What the Recruiter Never Told You About Enlistment Contracts (2023)

All of the services use the same enlistment contract—Department of Defense Form 4/1. This is the contract that is used for military enlistments and re-enlistments. Of all the paperwork you signed during the process to join the military, this is the most important document.

If you enlist on active duty, you'll actually sign two enlistment contracts. The first one places you in the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP). The DEP is actually the inactive reserves. Inactive reserve members do not perform weekend drills likeactive membersnor do they receive any pay. They can, however, be called to active duty in times of emergency. That said, there has never been a case where a member in the DEP has been involuntarily called to active duty. When your time in the DEP is up, and it's time to go onto active duty and ship out to basic training, you are discharged from the inactive reserves and sign a new enlistment contract to enlist on active duty.

Recruiter Promises Versus Contract Guarantees

No matter what your recruiter promised you, if it's not in the enlistment contract, or in an annex to the contract, it's not a promise. Also, it doesn't much matter what is in the DEP enlistment contract; if it isn't in your active duty enlistment contract, it's not a promise. If you were promised an enlistment bonus, for example, it needs to be in the final active duty contract, or chances are you'll never see that bonus. Once you get out of basic training and job training and go to the personnel office at your first base, they're not going to give one hoot about what anyone "promised" you—they're only going to care about what is in the enlistment contract.

In fact, the bottom of the very first page of the enlistment contract contains the following clause:

The agreements in this section and attached annex(es) are all the promises made to me by the Government. ANYTHING ELSE ANYONE HAS PROMISED ME IS NOT VALID AND WILL NOT BE HONORED.

That said, incentives and entitlements which are available to everyone won't be, and don't need to be in the contract. This is because military members are already entitled to it by law. For example, medical care, base pay, and the Montgomery G.I. Bill won't be specified in the contract, because these benefits are available to everyone who enlists in the military.

Those enlisting on active duty will have at least two enlistment contracts: the initial contract for the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP) and a final contract that one will sign on the day they go to MEPS to ship out to basic training, which is the contract that counts is the final contract. It doesn't matter if your enlistment bonus, advanced rank, college loan repayment program, college fund, etc., are not included in the first contract.

You do, however, need to make sure all of your desired incentives are included in the final active duty contract (if your enlistment program/job choice entitles you to those incentives).

Enlistment Periods

Thought you were enlisting for four years? Think again. It may surprise you to learn that allnon-prior service enlistments in the United States Military incur a total eight-yearservice obligation. When you sign that enlistment contract, you are obligating yourself to the military for a total of eight years. Whatever time is not spent on active duty, or in the active Guard/Reserves (if you enlisted in the Guard/Reserves) must be spent in the inactive reserves.

Paragraph 10a of the enlistment contract states:

"a. FOR ALL ENLISTEES: If this is my initial enlistment, I must serve a total of eight (8) years. Any part of that service not served on active duty must be served in a Reserve Component unless I am sooner discharged.

This means two things: Let's say you enlist in the Navy for four years. You serve your four years and get out. You're really not "out." You're transferred to the inactive Reserves (called the "IRR" or "Individual Ready Reserve") for the next four years, and the Navy can call you back to active duty at any time, or even involuntarily assign you to an active (drilling) Reserve unit during that period, if they need you due to personnel shortages, war, or conflicts (such as Iraq).

This total eight-year service commitment applies whether you enlist on active duty, or join the Reserves or National Guard.

Here's the second thing: the military may not let you out at the end of your active duty tour. Under a program called "Stop-Loss," the military is allowed to prevent you from separating, during times of conflict, if they need your particular warm body. During the first Gulf War (1990), all of the services implemented "Stop-Loss," preventing pretty much anyone from separating, for an entire year. During the Kosovo Campaign, the Air Force instituted "Stop-Loss" for those in certain "Shortage" jobs. During Iraq and Afghanistan, The Army, Air Force, and Marines instituted "Stop-Loss," again, directed at specific individuals with shortage jobs, or (in the case of the Army), sometimes directed at specific units. The key is, once you join, if there are any conflicts going on, the military can hold you past your normal separation or retirement date.

