July 22, 2009: The U.S. Army, overwhelmed with new recruits, and existing troops wanting to stay in, is eliminating nearly all re-enlistment bonuses for the rest of the fiscal year (which ends in September). Earlier this year, the army sharply cut back on its enlistment, and re-enlistment bonus program, mainly because the economic recession reduced the competition recruiters get from civilian employers, the army still pays well for those with rare skills. 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.
But in one area, there will be no cuts. 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 bonus program has been around for decades, but as been used more aggressively in the last decade, as the civilian economy boomed, and 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.
The recession fueled boom in enlistments has allowed the army to raise its recruiting standards again. Two years ago, recruiting standards had been lowered and screening methods improved. Before the fighting in Iraq got bloody (2004-7), less than ten percent of army recruits had been high school dropouts. But during that period, that has grown to 24 percent, with no noticeable decline in the quality of troops. Same thing with those receiving "moral waivers" (for having a police record). That has gone from 4.6 percent six years ago, to 6.2 percent in 2007. Now all those standards are going back to the pre-2003 levels.
But as the army raises the bar for new recruits, and existing troops to stay in, they again encounter an ancient problem; whether to hang on to combat proven veterans who are troublesome in peacetime. It's long been known that some soldiers, who appear to have attitude and discipline problems in peacetime, turn out to be exceptional performers in combat. Commanders can take the easy way out, and discharge these guys at the first sign of trouble. Or, mindful of how valuable these wild men are in combat, go the extra mile to hang on to them. The army and marines don't like to even admit people like this exist. But combat veterans, especially those who make a career of the military, know the problem, or opportunity, is real.
And then there was another oddity. During 2004-7, the army has had the most problems recruiting troops for non-combat jobs. Patriotism, low casualties, and a sense of adventure, brings in plenty of recruits for the infantry. But with support jobs, the army is competing with the civilian economy, which has been booming of late. But the civilian jobs are mainly been for those who graduated from high school. Thus the army is attractive to drop outs, and this has presented the opportunity to find those drop outs who are truly ready to succeed. But the army has to be quick, because the civilian "human resources" community has been watching the army effort with great interest, and wants the same people, if it can discover them before the army can. That will happen as the civilian economy climbs out of the recession.