Not surprisingly, Uncle Sam has been having a tough time of late convincing young men and women to answer the call to serve their country. With the unemployment rate hovering around a four-decade low in 2022 and wages on the rise, many would-be recruits have plenty of job options. And with inflation hitting levels not seen since the early 1980s, those military discounts don’t go as far as they once did.
Uncle Sam may want them to join up, but, more than ever, they want Uncle Sam to show them the money. And he’s starting to oblige.
During challenging recruiting climates , the military has long used bonuses to lure recruits and convince current service members to reenlist. And with the challenges growing in 2022, so have the bonuses. For instance, the Army announced on April 20 that it would award new recruits up to $10,000 bonuses for attending basic training within 30 days of enlisting. This is known as a “quick ship” bonus.
Landing it, however, isn’t as simple as showing up at your local recruiting office after graduating from high school. The Department of Defense reports that roughly 70% of young Americans are not immediately qualified for service because of health conditions, criminal records or other factors.
When you factor in the lack of interest many young people have in joining the military, the recruiting picture grows bleaker. In 2019, Anthony M. Kurta , who served as the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, reported that “only about 2% of the 20.6 million 17- to 21-year-olds in the United States are eligible, propensed to serve, and of high academic quality.”
When you look at it that way, it’s no wonder that Uncle Sam is pulling out the checkbook.
As the name implies, the definition and purpose of military bonuses are pretty straightforward: specific payments designed to attract recruits to join the armed forces or convince those already in uniform to stay in it. Bonuses come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the branch of service and the particular occupations and lengths of contracts. It can be paid in a lump sum, annual installments, or a combination of the two.
Not all jobs within the military offer bonuses. Bonuses are most likely to be offered for those skills and positions that are in the greatest demand. In addition to bonuses targeted at those who join the military, or reenlist, additional bonuses may be available to those who complete special training, take on extra responsibilities, or who have previously served in the military.
Those who do not complete the terms of their service or bonus agreement may have to repay a portion of it.
Here is a rundown of some of the more popular bonuses available:
- Enlistment Bonus: This is one of the most common and generous bonuses available to new recruits. Depending on the role, new recruits may be eligible for up to $50,000 in cash bonuses. The actual amount will depend on the branch of service, specific role/skill specialty and length of the enlistment contract.
- Reenlistment Bonus: Those already on active duty may be eligible for a bonus to reenlist (known as a “retention bonus”) if they have completed at least 17 months of continuous active duty (other than for training) but not more than 14 years of active duty. Certain restrictions or requirements may apply, such as extending their enlistment for at least three years.
- Individual Ready Reserve Reenlistment Bonus: This is a special bonus for current or former members of the armed forces to commit to a combat or combat-support skill of their force’s Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) for a period of three to six years beyond the service member’s obligation.
- Prior Service Enlistment Bonus: Those with prior military service can qualify for either a six-year or three-year enlistment bonus. Certain restrictions apply, and the bonus is not payable until recruit training is completed. The bonus is currently worth up to $40,000 depending on the military skill and length of enlistment.
- Selective Reenlistment Bonus: Also known as the Selective Retention Bonus, this cash payment is available to service members with critical military skills who agree to stay in the service. The current maximum is $25,000 per year or reenlistment, topping out at $100,000 for a four-year reenlistment. The more difficult a position is to fill, the higher the amount of the bonus in most cases. It is usually paid in a lump sum of 50% at the time of reenlistment, with the remaining amount paid in equal annual installments.
- Aviator Retention Bonus: This bonus is for aviation officers who agree to remain on operational flying duty for at least one year after their initial term of service. The annual amounts vary depending on each service’s needs and how long the aviator agrees to serve.
- Navy Nuclear Officer Bonuses: This bonus, known as the Nuclear Officer Bonus and Incentive Pay (NOBIP), is paid to naval officers selected for naval nuclear power training; duty in connection with the supervision; operation; and maintenance of naval nuclear propulsion plants. It is paid upon selection for training, graduation from training, and each year thereafter.
Who Is Eligible for Military Bonuses?
In addition to being used to lure new recruits, bonuses also may be available to active-duty, reservists and some veterans. Of course, eligibility for bonuses, as well as the specific amount available, will vary depending upon such factors as the branch of service, education level, civilian experiences, specific job specialty and length of enlistment contract.