Up until October 2003, the Army and Navy were the only services that offered active-duty enlistments for periods of less than four years. However, as part of the FY 2003 Military Appropriations Act, Congress passed theNational Call To Service Plan, which mandated that all of the services create an enlistment program which offered a two year active duty enlistment option, followed by four years in the Active Guard/Reserves, followed by two years in the Inactive Reserves (still the total eight-yearservice commitment).

But, let's talk reality here: While Congress mandated this plan, they gave the services wide latitude in implementation. The Army and Navy already had two-year active duty enlistment plans that they were happy with, and theAir Forceand Marines had no recruiter problems and weren't really interested in shorter-term enlistments.

However, because of enlistment shortages, the Army has dramatically expanded slots under this program in 2005 and 2006. The Air Force and Marine Corps still have little interest in a two-year active duty program. So, they implemented the very basics and applied many restrictions -- you probably have a better chance of hitting the lottery than getting one of the very fewNational Call to Serviceslots in these two branches. For example, under theAir Force Plan, the program is limited to one percent of all enlistments (about 370 total recruits, out of 37,000), and the program is limited to 29 Air Force jobs. The Marine Corps limit theirNational Call to Serviceenlistments to only 11 MOSs (jobs).

The Army and the Navy are the only services which have active duty enlistment options of less than four years, which are not part of theNational Call to Serviceprogram. The Army offers enlistment contracts of two years, three years, four years, five years, and six years. Only a few Army jobs are available for two and three year enlistees (mainly those jobs that don't require much training time, and that the Army is having a hard time getting enough recruits). Most Army jobs require a minimum enlistment period of four years, and some Army jobs require a minimum enlistment period of five years. The Navy offers a very few two-year and three-year contracts, where the recruit spends two or three years on active duty, followed by six years in the Active Reserves.

Additionally, under the Army's 2-year enlistment option, the two years of required active duty don't start until after basic training and job-school, so it's actually longer than two years.

The other services offer four, five, and six-year enlistment options (The Air Force only offers four and six-year enlistments). All Air Force enlisted jobs are available for four-year enlistees. However, the Air Force will give accelerated promotions for individuals who agree to enlist for six years. Such individuals enlist in the grade of E-1 (Airman Basic), or E-2 (Airman), if they have sufficient college credits or JROTC. They are then promoted to the grade of E-3 (Airman First Class) upon completion of technical training, or after 20 weeks after basic training graduation (whichever occurs first). Six-year enlistment options are not open to all jobs, at all times.

Most Navy jobs are available for four-year enlistees, but some special programs (such as Nuclear Field) require a five-year enlistment. These special programs usually offer increased training opportunities and accelerated promotion.

Enlistment Incentives

All of the services offer programs called "enlistment incentives," which are designed to attract recruits, especially to jobs that are traditionally hard-to-fill. As I said above, each of the below incentives needs to be included on the enlistment contract or an annex to the contract -- otherwise, they are not likely to be valid.

Anenlistment incentiveis different than amilitary benefitin that not everyone is eligible, and it must be in the enlistment contract to be valid. For example, an enlistment bonus is anenlistment incentive. Not everyone qualifies for an enlistment bonus. It depends on qualifications and job selected. Therefore, to be valid, it must be on the enlistment contract.

The Montgomery G.I. Bill, or Tuition Assistance, or military medical, or amount of base pay, ect., on the other hand, aremilitary benefits or entitlements.They are available to everyone who enlists, and therefore you won't find them mentioned in the enlistment contract.

Keep in mind that you can't negotiateenlistment incentives. Military recruiters and the job counselors at MEPS have no authority to decide who gets an incentive and who doesn't. Incentives are authorized for specific jobs or specific enlistment programs by the Recruiting Command Headquarters for the individual service. In other words, it's either been authorized for your specific job or enlistment program, or it's not. If it's authorized, you'll be offered the incentive. If it's not authorized, all the "negotiating" in the world won't get it for you.

Following are the currentenlistment incentivesoffered by the services.

Enlistment Bonus

Probably the best known of all enlistment incentives is theenlistment bonus. Enlistment bonuses are used to try and convince applicants to sign up into jobs that the service needs really bad.

When they passed theFiscal Year 2006 Military Authorization Act, Congress authorized the services to increase the maximum active duty enlistment bonus cap from $20,000 to $40,000. Keep in mind, however, that Congress allowed the services to do so -- they didn't mandate it. The maximum amount of enlistment bonus is set by each of the services (up to the $40,000 maximum allowed by law), based on their own individual recruiting needs.

