Prior Service Enlistments

The U.S. Army
The U.S. Army/Flickr

Thinking of getting out of the military, working a few years in civilian life, then -- if you don't like it -- coming back in? Thinking of getting out of one military service, and trying to join a different service?

It should be easy, right? After all, one would expect that the military would jump at the chance to enlist someone with prior military experience.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy. You see, because prior-service enlist with the same (approximate) paygrade they had when they were discharged, and because they maintain their Total Years of Active Federal Service, they are not in the same enlistment category as brand new recruits.

Record of Previous Service

The biggest hurdle (for many) prior service is the re-enlistment eligibility code (RE Code) that the service placed on their DD Form 214 (Record of Discharge) at the time of their separation. In general, if the RE Code is "1," there are no bars to enlistment. If the RE Code is "2" for the Air Force, that person is ineligible to re-enlist in the Air Force, but might be allowed to enlist in another branch of the military, with restrictions. If the RE Code is "2" for any of the other services, the person might be eligible to enlist in either the same service or another service, with restrictions. If the RE Code is "3," the individual might be able to re-join their service or enlist in another service with a waiver (depending on the reason for the discharge). If the RE Code is "4," the individual is ineligible for re-enlistment or enlistment in another service.

Prior Service

So, what exactly is considered "prior service?" If one enlists, spends two weeks at basic training, and then is discharged, and later wants to enlist again, or enlist in a different service, is that person considered "prior service" for enlistment purposes?

You would think there would be one standard Department of Defense definition for "prior service," but there is not. Each of the services defines prior service (for enlistment purposes) differently:

The Army defines "prior service" as any applicant with more than 180 days of military service, or those who graduated from military job-training (MOS/AFSC/Rating), regardless of time-in-service.

Individuals with less than 180 days of military service, and/or those who have not completed military job-training are classified as "Glossary Prior Service," and are processed the same as non-prior service recruits, with the exception that they must have a qualifying RE Code (or receive a waiver) on their DD Form 214.

The Air Force defines "prior service" as persons who have served at least 24 months of Active Duty service without regard to regular component or continuous service in the Armed Forces. Individuals with less than 24 months of Active Duty are considered "previous service." Previous service personnel are classified and processed the same as non-prior service, with the exception that they must have a qualifying RE Code (or receive a waiver) on their DD Form 214. However, even though "previous service" applicants are classified and tracked as non-prior service, it's still a separate enlistment program under the Air Force recruiting regulation, and the Air Force can choose to accept or reject "previous service" applicants, depending on their current recruiting needs.

The Navy considers applicants with 180 consecutive days or more of prior active duty service as "prior service." Those with less than 180 consecutive days of prior active duty service are considered non-prior service (NPS) applicants, however, they must meet RE-Code eligibility requirements (or receive an approved waiver).

For enlistment purposes, the Marine Corps defines prior service as:

  • Those individuals who have successfully completed the recruit/basic training sponsored by their former service, or
  • Those individuals who have failed to complete recruit/basic training, and who have been given a DD Form 214 and assigned a reenlistment code, or
  • Those individuals who have fulfilled their military service obligation within a reserve component.

The Coast Guard definition is vague. They define "prior service" as "a person who has served some valid period of creditable service in any of the U.S. Armed Forces, including Reserve components thereof."

Prior Service Quotas

Each of the services limits the number of prior service enlistments (this includes those in the Guard and Reserves who wish to enlist on active duty) they allow each year.

This is because a "prior service" enlistment slot is the same as a "re-enlistment" slot. Given the choice, the military will allow someone currently in the service to re-enlist before they will allow a prior-service applicant to use up that slot by coming back in.

What to Expect

Right now (2005), the Air Force is the hardest active duty service for prior service to enlist, and the Army is the easiest. The Marine Corps and the Navy are accepting prior service, but not in large numbers. The Air Force has accepted only a handful of prior service applicants during the past two years -- only those who are already qualified in extremely hard-to-fill jobs, such as Pararescue, Combat Controller, or Linguist.

So, in order for a prior-service to enlist, the service must be under their goal for re-enlistments. For the past few years, re-enlistment rates have been right on target for all of the services. With the exception of the Army, waiting times of a year or more for prior service to enlist are not uncommon.

Because there are usually many more prior-service who want to enlist than there are available positions, some of the services do not even give "enlistment credit" for recruiters to enlist prior service. Some of the services do give "enlistment credit," but not until the applicant actually goes on active duty (which might take a year or more). Add this to the fact that prior service enlistments require more "paperwork," and effort by the recruiter, it's understandable that many recruiters would rather spend their valuable time working with non-prior-service recruits.

More than one recruiter has told me, "if a prior service wants to enlist, they can expect to do much of the running around to gather necessary records and documents, themselves. Don't expect the recruiter to drop everything to get a copy of medical records or criminal records for prior-service." So, you might have to shop around awhile to find a recruiter who is willing to work with you.

Job Selection

In most cases, prior service candidates must enlist in the military job they had at the time of separation unless the service declares there is no need for that job. Only then can the member elect to enlist into a different job. Additionally, in many cases, if the member had a military job (MOS/AFSC/Rating) in one service that directly cross-relates to a job in the service they want to join, and if that service has a shortage in that job, the applicant is required to enlist in that particular job. In other words, if you were an MP in the Army, and you wish to join the Air Force, and the Air Force has a current shortage of Security Forces personnel, you would be required to enlist as an Air Force Security Forces troop. Only if you held a job that doesn't directly cross-relate to a job in the service you are joining, or if the service doesn't have a shortage in that job, would you be allowed to re-train into a different job.

Basic Training

Whether or not you have to go through boot camp varies in each of the services. The Marines pretty much require all prior-service from other services to go through Marine Boot Camp. In the Army, former members of other services (except the Marine Corps), are required to attend the four-week Warrior Transition Course at Fort Bliss, Texas. Former Solders and Marines who have a break in service of more than three years must also attend this course. For the purpose of this section, for soldiers and Marines who separate, break in service starts after Military Service Obligation (MSO) is completed or when a member (regardless of service) is no longer a member of a reserve component (including the IRR).

For the Navy, the boot camp decision is made individually, after examining the person's military experience. In the Air Force, few prior-service must go through Air Force basic. Instead, they attend a 10-day Air Force familiarization course at Lackland Air Force Base.

For the Coast Guard, non-Coast Guard veterans with more than two years of active duty service attend a 30-day basic called "Pit Stop." All others attend the full-Coast Guard Basic Training.

Rank/Rate Retention

Whether or not a prior service enlistee retains the same rank/rate they had at the time of discharge, varies with each of the services.

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