One of the most wasteful and cruel practices in the US military is the "up or out" career system, where those not chosen for promotion are forced out of the service.  This article will focus on the method in which enlisted personnel are forced to retire in their 40s.  Prior to World War II, enlisted men were required to serve until age 60 to draw retirement.  Improved health care since World War II allows the average American male to live six years longer, however, a bizarre career system emerged after World War II in which enlisted must retire in the 40s.

      Generals can serve until age 62, so why force enlisted to retire in their 40s?  Few have college degrees and most do not have skills that relate directly to the private sector, so they'd rather stay in uniform, even after reaching their maximum retirement pay of 75% base pay after 30 years of service.  Unfortunately, current law requires E-9s to retire at the 30-year mark, and time-in-service limits require E-8s and below to retire even earlier.  These vary slightly in each armed service, and change every few years as Generals impose different manpower management philosophies.  The Marine Corps recently published an update which provides an example of how enlisted careers are managed.  A key element are promotion rates mandated by law:

E-6 SSGT             70%             80%            90%
E-7 GYSGT            65%             75%            85%
E-8 1STSGT/MSGT      60%             70%            80%
E-9 SGTMAJ/MGYSGT    55%             65%            75%

      Time-in-service limits are the other career factor.  Enlisted who have not been promoted after a given number of years are discharged, no matter how well they perform or how critical their position.  Higher pay and benefits make an enlisted career far more attractive than in past decades, so competition for promotion is much tougher and many good enlisted are forced out by service limits.  The average servicemen enlists at age 19, so the average age has been added to this chart of Marine Corps service limits for clarity:


E-4 CPL                NA         8 YEARS          27   
E-5 SGT              4 YEARS        13 YEARS           32
E-6 SSGT           8.5 YEARS        20 YEARS           39
E-7 GYSGT           13 YEARS        22 YEARS           41
E-8 1STSGT/MSGT   17.5 YEARS        27 YEARS           46
E-9 SGTMAJ/MGYSGT   22 YEARS        30 YEARS           49

     Promotions to corporal and sergeant require achieving standards to reach a certain score.  Most Marines who avoid trouble will make sergeant (E-5), except those squeezed out due to overages in their specialties, which is done by limiting reenlistments and requiring a higher "cutting score" for promotion.  Sergeants face their first promotion board for staff sergeant (E-6) where around 20% are passed-over and discharged at age 32.  The "promotion opportunity" percentage varies slightly each year to manage manpower.

    So for a group of 100 E-5s who stayed out of serious trouble for 8.5 years, 20 will fail promotion and face discharged after 13 years of service at age 32.  This could be questioned as a waste of skilled manpower, while others argue that this is needed to prune poor performers from the career force.  This also provides a manpower pool of E-5s for mobilization to replace combat casualties.  At the 13-year mark, this group of 80 E-6s faces another pruning as 20 more are passed-over and forced to retired after 20 years.  Once again, this need is debatable, although retired E-6s provide a valuable pool for wartime augmentation. Gunnery Sergeant Kent Cartmill    

     However, there should be little debate that the remaining 60 (now E-7s) should be considered career Marines and allowed to serve as long as they are able; like the E-7 pictured right. They met the promotion requirements for E-4 and E-5, and were selected for promotion to E-6 and E-7 above 40% of their peers.  E-7s and above serve in positions which limit their risk of becoming battlefield casualties.  They cannot all become E-9s, yet there is no reason they cannot  remain in the Marines for 30 years or more.  

     Nevertheless, current law requires that 18 of these 60 E-7s are forcibly retired at age 41 after failing selection to E-8. Of the 42 survivors who make E-8, 15 more are retired at age 46 after failing promotion to E-9.  Then the 27 of the original pool of 100 E-5 Marines who survived to E-9 are forced to retire at age 49 when they hit the 30-year mark.  

     No other organization in the world manages careers with such a method.  This "up or out" system of early retirement places tremendous stress on enlisted as they must scheme for promotion just to remain in uniform.  Even if they succeed with promotion to E-9 ahead of 73% of their peers, they will be forced into retirement in their 40s and forced to find menial jobs to support their family.  This is cruel and wasteful.  First, all E-7s and above should be allowed to serve 30 years so long as their performance is satisfactory.  This can be done without a change in the law and should be implemented by Generals immediately.



