomery GI Bill program, which pays up to $38,700 for college or vocational training, usually after the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine gets discharged.
Student-loan repaymentCollege grads who enlist for at least three years or go to officer trainingRecruits who join with existing student loans can earn up to $65,000 in loan repayment in exchange for three years of service. Soldiers who join the Army for six years in certain specialties can earn $72,900 in combined educational benefits from the GI Bill and Army College Fund.
401(k) matching funds/”Thrift Savings Plan”Five-year recruits in critical specialtiesLike many employers, the federal government offers a retirement savings account, called the “ Thrift Savings Plan,” which employees can contribute tax-free earnings and sometimes have them matched by the government. The Army offers an enlistment option that allows recruits who sign up for five years or more to contribute up to $15,000 a year, with the Army matching up to 5 percent of the funds contributed.
Less-stringent education standardsRecruits without a high-school diploma or equivalentRelying on decades of social science research showing that smarter soldiers do better in combat, the Pentagon long insisted that 90 percent of its new recruits enter with a high-school diploma, and that they score well on the military’s aptitude tests. Since 2004, the Army has waived these rules for an increasing number of recruits. Among 2004 recruits, 92.5 percent had a high-school diploma, while the same could be said for 87 percent in 2005, 81.2 percent in 2006, and 79.1 percent in 2007.
Moral waiversRecruits with previous drug or criminal convictionsAccording to a January 2007 Army briefing, two-thirds of young men and women are ineligible to enlist because of medical problems, poor education, past drug use, or criminal convictions. (To read this briefing in PowerPoint format, click here.) To make ends meet, the Pentagon has raised the number of “moral waivers” the services can grant for new recruits with past convictions or drug use. In 2003, the Army handed out 4,644 waivers for past criminal convictions and 1,028 exemptions for drug and alcohol offenses. By 2007 those same numbers jumped to 12,057 and 1,492. In the case of Army Pvt. Steven Green, this policy went disastrously wrong. Green entered the Army as a high-school dropout with a GED, as well as with past convictions for alcohol and drug-related crimes. He now stands accused of a grisly rape and murder near Mahmudiyah, Iraq.
Less-stringent age standardsRecruits aged 35-42To enlarge the pool of eligible recruits, the Army raised the maximum age for enlistment from 35 to 40 in January 2006, and then from 40 to 42 in June 2006, both times with Congress’ explicit authorization.
Retention bonusesSpecial ops. officers and enlisted
Army captains who sign on for three more years
With private security contractors ready to pay $200,000 a year for top-quality special operations troops, the Pentagon has had to pay top dollar to keep highly skilled officers and enlisted personnel in a number of fields. The Army is offering retention bonuses of up to $150,000  to its most skilled special forces troops. Army captains signing up for another three years can get $20,000 to $35,000, a free ticket to graduate school, military schooling ( Ranger School or language training), a branch or functional area transfer, or “post of choice,” depending on their specialty. Since the program was rolled out Sept. 13, more than 7,500 active-duty captains have signed on.
  Stop-lossSelected active and reserve personnel scheduled to be discharged Stop-loss” and “stop-move” are programs the Army uses to freeze certain personnel in their current assignments, or prevent them from being discharged. These programs are frequently employed to maintain the strength and cohesion of a unit preparing to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. Senior Army leaders say approximately 9,000 soldiers are being kept in the service beyond the end of their enlistment contract under stop-loss, and an unknown number have been frozen in their current assignments under stop-move. Members of Congress have expressed concern that these policies contradict the spirit of the all-volunteer force, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others indicate they will likely continue.