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Prior Service Enlistments

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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 define 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 limit 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 an "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.

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