Enlistment bonuses and reenlistment bonuses are a very old concept, but in modern times there are added complications, taxation, and the availability of bonuses for the new recruit’s chosen career field.
Other issues include the availability of jobs in fields that pay such bonuses, and whether or not a new recruit or someone reenlisting has the skills to make it in a career field that is understaffed or highly technical enough to warrant a bonus.
You should also know that military bonuses (enlistment and reenlistment) are not given to all new recruits or to all who reenlist.
The Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, and Marine Corps all have separate recruiting and retention goals, and some career fields are tough to fill. Bonuses are a way to entice people to sign up for critically-manned career fields and to help keep them there.
Enlistment Bonus vs. Reenlistment Bonus
Enlistment bonuses may be offered in different amounts to those who have served before and are returning to a life in uniform. Army Reserve prior service recruits are offered up to $20,000 depending on the job they are in or entering, the demands of the career field, and other factors.
Non-prior service enlistment bonuses are strictly for those who have never served before. Naturally, when you visit a Guard or Reserve recruiter, you will be offered a prior-service bonus depending on the career field (not all Guard and Reserve jobs pay a bonus.)
But if you visit an active duty recruiter as a prior service member, your bonuses may not be offered with the same terms or amounts.
The amount of time you spend out of uniform may also affect your eligibility for an enlistment bonus if you are prior service. Army requirements for such bonuses have in the past included a requirement to be a civilian for more than 90 days in order to qualify for prior service bonuses in critically manned career fields.
Reenlistment bonuses are not offered to troops until a specific time period before the servicemember has to sign a new contract to reenlist.
Reenlistment bonuses are paid for the same reasons as the initial enlistment bonus where applicable – the difference here being that reenlistment bonuses are not tied to whether or not you were paid an enlistment bonus.
The list of critically manned career fields can easily change in the span of time between your first enlistment and your first reenlistment ceremony.
In other words, just because you were paid an enlistment bonus does not mean you are automatically entitled to get one upon reenlistment. The nature of your career field may change in the meantime, and many variables could affect whether you are offered another bonus.
“Quick Ship” Bonuses
Depending on current recruiting goals, a new recruit may be offered a bonus if they can ship out to Basic Training within a short period of time after signing up. Here’s the complete list of U.S. Navy quick ship bonus opportunities offered for a limited time period in 2019–these were offered to new recruits who signed up for the career fields below AND shipped out between July and September 2019:
- Cryptologic Technician Interpretive (CTI-ATF) — $10,000
- Information Systems Technician (IT-ATF) — $20,000
- Missile Technician (MT-AEF) — $20,000
- Nuclear Field (NF) — $15,000
- Sub Electronics Computer Field (SECF-5YO) — $10,000
Student Loan Payoff Bonuses
Some new recruits may be offered help with student loans IF they enlist into the right career field. The Navy’s program for student loan payoff is intended for those who enlist in certain jobs (see below) includes the Navy paying up to $65,000 (at the time of this writing) for a new recruit’s Stafford, Perkins, PLUS, and other Title 4 loans.
This is just one example of the kinds of student loan programs that have been offered in the past–ask an Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, or Marine Corps recruiter if there are current programs similar to this one.
Those who sign up for the following Navy career fields and go active before June 1, 2020, could have the option of a student loan payment:
- Advanced Electronics Computer Field (AECF-AEF)
- Air Rescue Swimmer (AIRR-ATF)
- Avionics Aviation (AV-5YO)
- Cryptologic Technician Collection (CTR-SG)
- Cryptologic Technician Interpretive (CTI-ATF)
- Cryptologic Technician Maintenance (CTM-SG)
- Cryptologic Technician Networks (CTN-ATF)
- Cryptologic Technician Technical (CTT-AEF)
- Cryptologic Technician Technical (CTT-SG)
- Explosive Ordinance (EOD-ATF)
- Information Systems Technician (IT-ATF)
- Information Systems Technician (IT-SG)
- Information Systems Technician (ITS-ATF)
- Intelligence Specialist (IS-ATF)
- Missile Technician (MT-AEF)
- Navy Musician (MU-SG)
- Navy Diver (ND-ATF)
- Nuclear Field (NF/NUC)
- Sonar Technician Surface (STG-AEF)
- Special Warfare Boat Operator (SB-ATF)
- Special Warfare Operator (SO-ATF)
- Sub Electronics Computer Field (SECF-5YO)
Enlistment and Reenlistment Bonus Factors
There are different bonuses depending on your branch of service, and there are also variations based on the nature of service such as Guard, Reserve, or active-duty.
