Recession or war: Time to re-enlist

Military benefits and job security are prompting many soldiers to re-up despite the possibility of a return to combat.

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By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

Healthcare benefits played a big part in Sgt. Jimmy Spence's decision to re-enlist in the Marines.
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Job hunt in a sluggish economy? Or re-enlist during wartime? Marine Sgt. Jimmy Spence faced that dilemma a year ago, and in the end, the military won.

In fact, the one-time infantryman, who was stationed in Iraq from April to October of 2006, is now preaching the virtues of a life in the military as a re-enlistment counselor for other Marines.

"I don't have to go out and fight for a job in the real world," said Spence, who's married and has a five-year-old daughter. "No matter what, I've got a paycheck coming. I'm providing food on the table. I'm guaranteed to have a place to live for me and my family," he said.

Spence re-upped in February of 2007 with the promise of a stateside job. But even though he's stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he's still an infantryman and a marksman instructor, and he could get sent back to Iraq at any time.

"I could still go to combat," he said. The hardship of deployment is "one of the things you have to deal with, being in the military lifestyle."

Spence advises Marines approaching the ends of their terms that military rigors are outweighed by the benefits, namely healthcare. "If my kid ever got hurt, she's covered," he said. "Same with my wife. I've got nothing to worry about."

No shortage of signers

Even with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both the Army and Marine Corps have exceeded their re-enlistment goals in the past five years, according to the Department of Defense. The Navy and Air Force recently missed their re-enlistment goals, but only slightly, with a 97% success rate for the Navy and 91% for the Air Force for their current fiscal year, according to the DOD.

"Some people knock the military, but I think it's a good thing," said Kendrick Stamps, a security guard in New Orleans who had to leave the Marines in 2003 to take care of his ailing father, who died last year.

In retrospect, Stamps said he would have been better off keeping his Marine job in supply administration. He said he makes about $31,000 a year as a civilian, compared with about $33,000 as a sergeant with 13 years in the Marines. The military also provides healthcare and education, as well as a retirement pension, equal to half-pay after 20 years of service. Pay and benefits are equal across the air force, navy, marines and army

There are also allowances for housing and food, which vary depending on location and dependents. As a sergeant in New Orleans, Stamps would receive $964 a month to pay his rent or mortgage, or $1,242 with a wife or children, according to the DOD. If Stamps was stationed in Honolulu, he would receive $1,794 a month, or $2,114 with dependents.

Most military personnel are also eligible for a food allowance, with enlisted men and women receiving $294 a month and officers receiving $202, according to the DOD. If they live in high-cost areas like Hawaii or Japan, or if they have dependents, they're probably eligible for even more money, as a cost-of-living allowance.

Looking for a little security

In an economy that has lost jobs for four months straight, re-enlisting also promises stability. "The job security was the biggest pull for staying in," said Stamps.

When military personnel approach the end of their terms, they meet with military career counselors to weigh the pros and cons of re-enlistment versus civilian life. The counselors help them match their pay scale, along with education and job kills, to equivalent civilian jobs.

"We talk about what their true compensation is, because in reality our salaries are somewhat competitive," said Capt. Bill Foster, director of the center of career development for the Navy.

The majority of military personnel are non-commissioned officers, such as sergeants and corporals, according to the DOD. Towards the end of their first four-year term, these non-coms make about $25,000 a year, while the lowest-ranked commissioned officers make about $39,000.

Foster said some sailors are motivated by the military pension, which requires 20 years of service but no financial contributions. Still others are motivated by the re-enlistment bonus, which averages $10,000 to $15,000, but can range up to $75,000 for linguists and nuclear power technicians, said Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy at the DOD.

"It is nearly miraculous that we've been able to sustain recruiting and retention with unemployment below 5% and a long and challenging war," said Carr. "Many - and I include myself among them - would not have considered that possible."

Steven Mayfield, an Air Force re-enlistment counselor, said many airmen are headed out the door until they realize the benefits they're giving up. "For those who are separating and not retiring, the medical, dental and health insurance become very big issues," he said. "I do have a lot of folks who, when they see the facts, decide to stay in the military."

This is especially true for parents, said Mayfield: "Just to go get an ultrasound is a $500 experience. For a young E-4 [Air Force senior airman or Army corporal making $25,000 to $31,000] who just separated from the military, that's an experience that perhaps they can't afford."

An argument for getting out

But John Bienvenu, an Iraq vet, said he found more money-making opportunities in the civilian sector. Bienvenu's base pay as a four-year Army sergeant was about $25,000 a year. But now he makes $60,000 as a manager with a company that removes hurricane debris in New Orleans.

Bienvenu had considered a 20-year career with the Army when he joined at the relatively advanced age of 35. But he did not re-enlist after his four-year term because he felt that the military capped his earning potential.

"[Military pay] is the equivalent of a fixed income, and I've tasted money for too long to settle for that," said Bienvenu, who has no regrets about serving one term.

As a manager he said he would definitely consider hiring vets, even if they didn't have the specific job skills required. "Just knowing that their experience combined with motivation [makes them] a quick study."

But, he said, "Financially speaking, and only financially speaking, if the person has the gumption and the character to build some wealth, they're better off on the civilian side."

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