Military benefits can seem complicated, especially if you are not sure which branch of the U.S. military to join. Which service offers the best military benefits? The answer is simpler than you might think, but there are some areas that are more complex than others.
In general, there is no basic advantage in joining one service over the other in terms of which benefits are available from your chosen branch of military service.
All service members who serve the minimum required time in uniform and meet program guidelines may sign up for the GI Bill, TRICARE, enroll in professional military education, collect housing allowances, and receive special duty pay where offered and applicable.
Those who are wondering what the basic benefits of joining the military are, regardless of service, should know that whatever uniform you wear in the U.S. military, the following may apply:
- Steady income with upward mobility based on time in service and time-in-grade
- Government-paid relocations to domestic and overseas duty assignments
- Education Benefits (GI Bill, tuition assistance, Yellow Ribbon programs, etc.)
- 30 days paid leave
- Tax-free room, board and housing allowances
- Annual uniform allowances
- Dental Care
- Mental health care
- Spouse and dependent healthcare
- Access to Commissary and AAFES stores
- VA home loans
- Tax-free income during deployments to hostile fire areas/imminent danger pay where applicable
- Proficiency skills pay where applicable (foreign language ability, other in-demand skills)
Where do the military branches begin to differ? Benefits by branch will vary in several areas or departments.
Each branch of service has its own bonuses, usually dependent on the critical career fields they are trying to fill at the time. Other concerns that dictate these bonuses include the military’s yearly staffing goals and quotas for each branch of the service and for certain mission-essential career fields.
The Army’s bonuses won’t resemble the Air Force’s, etc. for this important reason. There isn’t really a “better” branch of service in this department. It all depends on what jobs you are after and what your long-term goals are for your military career.
Select military enlistment bonus opportunities include but are not limited to the following small samples from the Air Force, Army, and Navy official sites:
The U.S. Air Force seeks Airborne/Land Based Linguist, Crypto Linguist, & Explosive Ordnance Disposal recruits and is prepared to offer bonuses at the time of this writing. According to the Air Force official site, these bonuses are paid to new recruits in order to “…obtain highly qualified individuals in these specialties.”
Bonus amounts will vary depending on the career field, and are officially offered specifically for 2020 but this is a good example of the type of bonuses you can be paid at enlistment. Programs, lists, and guidelines are subject to review and change each year as DoD requirements, mission needs, and other variables dictate.
Another Air Force bonus program is the “In-Demand Career Bonus” offered to those who enlist in in-demand Air Force career fields such as:
- Combat Controller
- Tactical Air Control Party
- Special Reconnaissance
- SERE- Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE)
- EOD- Explosive Ordnance Disposal
- Airborne Linguist
- Crypto Linguist
- Cyber Systems Operations
- Cyber Surety
- Client Systems
- Cyber Transport Systems
The U.S. Army official site includes a section declaring, “As a qualified active duty recruit, you may earn an enlistment bonus of up to $40,000.” The bonuses paid are dependent on signing up for a mission-essential career including (but not limited to) the following Army specialties:
- Infantryman (11x)
- Geospatial Engineer (12Y)
- Cannon Crewmember (13B)
- Joint Fire Support Specialist (13F)
- Fire Control Specialist (13J)
- Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS/HMARS) Crewmember (13M)
- Field Artillery Firefinder Radar Operator (13R)
- Patriot Fire Control Enhanced Operator (14E)
- Air Defense Battle Management System Operator (14G)
The actual list at the Army recruiting official site is much longer, this is only a sample view. Many other career fields/MOS codes are on the complete list at GoArmy.com
For the year 2020, enlistment bonus programs included, but were not limited to:
- Enlistment Bonus for Shipping paying $5,000 for those who ship out according to the current year’s deadline
- Enlistment Bonus for College Credit
- The Enlistment Bonus for Physical Screening Test
- Physical Fitness Assessment bonus payable to those recruits who pass physical performance or screening tests “on their first attempt only”. Ask a recruiter under what circumstances this bonus is paid, and when
- Enlistment Bonus for Source Ratings
- The Navy official site advises that multiple bonuses may be earned at the same time when signing up for Navy duty, but the federal cap on all bonuses related to enlistment is $40,000
Supplemental Education Benefits
All branches of military service including the U.S. Space Force have identical provisions for those who want to sign up for the GI Bill, TRICARE, group life insurance, and other benefits offered to all those in uniform. But each branch of the service has its own unique set of programs to help servicemembers and even dependents qualify for additional education benefits.
Some of these are offered by service relief agencies such as the Air Force Aid Society or the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, others may be provided by a local entity working in partnership with the DoD or the base where such programs are offered.
Don’t make the mistake of choosing your branch of military service based on whether or not you can get tuition assistance in this way–all branches have some form of additional help for education, and the programs vary as much as the services themselves. But once you decide which branch to join it is a very good idea to go in search of these programs when you are ready to begin.
Education Benefits You Should Ask Your Recruiter About No Matter Which Branch You Join
No matter whether you decide to join the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, or Space Force, be sure to ask your recruiter about how the following programs may be able to help you with education funding goals:
- College loan repayment options such as the Federal Student Loan Forgiveness Program which could help eliminate as much as $65,000 in existing student loan debt for a new recruit joining the U.S. Army, the Air Force, or the Navy. Guard and Reserve options are also available. Payment amounts vary depending on the service, the nature of your military service, and other variables. Be advised that such programs are subject to change, but in the past Marine Corps, Coast Guard and even the Air Force Reserve has not offered a similar program. Depending on the branch of service and whether you are active or not, your experience may vary.
- Tuition Assistance Programs are authorized for each branch of military service to provide as much as 100% of tuition expenses for its members whether active duty, National Guard, or Reserve. This assistance is good for technical training vocational, technical, undergraduate and graduate programs.
- Service-Specific College Funds, or GI Bill kicker or top-off funds may be available to you as an active duty or Reserve servicemember. These options, offered by the Navy, Marines, and Army, may be offered at enlistment at reenlistment time.
What To Ask Your Recruiter
No matter which branch of the military you wish to join, ask the recruiter the following questions to get more information about the benefits you could be earning:
- What are the current benefits paid specifically for enlisting now?
- What benefits might be offered to me if I agree to ship out to boot camp or basic training at a specific time (early departures, delayed enlistment, etc.)
- Are there any enlistment benefits that I am in danger of missing out on right now because I didn’t act soon enough?
- What is the total dollar value of all enlistment bonuses and other sign-up perks offered to me personally at this time based on my education level, ASVAB scores, and other variables?
- What can I do to qualify for more bonus money?
- What are the conditions under which I might be required to repay these bonuses or perks?
- What if I don’t finish basic training? What happens to the bonus money? Will I owe the government if I don’t complete my initial training (including advanced training, technical school, or other post-boot-camp education required of new recruits.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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