For example, Air Force Reserve enlistees may qualify for enlistment bonuses of up to $20,000 These bonuses are paid to those who sign up for certain Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) careers that are currently authorized for bonuses.
Air Force Reserve recruiting and retention leaders review the list of AFSCs eligible for bonuses. This review happens once every six months.
The Navy official site lists its current bonus-approved career fields. The list is subject to change at any time, but at the time of this writing, some of the careers that offer bonuses to new recruits include:
- Advanced Electronics Computer Field (AECF-AEF) — $10,000
- Air Rescue Swimmer (AIRR-ATF) — $36,000
- Avionics Aviation (AV-SG) — $10,000
- Cryptologic Technician Interpretive (CTI-ATF) — $25,000
- Cryptologic Technician Networks (CTN-ATF) — $10,000
- Explosive Ordnance (EOD-ATF) — $36,000
- Hospital Corpsman (HM-ATF) — $25,000
- Navy Diver (ND-ATF) — $36,000
- Nuclear Field (NF) — $38,000
- Special Warfare Boat Operator (SB-ATF) — $36,000
- Sub Electronics Computer Field (SECF-5YO) — $10,000
- Special Warfare Operator (SO-ATF) — $36,000
Note that in all cases, highly specialized training, provided by the Navy, is required to enter and maintain a position in these jobs. The amounts you see above are subject to change and are listed here as a reference only.
Some are more grueling than others. For instance, the Air Rescue Swimmer job requires a high degree of physical fitness and quick decision-making skills.
Explosive Ordnance jobs are incredibly high-risk and require all troops to work with explosives as a regular part of their jobs. As you can see, these bonuses are paid for these careers with good reason.
How Enlistment Bonuses Are Paid
The timing, delivery system, and amount of payment for an enlistment bonus may vary depending on the branch of military service.
Here’s the current procedure for U.S. Air Force enlistment bonus payments as described by the Air Force official site:
“When qualified enlistment bonuses apply, they are one-time payments (lump sums) paid after you successfully complete the training specified in your contract and sign in at your first permanent duty station.” (The Air Force Initial Enlistment Bonus is payable for certain AFSCs, and the amounts vary depending on the length of enlistment.)
Once you have been at your permanent duty station for 30 days, you take your request for payment to the customer service branch at the Military Personnel Flight (MPF) on your base”. Funds become available within a 60 to 90-day window after your request is submitted. Remember, this is the Air Force policy, and other branches of service may have a different protocol.
Are Military Enlistment Bonuses and Reenlistment Bonuses Taxable?
Enlistment and reenlistment bonuses carry tax implications which should not be ignored, and if you are eligible to receive such a bonus, ask someone in your unit orderly room, your First Sergeant or First Shirt, Command Sergeant Major, or your base finance office how to get up to speed as quickly as possible on the tax requirements for a military bonus.
What follows should not be construed as tax advice. What you need to know about military recruitment bonuses and reenlistment bonuses is that they may or may not be taxable in certain cases, and are definitely taxable in others. The only tax advice you should take from an article published online is to seek the help of a tax professional or discuss your concerns with the IRS or the state taxation authority.
That said, the short answer is yes, you should expect to pay taxes on a reenlistment bonus.
That means that if you are offered a $20,000 bonus you will not receive the full amount. You will receive the amount due after taxation is computed. The Defense Accounting and Finance Service (DFAS) withholds 22 percent of the bonus at the time of this writing. You will receive the after-withholding amount.
Those who reenlist in a combat zone would have their bonuses exempt from taxation.
Do not assume that tax laws from the previous year (or any previous year) will carry over into the next tax season. State and federal tax laws change frequently and you should always consult a tax professional to discuss the implications of a large sum of money paid to you that is subject to taxation.
You Might Not Be Eligible for a Bonus If…
Some branches of the service may have qualification requirements that render some ineligible for a reenlistment bonus or an initial bonus. As mentioned above, not all military members can be paid an enlistment bonus or the reenlistment equivalent.
Some are not eligible at reenlistment time if they are currently being paid certain other military allowances or benefits. Troops who are receiving nuclear training pay, for example, may not be eligible.
For example, an Army Selective Reenlistment Bonus (SRB) does not allow the soldier to double-dip—that is, to collect a bonus working in one career field AND attempting to receive another bonus by reenlisting and cross-training in another field that also offers a bonus. You can get one bonus per enlistment or reenlistment, but no more.
Another issue is a certain number of troops may not be eligible is due to past misconduct that renders them unable to reenlist.
These troops with discipline problems may be permitted to complete their current enlistment, but if the misconduct forces an early discharge, the service member may be required to pay back the amount of bonus proportional to the time not served.
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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