Joining the military as an enlisted service member is a serious commitment requiring you to sign an enlistment contract. For first-time enlistments in the U.S. military, the contract includes minimum active duty and/or inactive reserve duty obligations along with the particular job you will hold in the military, also referred to as your Military Occupational Specialty (or MOS).
A standard military enlistment contract often requires four years of active duty and four years of inactive reserve service. A typical contract to enlist directly in the Reserves or National Guard often requires eight years of inactive service. That being said, each military branch offers a wide array of enlistment contract terms and options.
You should know exactly what you're agreeing to when you sign any contract. An enlistment contract is a legally-binding agreement between you and the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard. Because of this, if you fail to comply with the obligations in your enlistment contract, the military can pursue potential criminal or civil penalties against you. However, it also means that the military is obligated to abide by the terms of the contract that it signs with you as well.
While certain benefits and incentives from the military do not need to be specified in the contract, such as base pay, assigned housing or access to medical care, there are additional terms that you can negotiate with a recruiter. If you do so, you need to make sure that any agreed-upon terms are included in the final contract.
Get it in Writing
It doesn't matter what your recruiter promised you, if it's not laid out in writing in the enlistment contract, or in an annex to the contract, then it's not enforceable. So if you were promised things such as an enlistment bonus or any special military schools or training (such as the Army Airborne School or language training at the Defense Language Institute), they need to be in the final enlistment contract that you sign. After all, the bottom of most every enlistment contract states:
"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."
Once you get out of basic training and job training for your particular MOS, the personnel office at your new duty station won't want to hear about any promises not in writing. All that matters is what is laid out in the signed enlistment contract.
Enlistment Contract Options
Let's take a standard enlistment contract. While most active duty contracts feature a four-year active duty service requirement, some offer contracts of two, three or six years. The length of service options available to you may depend on the training required for your MOS. Some MOS training that takes a longer time, such as training to be a medic or a linguist, might require you to commit to a minimum of six years, while others allow two or three. Be sure to ask your recruiter about the training required for different MOS positions and how long they will take to complete.
Bonuses, Job Training, Promotions
The length of service often gets the most attention in an enlistment contract -- and for good reason. But other terms need to be negotiated as well. Make sure the amount and disbursement of any bonus is clearly spelled out. The same goes with specific guarantees of job training and any promotion to an advanced pay grade. While most enlistees come in at the first pay grade (E-1), enlistees who are older or who have additional education beyond high school, may be able to enter the military at a higher pay grade (usually up to the level of E-4). Also, some enlistment contracts may provide first-time enlistees with their choice of locations for their first duty station.
You can also negotiate terms for civilian educational benefits, such as tuition assistance for college or the option to enter an officer commissioning program after a certain period of time. Officer Candidate School (OCS) and the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) are the two most common means of obtaining an officer commission. You must have a college degree to be an officer, which you must have before entering OCS or which you can obtain while enrolled in an ROTC program. Many ROTC programs will also offer scholarships for your college education while you earn your commission.
Delayed Entry Program
Recruiters likely will mention the Delayed Entry Program (DEP). Today, nearly all military recruits sign a delayed-entry contract. By signing this, you promise to report on a specific date (up to a year) in the future. Your term of active-service begins at that time.
The DEP helps the armed forces plan their training activities and efficiently distribute new trainees to available "slots." Plus, it's likely easier for recruits to sign up if they feel like they have some time before the bill comes due.
So be sure you know what you're signing up for at the recruiter's office. Make sure you fully understand all the commitments binding on you and on the military before you sign up and ship out.
Contact a qualified military law attorney to help you with military-related issues.