View Full Version : For those who miss out, it’s no big deal

07-16-07, 07:30 AM
For those who miss out, it’s no big deal
By Rick Maze and William H. McMichael - rmaze@militarytimes.com bmcmichael@militarytimes.com
Posted : July 23, 2007

It’s an unfortunate reality. If there are “haves,” then there are almost sure to be “have-nots.”

So it is with Selective Re-enlistment Bonuses. But most of the service members who miss out on the big bucks don’t seem to mind — even those who handle the bonus paperwork for others.

Navy Yeoman 1st Class Jason Dawley, 36, with the administrative office for the Littoral Combat Ship Class Squadron in San Diego, said he enjoys his job, but knows it will never bring him a bonus.

“I’ve never had an SRB,” said Dawley, who has 16 years in the Navy. “I don’t know if one has ever been offered in my rating.”

He does, however, get to process the paperwork for people who are getting big bonuses. Dawley said he understands, philosophically, why some people get bonuses and others don’t. “I don’t have any problem when the technical skills get one, but one time the cooks got an SRB, and that was kind of frustrating,” he said.

Senior Chief Navy Counselor John Phillips, 40, in the same squadron as Dawley, said that only once in his 20-year career has he come within hailing range of a bonus; he missed by four months.

He’s OK with that. “It wouldn’t have impacted me one way or the other,” he said. “I wouldn’t have turned the money down, but I was career all the way.”

In his job guiding other sailors’ careers, he said, “What I’ve seen in the past few years is while the Navy is becoming smaller, it is trying to intelligently gear SRBs to sailors we really want to keep in the Navy.”

Senior Airman Melanie Milhorn, 24, a public health technician at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., is a six-year veteran who recently re-enlisted just after the Air Force closed the window on a $3,000 re-enlistment bonus in her career field.

Though she’s never drawn a bonus, she still hasn’t ruled out trying to make the military a career. That may hinge on her efforts to earn a commission, which she is about to apply for.

“It would be nice to have a bonus, to help maybe pay off a car, or put a little money away,” she said. “But it’s more [about] job satisfaction, job security, definitely the education benefits that the military offers. You can’t find that in the civilian sector.”


07-16-07, 07:32 AM
Bonuses have kept services competitive for centuries
By William H. McMichael - bmcmichael@militarytimes.com
Posted : July 23, 2007

Viewed from one perspective, bonus payments to troops might be taken as an indication of a certain lack of patriotic fervor on the recipients’ part.

But a top Pentagon personnel official says military bonuses are as American as apple pie. And they’re the most flexible go-to tool available to personnel officials for dealing with short-term pressure on the military manpower market — be it competition from the private sector or the heavy burden of war.

“It is the nature of America, volunteerism and choice to compete for talent, not to force it,” said Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy.

Bonuses, in fact, go back to the nation’s formative years. In 1776, the Continental Congress offered what was then known as a “bounty” to induce citizens to enlist. The exact amount isn’t known, but by 1791, the new government was paying $3 to sign up for what then was the normal enlistment period of three years. In 1795, Congress authorized the first re-enlistment bonus — a whopping $16.

Selected troops today can earn far more, of course. But as they have over the past 231 years, bonuses rise and fall with the military’s ability — periods of conscription aside — to attract and keep the people it needs to accomplish the missions.

“If retention is threatened, then we have to do something about it so that we can preserve a certain flow into the career force,” Carr said. “We’ll always have a base of recruits who will face a first-term re-enlistment decision. And at that point, we have to not only get enough recruits, but enough first-term retention so that we keep the experience of sergeants up.”

While raw numbers matter, the quality of recruits, the skills they develop and the experience they gain matter more. But the military has a formidable competitor — the marketplace.

For example, if the military has underwritten nuclear training for an individual, that is a long, expensive proposition. Such skills command a greater incentive to leave, and are more costly to keep.

“We’ve got to compete with that, and create an incentive to stay, such that we end up with the flow we need,” Carr said.

Pilots, for example, possess a critical skill that takes years to develop. In the mid-1980s, the military suffered an exodus of pilots leaving for lucrative flying careers with civilian airlines. In response, the Pentagon launched Aviation Continuation Pay, a large annual bonus offered at the tail end of the initial service obligation.

But while civilian airline hiring is down, U.S. troops in general remain attractive to civilian employers, since they’re reliable, effective and don’t require large training costs.

The thinking in the private sector, Carr said, is often along the lines of, “I’m going to put my money into payroll instead of development. Let the government spend money on development.”

The Pentagon recognizes that the growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq also has increased the need to offer such incentives, along with other war-related compensation such as Imminent Danger Pay, Carr said.

“The quality of work and life can wax or wane over time,” Carr said. “For some, it’s waning faster — the ones who are deploying a lot. So aside from bonuses, we do channel considerable resources toward those experiencing the harshest conditions.”

Some in Congress have questioned the size of the military’s bonus program, which totaled almost $1.6 billion in 2006 — on top of more than $9 billion for special pays. But Carr said current payments are a worthwhile investment.