Enlistment and reenlistment bonuses also are routinely adjusted as needed to ensure that the services are maintaining an optimal number of service members in critical fields to complete their various missions.
Active-duty service members are basically full-time military personnel, as opposed to members of the Reserves and National Guard who typically serve on a part-time basis while maintaining regular jobs and/or civilian lives. Those who enlist for active duty will forgo starting their civilian occupational career for at least two years. On the plus side, serving in active duty enables service members to immerse themselves in mastering a specific job skill by practicing it full time.
They may be stationed within the United States or abroad and can retire with full benefits after 20 years of service.
Active-duty members also receive full medical and dental benefits and unlimited access to stores (post exchanges and commissaries) located on military bases that offer discounted merchandise to them and their families.
Active-duty bonuses will vary among service branches, deployment status and job specialty, and will change regularly depending on recruiting needs. In some cases, eligibility for a given bonus will require the recipient to enlist longer than the normal four-year period.
In contrast to active-duty personnel, members of the reserves typically serve on a part-time basis, though they can be called up to active duty and deployed as needed. The reserves exist primarily to support the need for additional deployed forces in times of conflict, war or other military missions. Each military branch maintains a reserve force that is trained and equipped to serve on active duty when required.
Reservists will receive significant training in their chosen job field and are able to practice it one weekend per month and two weeks per year. Many choose to enlist in the reserves to further their education while having the flexibility to begin immediately working as a civilian.
As is the case with active-duty personnel, bonuses for reservists vary depending on the service branch, job specialty and the length of the enlistment contract. The more generous bonuses go to the positions that are in greatest demand.
Military Enlistment Bonus
Those who choose to enlist in the military often will find that the amount of their enlistment bonus will depend on the length of their contract, among other factors. Generally speaking, if a bonus is less than $20,000, it will be paid in a lump sum after completing the terms of the contract — usually after completing basic training or initial technical training.
If the military enlistment bonus is over $20,000, service members generally will get half “up front” (upon the completion of initial training), with the remaining half paid out in annual installments. In these cases, service members must continue to meet applicable standards for their military rating or job specialty to receive their anniversary bonus installments.
Some high-demand, difficult-to-fill military jobs may be eligible for an enlistment bonus up to $40,000. The size and availability of such bonuses depends on branch of service, job specialty and the length of enlistment, which typically ranges from three to six years.
Both active-duty and reservist members of the U.S. Army are eligible for various enlistment bonuses. Bonuses totaling up to $50,000 may be available to qualified active-duty recruits. The amounts are updated periodically for contracts ranging from three to six years and subject to change. Those joining the reserves currently may be eligible for up to $20,000 in bonuses.
Here is a rundown of various bonuses available to eligible active-duty recruits.
- Civilian Acquired Skills Bonus: Recruits who possess or are interested in gaining specific skills that the Army needs, such as expertise in persuasion, foreign languages or technical explosives, may be eligible for bonuses up to $40,000.
- High Demand MOS: Recruits who enlist for three or more years in the following Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) jobs may qualify for additional seasonal bonuses ranging from $3,000 to $15,000. Current high demand-MOSs include Special Forces, elementary language proficiency; psychological operations specialist; microwave systems operator-maintainer; human intelligence collector; language proficiency; air missile defense crew member.
- 35P Cryptologic Linguist Bonus: Qualified individuals who speak certain foreign languages are eligible for an enlistment bonus of up to $40,000.
- Critical Skills Retention Bonus: A service member in a designated critical area may be eligible to receive a Critical Skills Retention Bonus (CSRB) if the individual signs an agreement to remain on active duty for at least one year. This bonus is not available currently for members who have completed more than 25 years of active duty or who will complete their 25th year of active duty before the end of the period of active duty for which the bonus is being offered. Qualifying professions can be found on this website: https://www.hrc.army.mil/milper/all
Various bonuses also are available to National Guard soldiers who are on state active duty with no prior experience, or those with prior experience who meet a critical skill, term of service and other specific eligibility requirements.
Here is a rundown:
- Reserve Component Enlistment Bonus : Bonuses totaling up to $20,000 may be available to those without prior experience who enlist in the Army National Guard for six years in a specific job-skill specialty.