E-4 CPL                NA             8 YEARS           27   
E-5 SGT              4 YEARS         13 YEARS           32
E-6 SSGT           8.5 YEARS         20 YEARS           39
E-7 GYSGT           13 YEARS         30 YEARS           49
E-8 1STSGT/MSGT   17.5 YEARS         30 YEARS           49
E-9 SGTMAJ/MGYSGT   22 YEARS         30 YEARS           49


     The next step is to ask Congress to alter the law to allow all E-7s and above to serve to age 56.  There is no reason they can't serve to age 62 like Generals, but a sudden major change will cause turmoil for manpower planners and stall the promotion process for years.  In fact, this step should not be implemented until several years after E-7s and above are allowed to serve to the 30-year mark to allow the manpower and promotion systems to adjust.  Allowing enlisted to serve to age 56 will require an adjustment of promotion targets to reflect longer careers.  This may require a reduction of promotion opportunities to E-7, unless the numbers of senior enlisted are increased as part of a reduction of the officer corps by replacing many officers with senior enlisted.



E-4 CPL                NA         8 YEARS          27   
E-5 SGT              5 YEARS        14 YEARS           33
E-6 SSGT            10 YEARS        20 YEARS           39
E-7 GYSGT           15 YEARS           NA              56
E-8 1STSGT/MSGT     20 YEARS           NA              56
E-9 SGTMAJ/MGYSGT   25 YEARS           NA              56

     Some will express concern that it will be impossible to retire fat or lazy senior enlisted personnel.  In fact, each service has procedures to demote poor performing enlisted, although they are rarely used as officers prefer to just write bad evals and let the "up or out" system discharge them a few years later.  A full career system will prod officers to take action to demote or retire poor performers.  Keep in mind that an E-7 has already proven himself during his first 15 years in service where he outperformed 40% of his peers.  Another method is to require E-8 and E-9 promotion boards to retire senior enlisted whose performance is not only unworthy of promotion, but substandard for their current grade.  

     Physical fitness may concern some, but that is more a factor of exercise than age.  The current system is irrational anyway as an E-9 who joined the service at age 30 can serve until age 60, while one who joined at age 17 is forced out at age 47.  Enlisted who become warrant officers are allowed to serve until age 60, as though pinning on a red and gold colored bar provides youthful vigor.  Few E-7s and above fill positions which require great stamina and they still must pass annual fitness tests to remain in service.  It may become common for senior enlisted to be urged or forced to retire before age 56 because of weight gain or poor fitness, something that is already common for servicemen in the 30s and 40s.  

     A final step is to allow enlisted a better second chance at promotion.  Currently, enlisted who are passed-over for promotion are allowed a second chance the following year.  While this seems fair, tough competition for promotion makes those passed-over lepers, and 95% are passed-over again.  However, if they did not come up for promotion until four years after being passed-over, they would have a far better opportunity during their second chance.  They will have four more years of experience and several more performance evaluations.  Any poor evaluation which hurt them four years prior will seem less important to the board.  In addition, manpower requirements change over time; World War II happened within four years.  They may have been passed-over because of an overage in their specialty at the time, which has since become a shortage.  The passed-over stigma will still hurt their promotion chances, but four more years of experience should greatly increase their chances at promotion.

     This will keep those passed-over motivated for promotion three years longer than today.  For example, an E-6 now passed-over twice must retire after at the 20-year mark six years later no matter how they perform.  They can earn the Medal of Honor and serve years in combat, but they must retire after 20 years.  A four-year wait means they will retain hope for promotion until their second chance at the 19-year mark, then are retired at the 20-year mark should they fail again.  Ideally, passed-over E-7s and E-8s will be considered for promotion every four years until retirement age.  This will keep them motivated throughout their careers, and it may become common for most E-7s and E-8s to be passed-over during their first try in favor of more experienced enlisted considered for promotion during their second, third, and even fourth review.

     These simple changes will result in a much more mature and experienced enlisted force.  Some will grumble that promotions are slower, yet all will rejoice at the option to remain in uniform until age 56.  In addition, E-7s and above will become "tenured" like college professors, allowing them to offer opinions without fear of alienating an officer who may end their career with a single bad evaluation.  This will eventually save the armed services almost a billion dollars a year in retirement costs as those who retire early will do so at a lower grade, while others forgo several years or retirement pay by remaining in active service past the 30 year mark.  In addition, readiness will improve as thousands of high skilled and experienced maintenance experts are not kicked out of the service each year.  It is past time to eliminate the cruel and wasteful "up or out" career system for enlisted personnel and allow them full careers like everyone else.

                                                 Carlton Meyer