With the Marine Corps planning to reduce its forces by 20,000 over the next four years, the prospect of a lifelong career in the Corps is a bleak one for some Marines.
"I’ve seen a lot of good Marines that have never (gotten in trouble) and because they can’t pick up staff sergeant in 10 years, they’re getting forced out," said Lance Cpl. Richard Dennery, a military policeman stationed on Camp Lejeune who is still waiting to hear back about his re-enlistment package.
Dennery is talking about the recent Marine administrative message that gives Marine sergeants 10 years to reach the rank of the staff sergeant — where they previously had 13 years — or face involuntary separation from the Corps.
"For the people that invested in this, that put their life into it, it’s heartbreaking," Dennery said. "The Marine Corps is a business and so they have to cut numbers, but it’s heartbreaking and my heart goes out to the people that wanted this forever."
With the conflict in Afghanistan winding down and Operation Iraqi Freedom coming to an end last year, the Marine Corps simply doesn’t need such a large force, said Master Gunnery Sgt. Antonio Hardy, a II Marine Expeditionary Force career planner who assists Marines with their transition out of the Corps.
As a result, the Corps has had to find ways to entice people to leave their ranks; and while separation is inevitable for some Marines, with that separation comes a lump sum incentive pay of tens of thousands of dollars. It’s just one of the many tools Marine Corps leaders are using to trim their force of Marines from the current 202,100 to 182,100.
"The needs of the Marine Corps are changing," Hardy said. "In 2006, we were giving everybody a $10,000 (re-enlistment) bonus, at the very least. We were trying to get up to 202,000, because we thought we were going to have two wars going on at the same time ... Now we’re trying to go down, so we have to create programs to give people an opportunity to leave."
In addition to the involuntary separations, the Corps has created three additional programs in an attempt to entice Marines to leave their ranks.
The voluntary separations program is designed for Marines who have served between six and 15 years. It gives those Marines the opportunity to voluntarily leave the Corps, give up their retirement benefits and be paid a lump sum of around $98,000 upon separation, Hardy said.
The early retirement program targets Marines with 15 to 20 years of service on their contracts to retire before they would normally be eligible and keep the retirement benefits, but only receive 32 percent of the full monthly retirement pay, in addition to a lump sum upon separation.
The last program, called the Voluntary Enlisted Early Release Program, is for young Marines who are still on their first contract and it allows them to leave the Corps up to a year before their original contract expiration date. They will not receive any retirement benefits, but can keep their basic Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and the G.I. Bill.
The Corps has said they hope to achieve as much of the reduction in forces as possible through voluntary separations, but involuntary separation programs, like the new 10-year requirement to reach staff sergeant, and involuntary early retirement boards that will mainly be directed at officers, are also in place.
Whether the separation is voluntary or involuntary, those who leave the Corps as a result of the drawdown will receive transition assistance, and most will receive some form of separation pay.
"We don’t put anybody out with nothing," Hardy said.
For those Marines who want nothing more than to stay in the Corps, Hardy said they have to become more competitive and continue getting promoted. Boat spaces are shrinking, and the few that are available are filling up more quickly than they have in the past.
Six years ago, every Marine received at least $10,000 for re-enlisting, Hardy said, but for Fiscal Year 2013, which began in October, many of the Corps’ military occupational specialties will not be offering a monetary incentive for a Marine’s decision to re-enlist. Those that are offering money are considered critical positions — like explosive ordnance disposal and military intelligence — and those that if the Marine were to do that same job in the civilian sector, they would make much more money.
Additionally, Marines with prior service planning on returning to active duty will not be allowed to do so until January, according to a July Marine Administrative Message.
The Marine Corps has seen reductions after most major conflicts, with the most dramatic being after World War II, when a force of 475,000 Marines shrunk to 75,000 over a period of five years.