- Prior Service Enlistment Bonus: A bonus of up to $20,000 may be available to those who formerly served in the armed forces who agree to serve in the Army National Guard in a specific job skill for a three- or six-year enlistment.
- Reenlistment/Extension Bonus: A bonus of up to $20,000 may be available to current members of the Army National Guard who agree to reenlist or extend for a two-, three- or four-year term of service and meet qualifying criteria.
- Enlisted Affiliation Bonus: A bonus of up to $20,000 may be available to former and current active-duty soldiers who meet qualifying eligibility criteria and agree to serve with the Army National Guard in a specific job skill for a three- or six-year enlistment.
- Officer/Warrant Officer Accession Bonus: A bonus of up to $20,000 may be available to an officer or person who meets all eligibility criteria and accepts a commission or appointment to serve in an identified job skill for six years in the Army National Guard.
- Officer/Warrant Officer Retention Bonus: A bonus of up to $20,000 may be available to an officer or warrant officer in the Army National Guard who has completed their commissioning obligation, met all eligibility criteria and agrees to serve for a minimum of three additional years.
- Officer/Warrant Officer Affiliation Bonus: A bonus of up to $20,000 may be available to an officer or warrant officer who joins the Army National Guard from another military service and agrees to serve in a specific job skill for a three- or six-year period.
- Student Loan Repayment Program: The opportunity to have the Army repay authorized student loans up to $50,000 may be available to members of the Army National Guard. This program is available both to those with or without prior experience as well as currently serving soldiers. Terms of service vary.
- Chaplain Loan Repayment Program: A bonus of up to $80,000 may be available to individuals who enter the Army National Guard to serve six years as a unit chaplain. To be eligible, service members must complete the chaplain officer basic course within 36 months of commissioning.
The U.S. Navy also offers enlistment bonuses for both active-duty and reserve members. In 2022, the Navy was offering up to $50,000 for active-duty recruits who left for boot camp before October, and up to $25,000 for reserve duty future sailors.
As of summer 2022, the following bonuses were available to active-duty recruits:
- Air Rescue Swimmer (AIRR-ATF) — $24,000
- Cryptologic Technician Interpretive (CTI-ATF) — $15,000
- Cryptologic Technician Networks (CTN-ATF) — $5,000
- Explosive Ordnance (EOD-ATF) — $18,000
- Hospital Corpsman Advanced Technical Field (HM-ATF) — $18,000
- Information Systems Technician Submarines (ITS-ATF) — $15,000
- Machinist’s Mate Submarines (MMS-5YO) — $10,000
- Missile Technician (MT-AEF) — $5,000
- Nuclear Field (NUC-NF) | Electrician’s Mate Nuclear (EMN), Electronics Technician Nuclear (ETN), Machinist’s Mate Nuclear (MMN) — $38,000
- Special Warfare Boat Operator (SB-ATF) — $18,000
- Sub Electronics Computer Field (SECF-5YO) | Fire Control Technician (FT), Sonar Technician Submarines (STS), Electronics Technician Navigation (ETV), Electronics Technician Communications (ETR) — $15,000
As of summer 2022, the following enlistment bonuses were available for U.S. Navy reservists:
- Air Crew (AIRC-NAT) — $15,000
- Equipment Operator (EO-NAT) — $5,000
- Intelligence Specialist (IS-NAT) — $5,000
- Information Systems Technician (IT-NAT) — $5,000
Reservists with prior service time also can qualify for a prior service affiliation bonus up to $20,000
The U.S. Air Force is looking to attract airmen with a variety of bonuses, including “quick ship” bonuses for those who agree to enlist immediately. All bonuses for airmen are earned upon completion of Air Force training and either a six-year or four-year enlistment commitment.
Here is a list of bonuses available:
- “Quick Ship” Bonus: Currently offered through Sept. 30, 2022, a bonus of up to $8,000 is available to any recruit who immediately enters active-duty service within any career field. The recruit must agree to ship out within five days or less.
- Cyber Bonuses: Bonuses ranging from $12,000 to $20,000 (based on the member’s highest level of certification) are available for members in the following career fields: cyber systems operations; cyber surety; client systems; cyber transport systems.
- Special Warfare Bonuses: A bonus of up to $50,000 is available to special warfare operators upon entering active duty in the following fields: pararescue; special reconnaissance, tactical air control party; combat control; survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE); and explosive ordnance disposal. The bonus maximum is $40,000 for SERE members.