The Air Force and Marine Corps offer the fewest enlistment bonuses. At the time of this annual revision to this article, the Air Force was offering active duty enlistment bonuses to only 6 AFSCs (jobs), and the top bonus authorized was $12,000. The top Marine Corps enlistment bonus is currently $6,000.

The Navy still caps enlistment bonuses to a maximum of $20,000. The Coast Guard presently offers a top enlistment bonus of $15,000.

Of the five active duty services, only the Army has elected to increase their maximum active duty enlistment bonus cap to the $40,000 authorized by law.

Sometimes, the services will offer an additional bonus for recruits who agree to ship out to basic during a designated time-frame, or for recruits who have college credits.

The Army & Navy do this the most often.

In general, the greater the enlistment bonus, the harder time the service is having finding enough qualified applicants who agree to accept the job.

In most cases, this is for one of three reasons:

  1. The job doesn't sound very interesting, and the job counselors are having a hard time getting recruits to select this job.
  2. The job has high entry qualifications (ASVABscore, criminal history requirements, medical qualifications, ect.), and job counselors can't find enough applicants who qualify.
  3. The job training is extremely difficult and lots of people wash out.

The Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps will usually pay the entire bonus amount (lump sum), after arrival at the first permanent duty station, following basic training and job-school (usually within 60 days of arrival at the first duty station).

The Army will normally pay the first $10,000 upon arrival at the first duty station, with the remainder being paid in equal annual installments during the term of enlistment.

In most cases, if you are discharged early, or you re-train out of the job, you must repay any "unearned" portion of theenlistment bonus. For example, if you enlisted and received a $12,000 enlistment bonus for a 4-year enlistment, but only served in that job for three years, you would have to repay $4,000.

College Fund

All of the services, except the Air Force offer a "college fund." Some of the Services offer "College Funds," for individuals who agree to enlist in hard-to-fill jobs. The amount of money offered in the "college fund" is added to the amount of money you are entitled to with the Montgomery G.I. Bill.You can't have the college fund without participating in the G.I. Bill.

One word of warning: the amount of the "College Fund" shown on your enlistment contract usually includes the amount you are authorized under the Montgomery G.I. Bill and the amount of the extra funds provided by the service. So, if your enlistment contract says you have a total $40,000 "College Fund," $37,224 (2006 rates) would be from the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which you would have been eligible for anyway, "college fund," or not. So, in this case, the actual amount of the "College Fund" (ie, "extra" education money given by the service) is only $2,776.

Usually (but not always), if you accept the college fund, this will decrease the amount of any monetary enlistment bonus you may be entitled to. The Navy and Marine Corps offer up to $50,000 (combined college fund and G.I. Bill) for their College Fund Programs. The Army offers up to $71,424. Again, the exact amount offered often depends on the job selected.

As with other enlistment incentives, if you were promisedthe College Fund, you must ensure it is listed on your final active duty enlistment contract or an annex to the contract.

Advanced Enlistment Rank

All of the services offeradvanced enlistment rankfor recruits with a certain number of college credits, or for participation in other programs, such as Junior ROTC in high school.

  • The Army offersadvanced enlistmentrank up to E-4 for college, and up to E-2 for other programs (such as JROTC). The Army also offers an accelerated promotion to recruits with certain civilian-acquired job training or skills, through the Army Civilian Acquired Skills Program (ACASP).
  • The Air Force offers advanced enlistment rank up to E-3 for college and participation in other programs. The Air Force is the only service which offers an accelerated promotion for six-year enlistees.
  • The Navy offersadvanced enlistment rankup to E-3 for college and participation in other programs. The Navy also offers accelerated promotion up to E-4 for individuals who enlist in certain designated enlistment programs (Such as the Nuclear Field).
  • The Marine Corps offersadvanced enlistment rankup to E-2 for college and participation in other programs.
  • The Coast Guard givesadvanced rankup to E-2 for college and up to E-3 for other programs.

With the exception of the Air Force six-year enlistee advance rank program, recruits who join with advanced rank are paid the rate of base pay for that advanced rank right from the first day of active duty. However, in most of the services, recruits do not get to actually wear the rank until they graduate from basic training (in basic, everyone is treated the same -- ie, just lower than whale droppings).

