All of the services use the same enlistment contract -- Department of Defense Form 4/1. This is the contract that is used for military enlistments and re-enlistments. Of all the paperwork you signed during the process to join the military, this is the most important document.
If you enlist on active duty, you'll actually sign two enlistment contracts. The first one places you in the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP). The DEP is actually the INACTIVE RESERVES (inactive reserve members do not perform weekend drills, such as active members of the Reserves, nor do they receive any pay -- however, technically, they can be called to active duty in times of emergency: Note: There has NEVER been a case where a member in the DEP has been involuntarily called to active duty). When your time in the DEP is up, and it's time to go onto active duty and ship out to basic training, you are discharged from the inactive reserves and sign a new enlistment contract to enlist on active duty. See Part 3 of this series for more information about the DEP.
Promises. I don't care what your recruiter promised you, if it's not in the enlistment contract, or in an annex to the contract, it's not a promise. Also, it doesn't much matter what is in the DEP enlistment contract -- if it isn't in your active duty enlistment contract, it's not a promise. If you were promised an enlistment bonus, for example, it needs to be in the final active duty contract, or chances are you'll never see that bonus. Once you get out of basic training and job training and go to the personnel office at your first base, they're not going to give one hoot about what anyone "promised" you -- they're only going to care about what is in the enlistment contract.
In fact, the bottom of the very first page of the enlistment contract contains the following clause:
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.
Let me clarify a couple of points: First of all, incentives and entitlements which are available to everyone won't be, and doesn't need to be in the contract. This is because military members are already entitled to it by law. For example, medical care, base pay, and the Montgomery G.I. Bill won't be specified in the contract, because these benefits are available to everyone who enlists in the military.
Second, those enlisting on active duty will have at least two enlistment contracts -- the initial contract for the Delayed Enlistment Program, and a final contract that one will sign on the day they go to MEPS to ship out to basic training. The contract that COUNTS is the final contract. It doesn't matter if your enlistment bonus, advanced rank, college loan repayment program, college fund, etc., are not included in the first contract. However, you need to make sure all of your desired incentives are included in the final active duty contract (if your enlistment program/job choice entitles you to those incentives).
Enlistment Periods. Thought you were enlisting for four years? Think again. It may surprise you to learn that ALL non-prior service enlistments in the United States Military incurs a total eight year service obligation. Yep. When you sign that enlistment contract, you are obligating yourself to the military for a total of eight years. Whatever time is not spent on active duty, or in the active Guard/Reserves (if you enlisted in the Guard/Reserves) must be spent in the inactive reserves.
Paragraph 10a of the enlistment contract states:
a. FOR ALL ENLISTEES: If this is my initial enlistment, I must serve a total of eight (8) years. Any part of that service not served on active duty must be served in a Reserve Component unless I am sooner discharged.
This means two things: Let's say you enlist in the Navy for four years. You serve your four years and get out. You're really not "out." You're transfered to the INACTIVE Reserves (called the "IRR" or "Individual Ready Reserve") for the next four years, and the Navy can call you back to active duty at anytime, or even involuntarily assign you to an active (drilling) Reserve unit during that period, if they need you due to personnel shortages, war, or conflicts (such as Iraq). This total 8 year service commitment applies whether you enlist on active duty, or join the Reserves or National Guard.