- Airborne Cryptologic Language Analyst: Six-year bonus of $20,000.
- Cryptologic Language Analyst: Six-year bonus of $18,000.
- Radio Frequency Transmission Systems: Six-year bonus of $6,000, four-year bonus of $3,000.
- Refuel/Bomber Aircraft Maintenance: Six-year bonus of $6,000, four-year bonus of $3,000.
- Aerospace Ground Equipment: Six-year bonus of $6,000, four-year bonus of $3,000.
- Munitions Systems (2W031): Six-year bonus of $6,000, four-year bonus of $3,000.
- Any mechanical or electrical aptitude area: Six-year bonus of $6,000, four-year bonus of $3,000.
Those who join the Air Force Reserves in specific fields also may be available for bonuses up to $20,000. The career fields eligible for the bonuses are subject to change every six months depending upon the service’s needs.
Enlistment bonuses are paid out in installments over six years on the enlistment date anniversary date.
For a limited time, those with prior service in the Air Force also are eligible for a $6,000 incentive bonus to join the reserves.
Recruits who agree to ship to boot camp during the months of December to May currently are eligible for a $3,000 bonus upon graduation. If shipping out during other months of the year, a $2,000 bonus may be available. To qualify for the bonuses, recruits must be at least 17 years old at time of enlistment but under age 29. Recruits also must be a legal U.S. resident, have their high school diploma and pass a physical exam. They also must score at least 50 on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT).
Other bonuses often are related to Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) for new recruits as well as those who choose to remain in or make a lateral move into a high-demand job specialty.
Here is a rundown of the MOS bonuses available:
- Electronics Maintenance – $8,000
- Supply, Accounting and Legal – $3,000
- Information and Comm Technology – $5,000
- Cyber, Intel, Crypto Ops and Plans – $2,000
- Motor Transport – $4,000
- Infantry 6-year Option – $5,000
- Music – $6,000
- CBRN Defense – $7,000
The Marines also offer a Selective Retention Bonus (SRB) for enlisted members with critical skills who reenlist. The higher bonuses typically go to those positions that are the most difficult to fill.
The amount of the SRB is based on the MOS, rating and zones.
The zones are as follows and are related to active-duty service:
- Zone A – 17 months to six years of service
- Zone B – six to 10 years of service
- Zone C – 10 to 14 years of service
- Zone E – 18 to 20 years of service
A service member is eligible for only one bonus payment per zone, and must serve in the MOS from which they received the bonus.
Those who enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve (SMCR) also are eligible for a bonus of $3,000 for fiscal year 2022.
Others bonuses that may be available to reservists include:
- Active Reserve (AR) Enlisted Affiliation Bonus (EAB)
- Reserve Affiliation Composite Score Point Incentive
- SMCR Unit Corporals
- SMCR Unit Officer Retention Bonus (RORB)
- Forward Air Controller (FAC) Air officer Affiliation Bonus
- Selected Marine Corps Reserve Retraining Program
The military’s recruiting efforts are focused not only on convincing people to sign up for the first time. They also are focused on retaining current service members for as long as possible.
Enter the bonuses for service members who have satisfactorily completed their initial obligation to Uncle Sam and choose to reenlist for another stint. To qualify for a reenlistment bonus, a service member must generally meet the following requirements:
- Completed at least 17 months of continuous active duty (other than for training) but not more than 14 years of active duty.
- Qualified in a critical military skill.
- Is not receiving special nuclear-training pay.
- Reenlist or voluntarily extend their enlistment for a period of at least three years.
- Enlist in a regular component of the service concerned or continue in a reserve component of the service concerned.
The amount of the bonus again will depend on the service branch, job specialty and length of the contract. Service members who choose to enlist in the reserves or National Guard may be eligible for a bonus of up to $20,000.
The Selective Reenlistment Bonus (also known as the Selective Retention Bonus) is targeted toward service members with critical military skills. Generally speaking, the more difficult a given position is to fill, the higher the bonus will be. Currently, the maximum SRB is $25,000 per year or reenlistment, potentially totaling $100,000 for a four-year reenlistment. Service members may qualify for up to two SRBs in their military career, for a maximum total of $200,000.
