The Army and Marine Corps doled out nearly $640 million in the past year in bonuses to entice recruits to join the military, as the two services continue to bear the brunt of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buoyed by incentives that can be as high as $40,000 each, and coupled with the promise of thousands more for education or house down payments, the annual cost grew by 25 percent over last year's totals for the two services, The Associated Press has learned.
The money — particularly in these shaky economic times — has proven to be a strong recruiting tool, even as the U.S. death toll in Iraq surpasses 4,100 and violence in Afghanistan escalates.
As a result, the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force all met their recruiting goals for the fiscal year that ended Tuesday. The Air Force did not provide bonus data.
"This money helps create excitement for the all-volunteer force," said Army spokesman Paul Boyce. "We recruit not only the soldier but his or her family, and this money is important to them."
According to data obtained by the AP, the Army and Marine Corps allocated a bit more than $500 million in bonuses and college fund payments in fiscal year 2007, compared to this year's total of almost $640 million.
Recruits usually receive a portion of the bonus when they report for training, and get remaining payments as they report to duty or when they hit specific service dates.
The Army incentives grew from $443 million in 2007 to $547 million this year, while the Marine bonuses jumped from $66 million to nearly $90 million.
The active duty Army brought in 80,500 recruits for the year, beating its goal of 80,000. The Army Guard and the Army Reserves also met their goals — bringing in about 60,100 and 28,900 respectively.
Complicating the Army's efforts to meet recruiting goals is the push to increase the size of the nation's ground force. Plans are to boost the number of the active-duty Army, Army Guard and Army Reserve by 74,000 overall, with the active-duty force growing by 65,000 to a total of 547,000 by 2010.
In addition to the enlistment bonuses and college fund payments, the Army also distributed about $62 million in loan repayments for recruits in the 2008 fiscal year.
The active-duty Army's recruiting was also bolstered by a new program that allows the Guard to bring in recruits, and then allow them to switch to the active Army for a few years before returning to the Guard. That program brought in more than 1,600 recruits in the 2008 fiscal year, and has already signed up nearly 500 who will report for duty this fiscal year.
It is unclear whether the nation's economic crisis has spurred on any of the recruiting successes. But as the wars in Iraq dragged on, the Army in particular stumbled badly in its struggles to bring in recruits. After failing to meet its year-end goal of 80,000 three years ago, the Army put in place a multi-pronged campaign to attract soldiers.
The Marine Corps did the same, also instituting a sliding scale of bonuses depending on what specialty the recruit took on.
According to the Marines, more than 10,700 enlistment bonuses were doled out in the recently ended fiscal year — or about 33 percent of the recruits who made it to training. That money, the Marines said, was used to fill critical jobs, including combat arms, intelligence, reconnaissance and linguists.
According to the Navy, about $105 million was budgeted for bonuses for the 2008 fiscal year. In 2007, the Navy doled out about $110 million. The Navy met its enlistment goal for 2008 of 38,419 sailors.
The Air Force met its recruiting goal of 27,800 airmen. The Defense Department is expected to publicly release enlistment totals Oct. 10.