The struggle to entice US Army soldiers and Marines to stay in the military, after four years of war in Iraq has ballooned into a US$1 billion campaign with bonuses soaring nearly sixfold since 2003.
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 US$150,000 for very senior special forces soldiers who re-enlist for six years. All told, the Army and Marines spent US$1.03 billion for re-enlistment payments last year, compared with US$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 Colonel Mike Jones, who oversees retention issues for the National Guard. "Winning a war, however, is less expensive than losing one."
Soaring budgets 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 US troops to date.
Incentives for Army Guard and Reserve members combined have skyrocketed from about US$27 million in 2003 to more than US$335 million last year.
The active Army, meanwhile, poured more than US$600 million into these payments last year, a sixfold increase from US$98 million in 2003. The Army gave two out of every three soldiers who re-enlisted a bonus last year, compared with less than two in 10 who received one during 2003.
Those who do not 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, Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty said.
Bonuses for Marines have nearly doubled, from about US$50 million in 2003 to nearly US$90 million last year.
The incentives help the military compete with private employers who often pay much higher salaries, Hilferty said.
"Soldiers with valuable skills and experience are aggressively sought after by industry," he said.
He said while the extra money is important as "people don't re-enlist in a wartime Army for US$13,000 ... If soldiers didn't think they were doing the right thing for the right reason, they would get out and get a job back home."
He said soldiers with special skills can get bonuses between US$10,000 and US$30,000, with a select few eligible for payments up to US$50,000.