March 4, 2009:
The U.S. Army is cutting most of the enlistment, and re-enlistment bonuses that were instituted since 2003, to keep troops with special skills in uniform. The economic recession has greatly reduced the competition recruiters get from civilian employers. In general, the bonuses are quickly sliding back to their pre-Iraq levels ($300 million a year), versus the billion plus dollars spent last year. It's not only new recruits who are easier to get, but more first term troops are re-enlisting, even with the earlier cuts in re-enlistment bonuses.
It's not just the recession causing this. Talk to the troops, and you find that there are other reasons as well. One of the more interesting ones, is actually an old one. It seems that after every war, people who only joined up (or were conscripted) because it was an emergency, find that they like the military life, and stay. It happened after every American war, but particularly after World War II, Korea and Vietnam, because those were rare times in U.S. history when the peacetime military was so large. There were actually careers for men, and women, who wanted to stay in the military. It's happening again. The numbers aren't as large, because it's an all-volunteer force, but thousands of men and women joined out of a sense of obligation and patriotism, fully intending to get out and return to their familiar civilian careers. Many are staying in, because the military life wasn't what they expected.
Another reason many are staying, including those who were always headed for a military career, is that the war in Iraq was won, and Afghanistan will not be nearly as big. Thus military life won't be as intense as it was the past few years. All this, plus the recession, are taking a great deal of stress off recruiters, and the NCOs responsible for making the re-enlistment numbers (a job that was more stressful these past few years.)
But in one area, the bonuses continue. In the last few years, the U.S. Department of Defense has paid over $100 million in retention bonuses to nearly 2,000 experienced Special Operations operators. Most of those getting the bonuses were Special Forces and SEAL personnel who were eligible for retirement, and being offered high paying civilian security jobs, or simply the prospect of relaxing. Appeals to patriotism, and bonuses of up to $150,000, persuaded most of those operators to stay in uniform. This was a bargain for the government, as well as for troops in question.
It would cost millions of dollars, and nearly a decade of effort, to replace each of those twenty year vets. Bonuses of under $100,000 worked for troops not yet eligible for the half-pay pension. Most of the billions in bonus money goes to a small number of specialists, like Special Forces, SEALs, explosives disposal (they deal with roadside bombs), intelligence and electronics specialists. The SOCOM operators are still under a great deal of pressure, with many of them still spending more than half their time overseas.
The bonus program has been around for decades, but as been used more aggressively in the last decade, as the civilian economy boomed, and civilian employers increasingly saw highly skilled military personnel as potential hires. Recruiters, while not admitting it, look forward to an occasional recession, to take the heat off. This recession, however, may be more severe than any experienced since the early 1980s (when unemployment hit ten percent). That's a departure from post-World War II experience, which has seen recessions comely less frequently, and with less intensity. For the army, this appears to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to hang onto some quality people.