Prior Service Bonuses
Service members who transition from the regular military to the ready reserve after meeting all the conditions of their initial enlistment may be eligible for a bonus of up to $10,000, depending on the service branch, job specialty and length of contract. Those with critical military skills who agree to serve an additional three to six years can qualify for a reserve affiliation bonus of up to $15,000.
Several states offer veterans a military bonus. In most cases, these bonuses are awarded to vets who joined the military from the specific state and served during wartime or in a named military campaign. The amount of the bonus and qualifications to receive it vary by state and may be limited to veterans who served during specific conflicts or achieved a specific discharge rating.
The following states currently offer veteran bonuses:
- New Hampshire
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Certain high-demand military jobs may qualify for additional pay, as needs warrant. They include the following:
- Aviation Career Pay – Available to both regular and reserve officers who hold or are training to hold an aeronautical designation or rating, and engage in aviation service on a career basis.
- Career Sea Pay – Available to service members who have served 36 months of consecutive sea duty. They are entitled to a career sea pay premium for the 37th month and each consecutive month thereafter.
- Diving Duty Pay – Available to service members designated as divers by order, training and assignment. Qualification requirements vary by service branch.
- Foreign Language Proficiency Pay – Available to officers and enlisted members certified as proficient in a foreign language.
- Hardship Duty Pay — Available to service members performing a designated hardship mission; when assigned to a designated location; or when serving on a designated involuntary extension of duty.
- High Deployment Allowance – Available to members who are deployed 401 days or more out of the preceding 730 days, including for operations, exercises, unit training, home station training, and mission support temporary duty.
- Hostile Fire / Imminent Danger Pay – Available to service members subject to hostile fire, serving in a hostile area, or are killed or wounded in hostile action.
- Judge Advocate Continuation Pay – An incentive that provides student loan repayment relief for young Judge Advocates.
- Overseas Extension Pay – Available to service members who agree to extend their overseas tour. It is awarded at the discretion of the service secretary and is based on specific conditions.
- Sea Duty Pay – Available to service members who are at pay grade E-4 and above who meet certain conditions related to vessel assignment.
- Special Duty Assignment Pay – Available to enlisted members whose duties are extremely difficult or involve an unusual degree of responsibility.
- Special Pay for Dental Officers – Available to members who accept a commission to serve as a dental officer in the military for at least four years.
- Special Pay for Medical Officers — Includes Variable Special Pay, Board Certified Pay, Additional Special Pay, Incentive Special Pay, Multiyear Special Pay, Board Certified Pay for Non-physician Health Care Providers and Diplomat Pay for Psychologists.
- Special Pay for Nurse Corps Officers – Available to qualified nurses who accept a commission to service on active duty as Nurse Corps officers for at least four years.
- Special Pay for Optometrists – Available to commissioned optometry officers who receive a call or order to active duty for a period of at least one year. Eligibility also may be available to those with less than one year of active duty under certain conditions.
- Special Pay for Pharmacy Officers – Available to commissioned pharmacy officers serving in a pay grade below O-7 who meet certain requirements.
- Special Pay for Veterinarians – Available to commissioned veterinary officers called to active duty for a period of at least one year by meeting certain requirements. Eligibility also may be available to those with less than one year of active duty under certain conditions.
- Submarine Duty Pay – Available to sailors serving under orders on a submarine; while serving on an operational submersible; during nuclear submarine training; or by meeting other requirements.
A service member who fails to fulfill the terms of the bonus agreement may have to repay part or all of it.
Because bonus payments are subject to tax withholdings, having to repay a bonus typically comes with tax implications for the service member. If the bonus payment and repayment occur in the same tax year, the tax situation should be straightforward as long as the service member’s W-2 form reflects the correct amount of income and taxes withheld; in such situations, the repayment should result in either a larger refund or smaller amount owed.
However, if the bonus payment and repayment occur in different tax years, it may be wise to consult the IRS or a tax professional for guidance on how to factor into a current tax return or amend a previous year’s return.
About The Author
Craig Richardson is a military veteran who started his journalism career while serving in the Navy. Following overseas deployments to the Med and Middle East, including service in Operation Desert Storm, he left for the private sector but continued with journalism. He has worked for several publishers and news organizations over nearly 30 years and continued to cover stories with ties to veterans and military affairs throughout his career.
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