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Bonuses soar to re-enlist soldiers for Iraq

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POSTED: April 28, 2007 5:04 a.m.
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon poured more than $1 billion into bonuses last year to keep soldiers and Marines in the military in the face of an unpopular war and battlefield deployments that are getting longer and more frequent.
The incentives — including tax-free payments for those who re-enlist while in the war zone — have jumped nearly sixfold since 2003, the year the war in Iraq began.
“It helps a lot of guys out,’’ said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Doran, who re-enlisted late last year during his tour in Iraq. “And I think it does sway some of the decisions to stay in when guys are on the fence trying to decide.’’
The size and number of bonuses have grown as officials scrambled to meet the steady demand for troops on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan and reverse sporadic shortfalls in the number of National Guard and Reserve soldiers willing to sign on for multiple tours.
Besides underscoring the extraordinary steps the Pentagon must take to maintain fighting forces, the rise in costs for re-enlistment incentives is putting strains on the defense budget, already strapped by the massive costs of waging war and equipping and caring for a modern military.
The bonuses can range from a few thousand dollars to as much as $150,000 for very senior special forces soldiers who re-enlist for six years. All told, the Army and Marines spent $1.03 billion for re-enlistment payments last year, compared with $174 million in 2003, the year the war in Iraq began.
The Associated Press compiled and analyzed the budget figures from the military services for this story.
“War is expensive,’’ said Col. Mike Jones, who oversees retention issues for the National Guard. “Winning a war, however, is less expensive than losing one.’’
The soaring budget for re-enlistment bonuses — particularly for the Guard and Reserves, which have seen the most dramatic cost increases — has prompted some observers to question whether the country can still afford its volunteer force.
“I believe the whole issue of the affordability of the volunteer force is something we need to look at,’’ said Arnold Punaro, who heads an independent panel established by Congress to study the National Guard and Reserves.
The higher bonuses come as support for the war continues to wane both in Congress and with the American public. That decline is fueling concerns that more soldiers will leave the military under pressure from families who fear the rising death toll and are weary of the lengthy and repeated overseas deployments. The Iraq war has claimed the lives of at least 3,280 U.S. troops to date.
Incentives for Army Guard and Reserve members combined have skyrocketed from about $27 million in 2003 to more than $335 million in 2006.
The active Army, meanwhile, poured more than $600 million into these payments last year, a six-fold increase from $98 million in 2003. The Army gave two out of every three soldiers who re-enlisted a bonus last year, compared to less than two in 10 who received one during 2003.
Those who don’t get bonuses are generally in jobs that are not in high demand or are not in war zones. For example, certain artillery crewmembers who re-enlisted outside Afghanistan or Iraq would receive no bonus, said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty.
 

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