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The Baltimore Sun

Aboard Flight Reach-5107 Heavy -- Boring through darkness at 30,000 feet toward Iraq, Air Force Staff Sgt. Eric Erbaugh, a loadmaster on this C-17 flying combat supplies, did a quick calculation and grinned. In a few hours, he would avoid paying Uncle Sam the taxes on $41,161.50.

Erbaugh is based at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina and flies regularly on cargo missions to the Middle East. After eight years in the Air Force, he was re-enlisting for another five. That earned him a $41,161.50 cash re-enlistment bonus. And by signing his re-enlistment papers in a war zone, he'll get that bonus tax-free, saving enough to help pay his law school tuition and make a down payment on a house.

Despite the risks and stresses of war, and repeated long deployments, the military is re-enlisting more than enough soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines to keep its ranks filled with seasoned, experienced hands.

They have proven their dedication and courage. They have missed birthdays and anniversaries, forever lost time with growing children and endured the hardship on the spouses left behind.

But the cash helps. So does getting it tax-free.

Overall, the Army is running at 120 percent of its re-enlistment goal for the year, in part by offering cash re-enlistment bonuses to soldiers in 114 "critical" jobs, including infantrymen, cavalry scouts and Special Forces soldiers.

An Army staff sergeant like Jeremy Forrest gets $33,500 for signing up for another five years. That came tax-free to Forrest, who re-enlisted in Iraq. This year, the Pentagon will hand out $1.3 billion in cash bonuses for re-enlistments that range from two to eight years or more.

Next year, as the services struggle to maintain their forces and the Army and Marines continue a major expansion, the Pentagon's cash-bonus program will grow to $1.5 billion.

Cash bonuses top out at $150,000 for senior Special Forces enlisted soldiers who agree to stay past 20 years.

With many of its jobs requiring long and hazardous field experience or deep technical knowledge - or both - the military is working to maintain the right balance between recruiting new 18- and 19-year-old troops and holding onto the older ones.

The Army fell slightly short of its recruiting goal last month, signing up 5,101 new soldiers out of its target of 5,500, but it has re-enlisted an average of 3,604 soldiers a month this year, just ahead of its goal.

The bonuses for soldiers in "critical" jobs are partly responsible. But the list of those jobs, in an indication of how deep the Army's personnel needs go, includes plumbers, chaplains' assistants, paralegals and "animal care specialists."

Sergeant Forrest has one of those jobs. He's a parachute rigger with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., responsible for cleaning, inspecting and packing the parachutes on which paratroopers' lives depend.

Forrest volunteered to deploy to Camp Anaconda in Iraq, where he works in a cool, dim hangar packing emergency supplies to air-drop to combat forces pinned down by enemy fire and unable to get water, food and ammunition by truck.

At 29, the Chicago native has 10 years in the service. That's a critical point at which soldiers who enlisted for three or four years have to decide whether they (and their spouses) like it enough to stay in, or whether they should quit and try a civilian career while they're still young enough.

On the "stay in" side of that argument: adventure, camaraderie, service to country and a guaranteed job. On the "get out" side: no more deployments, better working conditions, more time with family.

The bonus, which for soldiers like Forrest can top $40,000, helps win many of those arguments.

"It was the deal-maker," he said.

Same for Cpl. Michael Casey, 24, a Marine from Rouses Point, N.Y., who is deployed in Iraq's Anbar province in an amphibious assault battalion of the 1st Marine Division and who had been pondering a decision to re-enlist.

"Once I realized I could buy a house with my re-enlistment bonus, it was all over," said Casey, shrugging out of his sweat-soaked body armor after a combat patrol. "I'm looking at $60,000, tax-free."

Tax-free cash bonuses are understandably popular.

In its first 12 months in Iraq, the first brigade of the Minnesota National Guard's 24th Infantry processed $15 million in tax-free re-enlistment bonuses, the brigade said in its newsletter.

The military also pays cash bonuses to officers.

Lt. Col. James Sears, a battalion commander stationed near Balad, Iraq, has served 15 years in the Army. In April, he received a $30,000 bonus as an incentive to stay 10 or more years, or longer.

"Look, I am a soldier, and I love what I'm doing, and I'm going to do more," he said. "We thrive on hardship. But we are also family guys and these deployments - we don't see any end in sight."

In such situations, he said, the cash bonus is appreciated.

That's especially true given the level of military salaries.

Eric Erbaugh brings home a base salary of $2,744.10 per month, or $32,929.20 a year. To that sum is added various special pays and allowances, including $650 a month for flight pay, $190 a month for hazardous duty pay and $225 a month for imminent danger pay.

The pay can seem low, given the stress and risks of serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, where even the excitement of a tax-free cash bonus sometimes fades against other concerns.

"Right now, the biggest fear for us is the fear of getting extended," said 1st Sgt. James Meadows, 42, a National Guardsman from Huachuca City, Ariz., who is responsible for a platoon of soldiers on convoy security missions in Iraq.

His soldiers were called up for 18 months of service and expect to serve in Iraq for one year. But in the past two years, many units have been notified that their deployments have been extended, some for as much as three months.

"The worst thing is, they won't let us or the families know until right up to the very end" of their scheduled deployment in Iraq, said Meadows. "There's just no telling."

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