For Air Force six-year enlistees, they enlist and go through basic as an E-1 (or E-2 if they were qualified, such as college credits) and are then promoted to E-3 20 weeks following basic training graduation, or when they graduate technical school (job training), whichever occurs first. Date of Rank as an E-3 is then back-dated to the date of basic training graduation. Airmen don't receive "back-pay" for this, but the earlier date-of-rank makes them eligible for E-4 earlier.

As with other enlistment incentives, advanced enlistment rank must be included on your enlistment contract.

College Loan Repayment Program

All of the active services, except the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, offer acollege loan repayment program (CLRP). The Army Reserves, Navy Reserves, Army National Guard andAir National Guardalso offer a limited college loan repayment program. In a nutshell, the service will repay all, or a part of a college loan, in exchange for your enlistment. Loans which qualify are:

  • Auxiliary Loan Assistance for Students (ALAS)
  • Stafford Student Loanor Guaranteed Student Loan (GSL)
  • Parents Loans for Undergraduate Students (PLUS Loans)
  • Federally Insured Student Loans (FISL)
  • Perkins Loan or National Direct Student Loan (NDSL)
  • Supplemental Loans for Students (SLS)

Guaranteed First Duty Assignment

The Army and the Navy are the only active duty services which can offer a guaranteed first duty assignment. However, since the invasion of Iraq, the Army rarely offers this incentive anymore. When authorized, under theArmy Program, you can get a written guarantee in your enlistment contract for your first duty assignment following basic training and job training (of course, there must be open positions for your particular job on the base before the Army will give it to you). This option is only available for certain, hard-to-fill Army Jobs. Additionally, the guarantee is only good for 12 months. After that, the Army can move you anywhere it wants.

The Navy program is a "sort of" guaranteed first duty station. Under the Navy program, you can be guaranteed a first assignment in a designated geographical area. In other words, while the Navy can't guarantee that you would be assigned to a particular base, they can, for example, guarantee an assignment on the West Coast. However, under the Navy program, there is a catch -- the program is not available to those who sign up with a guaranteed rating (job). It's only available for those who enlist under the GENDET program. Under the GENDET enlistment program, applicants pick a "general field," such as "aviation," rather than a specific rating. Then, following basic training, they spend a year or so at a Navy Base, doing general duties as an "undesignated seaman" before they get to choose their rating (job) and go to job-school.

The Guard and Reserves also guarantee the duty station because they are recruiting to fill specific, open slots in specific Guard & Reserve units. When you enlist in the National Guard or Reserves, you will know, right from the start, where your drilling unit is located (generally within 100 miles or so of where you live).

Buddy Program

All of the services offer a "Buddy Enlistment" program. Under this program, two or more individuals (of the same sex) can enlist together, and, at a minimum, be guaranteed to go through basic training together. If the individuals have the same job, the services can also guarantee that they will go through job training together. In some cases (with the exception of the Air Force), the service can even guarantee that the "buddies" will be assigned to their first duty station together.

Split Option

Some of the services offer "split option training" for members of their National Guard and Reserve. Under "split option," the member attends basic training and then returns to his Guard/Reserve unit, where she/he drills (one weekend per month) for up to a year before attending job training. This program is designed for those in school, who wish to spit their full-time training so they won't miss too many college classes, and for those who do not wish to be away from their civilian jobs for too long a period of time for military training. In most cases, "split option" isn't a very good idea, and you should avoid it if you can:

  1. You are generally "worthless" to your unit until you have completed job training. You can't do the "job" you were "hired" for, and the unit can't begin your advanced training.
  2. If something happens to your job training date, it can sometimes take forever for the Guard and Reserves to get another training slot. When dishing out job training slots, the active duty forces get the first crack, and what is left over is offered to the Guard and Reserves.
  3. If you attend job training immediately after basic training, you will still be in shape. It's easy to fall out of shape in a year's time when you're only drilling one weekend per month. However, under the "split training" option, you're thrown back into a training environment, right alongside those straight out of basic training, and you're expected to keep up with them.
  4. "Split Option" members undergo the same job-training restrictions as those straight out of basic training. That means, for the first month or so of job-school, your off-duty time is strictly regimented. That's pretty easy when you're straight out of basic training. It's not so easy, once you've spent up to a year in the relatively relaxed environment of weekend drills.


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