The US Army announced Wednesday that it would start offering up to $50,000 to new recruits to entice them in the door. This at the same time the Army is looking to (possibly) boot almost 3,000 for not complying with the vaccine mandate.
In October 2021, Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, briefed that the Army had met its 2021 end-strength goals, exceeding retention goals by almost 2,000 soldiers. The Army also met its retention goals in 2020, despite the pandemic and the ongoing fight against the virus. Brito credited the Army’s ability to meet goals to leadership’s ability to adapt and evolve to the ever-changing social landscape.
Army Basic Training
The Army has made some changes recently to its basic training programs. They have increased the ratio of drill instructors to recruits and begun training on sexual harassment, assault, and Army Ethics almost immediately upon arrival at training. According to Army.mil, attrition rates during basic training have dropped from 10.8% in FY 2020 to just 5.5% in FY 2021.
Consistently meeting recruiting goals, lowering attrition in basic training, and exceeding retention rates all point to a healthy, sustainable force. Why, then, is the Army offering massive enlistment bonuses to attract the talent they report they have been able to retain?
Bonuses offered by any military branch must be taken with a grain of salt, and fine print exists in military contracts the same as any cell phone carrier. The $50,000 number is extreme, offered only if many criteria are met. The benefits page on GoArmy.com shows some of the career fields eligible for enlistment bonuses and tells potential recruits they may be eligible for “quick ship” bonuses, prior-service bonuses, and annual bonuses for medical personnel.
What you don’t see until you’re actually signing up is how the bonuses stack (or not), whether you actually qualify for those bonuses (many don’t), and how these bonuses are doled out (News flash: You’re not getting it all!). I won’t go into detail on the ins and outs of the bonus program, but many of the readers have probably already dealt with some sort of bonus during their careers. For those that haven’t, here’s a little rundown:
Enlistment Bonus: tied to the number of years of enlistment. Enlist for six years instead of four: bigger bonus.
Critical Skills Bonus: tied to the career field a Soldier is enlisting into. Higher demand equals a higher bonus.
Quick Ship Bonus: the sooner a recruit is willing to ship out to basic, the higher the bonus awarded.
Reenlistment Bonus: tied to the number of years reenlisting for, current time-in-service, and (in some cases) rank.
The Numbers Behind the Numbers
The numbers being thrown around for bonuses are almost never paid out in reality, though. For one, the odds of a recruited candidate meeting all the requirements are slim. There would need to be a vacancy in the career field, an opening in both basic training and follow-on technical training. The recruit would also have to be ready to ship out on a moment’s notice, AND they would have to agree to a six-year enlistment. Once all the ingredients of the perfect recruit are assembled, the wheels of bureaucracy begin to grind.
After the recruit has met all the requirements, received training, and stayed with it long enough to qualify, that bonus check is released. But then, the big bad federal government steps in and waves the wand of taxation. Poof! Just like that, there goes 28% of that bonus. But wait! There’s more! Since you signed up for six years, the Army gets to pay out your bonus over those six years. Half up-front (minus 28% for Uncle Sugar), and the remainder doled out every year on the anniversary of enlistment. Oh, yeah, that’ll be taxed too.
$50,000 stacked bonus = $36,000 after taxes = $18,000 upfront = $3,000 every year = $2,160 after taxes = $30,960 total paid to recruit, over six years. It’s still a good amount of money, but not the $50k that everyone sees when they look at a recruiting site. These numbers are approximate and are used in a generic way to illustrate the workings of the bonus system.
COVID and the Army
On the heels of all this money being thrown around, the US Army has also announced that six active-duty commanders have been relieved of command in the fight against COVID. In addition to these six, nearly 3,000 soldiers have received reprimands written by general officers for refusal to take the vaccine. 3,000 out of 486,000 is not much, but it does beg the question: who are these people, and what do they do? Are they all in critically-manned career fields? Is that why the Army is offering substantial bonuses to attract new soldiers?
The ugly truth behind retention and end-strength numbers has to do with who has been retained. When an E-5 with six years of service decides to call it quits, no fresh-faced recruit has the ability to step into that role. When critically-manned career fields take a hit, training new recruits to fill those roles takes long. While the Army still has not decided how to deal with vaccine-deniers, it looks pretty clear that they will have to go. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have already begun separating members who refuse, and they surely run the gamut from new recruits to crusty old Master Sergeants and Colonels.
The Holes in the Vaccine
In a plot that would not be out of place in some “Weird Stories” pulp magazine, Navy combat ship USS Milwaukee was stuck in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after sailors on board tested positive for COVID. A ship with a 100% vaccinated crew of sailors. Vaccinated due to the mandate for the military, which the military is now separating people for. As one of my Senior Enlisted Advisors wants to say: “You just can’t make this shit up.” Or maybe they can. At least, that’s what it seems like anymore.
The biggest reason anyone in power wanted the military to be vaccinated was to maintain readiness. If everyone is vaccinated against this mess, the chances of getting sick are slimmer, quarantining and masking would be less pervasive, and operations could continue unimpeded because everyone has the same protections. When a sailor tested positive, though, everything came to a screeching halt. If we are going to mandate everyone receive a vaccine to maintain readiness, then fail miserably at readiness the first time it is tested, what, cosmically, is the point?
Pay for Play
What, then, is the point of offering staggering amounts of money to attract talent, then booting the talent we already have in favor of someone willing to be vaccinated in an attempt to maintain readiness that is squashed as soon as it is tested? That was a long sentence, but this is a convoluted way of thinking. If requirements are met, then the goalposts are moved. Whose fault is it those new requirements are not? If the Army consistently meets its recruiting goals, is the bonus a carrot used to entice the shot? Is it blood money paid out because it’s cheaper than figuring out a common-sense approach to this virus?
All branches of the military offer bonuses, whether for enlisting, reenlisting, or even cross-training. That money can be the difference between that six-year E-5 deciding to reenlist or bounce at separation. That money may attract the next tech superstar, that will find a way to fight without expending humans. That money may also attract some kid who only wants a job and is willing to sign up for six years to get it. It could attract the next Charles Whitman as well.
Offering bonuses is an excellent way to get bodies in boots. It is a good way to fill positions and maintain metrics. I’m just saying many people are already in those boots who want to stick around. If the Navy is any indication, having fully vaccinated crews are zero protection against a drop in readiness. How much do you want to bet the money paid in bonuses is a drop in the bucket, compared to a Navy ship idling with a full crew because the fully vaccinated crew is mired in bureaucracy? Bet that’s a lot of money…
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