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Military Offers More Cash Bonuses
February 22, 2005

WASHINGTON - Faced with a persistent demand for personnel in Iraq and elsewhere, the Army and some of the military's elite commando units have dramatically increased the size and the number of cash bonuses they are paying to lure recruits and keep experienced troops in uniform.

Last month, the Pentagon said it would begin offering bonuses of up to $150,000 for long-serving Army, Air Force and Navy special operations troops who agree to stay in the military for up to six more years. The bonuses are the largest ever paid to enlisted troops. They reflect the difficulty in replacing highly valued troops such as Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, whose training takes years and costs about $300,000 per person.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is using cash bonuses on an unprecedented scale to try to boost re-enlistments, recruiting and morale among active-duty and reservist troops. The bonuses come as the demands of three years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have raised questions in Congress about whether the U.S. military has enough troops to fight two major wars simultaneously.

The Army is offering re-enlistment payments of up to $15,000 to soldiers in 49% of its enlisted job categories -- regardless of rank or where they are stationed. It's offering the same to any soldier who agrees to re-enlist while serving in a combat zone. It also is paying bonuses of up to $50,000 to senior enlisted soldiers in 16 hard-to-fill job categories, including truck drivers and bomb-disposal specialists.

Army bearing brunt in Iraq

Most of the 150,000 troops in Iraq are from the Army, which has roughly 1 million troops in its active-duty, reserve and National Guard units and has borne the largest share of fighting in the global war on terrorism.

"This is the most aggressive retention program since the American Civil War," says Col. Kelly Fraser, who monitors Army troop levels at the Pentagon. The Army will spend a record $400 million on bonuses this year to keep troops in the ranks.

The use of cash incentives to bolster recruiting and retention is not a new phenomenon. Challenged to keep technically skilled troops in the ranks during the high-tech boom of the late 1990s, the Air Force and Navy offered thousands of dollars in cash payments to computer technicians, air traffic controllers and pilots.

But those bonuses generally were smaller than today's, and they went to relatively few troops. The new bonuses extend across large swaths of the active-duty Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve:

* In December, the National Guard tripled the top cash bonus for Army Guard recruits who had served in the active-duty military, offering payments of up to $15,000 for those willing to join. The Guard also began offering a bonus of $15,000 for Guard soldiers who will re-enlist for six years, triple the previous amount.

* The active-duty Army announced in January enlistment bonuses of up to $20,000 for recruits who score well on entrance tests, the largest sum it has ever paid to prospective soldiers.

* Last month, the Army increased the top bonus for soldiers re-enlisting in the combat zones of Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan to $15,000, up from $10,000. The payments are tax-free, and for most recipients would represent a significant percentage of their annual pay. For example, an Army specialist with three to four years of experience who is in a combat zone and who has a young family typically receives a salary of about $36,000.

The Pentagon says the bonuses have kept enough troops in the ranks and, in a few cases, avoided severe shortfalls. The armed forces spend years grooming leaders and cannot quickly replace those who leave. For example, it takes more than a decade to train a master sergeant, major or lieutenant colonel to lead combat units into battle.

Fraser says the bonuses helped boost re-enlistment rates to 107% of the Army's goal last year and kept Guard and reserve re-enlistment near 100% of their goals.

The increased use of cash payments is causing concern among some military scholars. Some fear that an overreliance on financial incentives tarnishes the notion of selfless service, a core value of the all-volunteer force.

'More of a mercenary role'

"This is a fundamental change. It moves us away from any fantasy of equity, and it is moving folks into more of a mercenary role," says Jim Martin, a retired Army colonel who teaches military culture at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

Richard Kohn, a history professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the military, also has misgivings. But Kohn says the increased cash bonuses are not surprising, given the current strain on America's military. "Is this indicative of some larger malaise in our manpower policies, if you have to staff your armed forces in this manner?" says Kohn. He says the new bonuses suggest that the USA needs a larger military.

Others see the new bonuses as a positive development. Dan Christman, a retired Army lieutenant general and the former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, says military personnel are underpaid, given their skills and the risks they face. "Once you go to the concept of an all-volunteer force, you accept that the marketplace plays a fundamental role," he says.

Richard Danzig, who was secretary of the Navy under President Clinton, says bonuses generally are effective. But he also worries that such payments might undermine the "sense of equality" in the ranks, where "no one is considered more valuable than others."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Armed Services Committee and a former Air Force lawyer, says he has no objections to the Pentagon's increased use of bonuses because of the demands the military is placing on its troops.

The Army's bonus program dovetails with other efforts in the military to make troops' lives more bearable. The Navy has begun a program in which sailors can make bids on jobs that are considered undesirable, requesting extra pay of several hundred dollars a month.

The Army also has tried to create more stability in the ranks by allowing some soldiers and families to stay at the same base for up to six years. Previously, a soldier typically would have to move every two to three years.

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Copyright 2005 USA TODAY. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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