“The average re-enlistment bonus is not remarkably different from the average price of recruiting and training a replacement,” he said. “And you get the seasoning to boot. So in that context, the military is doing what the private sector had done — leveraging its investments toward safety and performance.”

The Pentagon is not concerned, at this point, that high bonuses and special pays will continue to spiral upward.

“They’re just a process,” Carr said. “The concern would be that we preserve a vibrant volunteer force with seasoned leaders. And if that takes different policies or different incentives, so be it.

“But Job One is preserving this volunteer force and its seasoned leaders.”


07-16-07, 07:38 AM
Here today ... gone tomorrow?
History indicates bonuses up to $80K won’t last
By Rick Maze and William H. McMichael - rmaze@militarytimes.com and bmcmichael@militarytimes.com
Posted : July 23, 2007

Troops growing accustomed to massive re-enlistment bonuses in recent years should bear this in mind: What goes up inevitably comes down.

Today’s recruiting and retention bonuses could melt like ice in Baghdad as demands of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq ease and the services finish their restructuring efforts.

“This is all part of a cycle,” said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst and former Pentagon personnel chief under President Reagan.

The Pentagon’s bonus pool has risen sharply since fiscal 2003, when the outlay for bonuses was $759 million. By 2006, the budget had more than doubled, to almost $1.6 billion, fueled mainly by explosive growth in Army bonuses used to lure new recruits and keep experienced soldiers from leaving.

But the boom-and-bust cycle for recruiting and retention bonuses is nothing new, Korb said.

“Think about what happened with pilots,” he said.

Over the past few decades, when airlines have been hiring, the Air Force has had to widen its Aviation Continuation Pay program. When airline hiring softens, ACP narrows, because more aviators stay in anyway.

This year, for example, the Air Force offered ACP to only 875 pilots and air battle managers.

Similarly, as recently as 2003, the Air Force made re-enlistment bonus payments to almost one-fourth of its enlisted force. In 2006, the figure was 18 percent.

By contrast, the Army now gives at least $10,000 in Assignment Incentive Pay to every member re-enlisting in a war zone, and bonuses of $20,000, $40,000 and even up to $150,000 to many others.

The Marine Corps, historically the stingiest of the services when it comes to bonuses, is paying up to $80,000 to a few hundred people in specific skills. The Corps also is paying $10,000 in AIP to those who re-enlist who may not rate one of the higher re-enlistment bonuses — and until recently, had been paying that bounty on top of any regular re-enlistment bonus a Marine was entitled to.

But with pressure mounting in Congress to end the war or at least reduce U.S. operations in Iraq, Korb and others say reductions are almost inevitable.

“When money gets tight — and the defense budget is going to be very tight when this war is over — we’re going to look for ways to cut military spending,” said a House aide familiar with military personnel issues. “There has always been some skepticism in Congress about military bonuses and special pays because it is hard for the military to show if a $40,000 bonus [works] significantly better than a $20,000 bonus.”

But he does not foresee a sudden, precipitous drop in the number of bonuses; instead, he predicts a steady decline.

“There will be some skills — special operations troops — who are going to be getting sizeable bonuses for some time just because of the realities of the threat today,” the aide said. “There will be other skills, those who don’t need as much technical training and who don’t have skills easily transferable to a civilian job, whose bonuses ought to be considered a temporary condition of the war in Iraq.”

Another congressional aide said bonus budgets will be targets once Congress starts looking for money to pay for underfunded weapons modernization efforts.

But some bonuses will certainly remain, said a senior Pentagon official. “If the behavior was the same in all occupations, then you would simply use the pay table to generate the experience you needed,” said Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy. “But it’s not.”
A transitory benefit

Interviews with more than 30 career service members in San Diego and Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base, Wash., reveal that the transitory nature of bonuses is well understood.

The interviews also reveal no animosity between those who get big bonuses for re-enlisting and those who get little more than a handshake. And the interviews also show — as service officials have long said — that money is often only a small part of the decision to stay or leave.

In fact, many people getting bonuses, including some receiving maximum payments, said they would have re-enlisted without the money.

Navy Command Master Chief Ronald Culpepper, the operations master chief for Naval Special Warfare Group One in San Diego, just hit the bonus jackpot with a $145,000 tax-free payment for staying in five more years. He calls it his personal retirement plan.

The bonus money, he said, leaves him “pretty close” to the big salaries being paid to private security guards in Iraq, which is precisely the reason experienced special operations specialists like Culpepper are offered bonuses.

“Take the medical, dental and other benefits, and I’m doing much better,” he said, adding that the military also has a better retirement system — almost nonexistent for contractors — and better family benefits.

But while Culpepper said the big payment “does make a difference,” he made clear that he probably would have stayed in anyway. He simply likes his job and wants to deploy again.

Army truck driver Sgt. Juan Lagos, 31, who has deployed twice to Iraq, declined to disclose the size of his recent bonus, which he received for re-upping for six years. He said he could make $60,000 or more a year as a civilian, but he won’t leave, with or without a bonus.

“This is my second family,” he said of the Army.

Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Frazier, 27, an intelligence analyst at Fort Lewis, got a $25,000 bonus and the right to let his wife use some of his GI Bill education benefits when he recently re-enlisted for four years.

But the former military policeman said he would have re-enlisted simply for the chance to change careers. “The bonus was extra,” he said. “It’s a good life. Secure. I know I have a job, day in, day out. The field that I’m in now has a lot of prospects on the civilian side.”

Marine Master Sgt. William Canfield, a career retention specialist at Camp Pendleton, and Marine Sgt. Richard McNamara, 30, a military policeman at Camp Pendleton, are prime examples of why the Corps traditionally has had the least trouble with recruiting and retention among the services.

McNamara, who got a $7,700 bonus tax-free in the war zone in 2005, said he, too, would have re-enlisted without the money — even though the cash was a factor in his decision.

“Don’t get me wrong; you can always use a little extra money. It definitely helped, and it definitely helped that it was in a combat zone so it was tax-free, but that was not the primary reason I re-enlisted,” he said.

The primary reason? “I love the Marine Corps,” he said.

Canfield is one of the rare Marines to have received three re-enlistment bonuses in his 23-year career. “Every one of those, I was going to re-enlist anyway,” he said. “I enjoy being a Marine, I love being around Marines, I like everything about it.”

Frederick Pang, the Pentagon’s top personnel official in the Clinton administration, said some bonus money might be wasted on people who would stay in even without it, but that is unavoidable.

“The problem always has been that there is no way to separate those who don’t need the bonus from those who wouldn’t stay without it,” Pang said. “It’s always a challenge to determine who do you pay and how much you pay.”

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michelle Short, 26, is one of those who stayed for the money. Then a C-17 flying crew chief, she received a $33,600 bonus in 2002 for re-enlisting for six years — and got it tax-free because she re-upped in a combat zone.

“I was 21,” she said. “I had no savings, I had a car payment. It’s either get out and struggle to pay for college on your own, or go ahead and stay in. I had a bonus option at the time, so I stayed in.”

She paid off that car, bought a truck and then paid that off in two years, she said.

Army Sgt. Ameen Salahud-din, 33, a driver at Fort Lewis with one tour in Iraq and another coming in the fall, said he might have just extended his tour in Germany if not for the bonus he got to re-enlist a year ago.

“The bonus had a big impact,” he said — even though it was a relatively modest $4,000. His contract will now take him to the 10-year mark, the point at which it becomes harder to throw in the towel rather than try to stay for 20 and a retirement package.
Past and future criticism?

With so many troops saying that bonuses are not the primary reason they stay or leave, congressional aides say lawmakers likely will give extra scrutiny to bonus and special pay budgets when the war in Iraq winds down — as they were just before the war began.

A $500 million emergency budget request is now pending before Congress that would shift money from other programs to help cover bonus costs.

But before the Iraq war, Congress had been critical of what it saw as overspending by the military on bonuses, saying there was no need for it at a time of high recruiting and retention. In fact, lawmakers cut $32 million from the Selective Re-enlistment Bonus budget for fiscal 2003 and ordered the services to be more frugal.

Congressional aides said they cannot imagine large bonus cuts taking effect while troops remain engaged in combat in Iraq, because of the political fallout that might occur.

Tech. Sgt. Shane McClanahan, 32, a C-17 aircraft loadmaster at McChord who received a $16,000 tax-free re-enlistment bonus in 2003, agrees. Patriotism only goes so far, he said. “The hard work kind of wears on you after five years of fighting a war. You need to throw something a little more significant at them.”

But once the war ends, all bets are off. Pang, the former Clinton administration official, said it will be a flat economic decision.

“You always have to do a calculation of the cost,” he said. “For every $40,000 bonus that makes a difference in someone’s re-enlistment decision, you have to pay $40,000 bonuses to some who would have stayed anyway.”

When the war ends, the assumption is that more people will want to stay, and the need for extra financial incentives will decline.

Tech. Sgt. Marco Cervos, 29, a communications-computer system controller at McChord, said the $60,000 re-enlistment bonus he received four years ago for a five-year enlistment nudged him to stay.

Whether he will stay on after that contract ends, however, is unclear. He is well aware that no bonus is now being offered for his career field.

The money “made the decision a little bit easier,” Cervos said, although he later described it as “icing on the cake” because he probably would have stayed anyway. Now, believing he could make $70,000 to $90,000 in the private sector and at the 10-year point in his military career, he said he’s undecided about staying or leaving. “I’m more year-by-year,” he said.

Others seem to have irrevocably made up their minds. Marine Cpl. Cara Tighe, 22, a postal clerk at Camp Pendleton, took a $10,000 bonus to re-enlist in October — tax-free because she was in Iraq.

The money came as a surprise. “I didn’t expect it,” she said.

But she won’t re-enlist again, no matter how much she’s offered.

“I only re-enlisted this time for college,” she said, hoping to use as much tuition assistance as possible before getting out and using the GI Bill for the rest of her education. She plans to be a child psychologist and hopes to have a four-year degree at the end of her new four-year military commitment.