US Navy targets indebted Americans

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Pentagon hopes to attract new sailors by paying off up to $65,000 in student loans

With enlistment bonuses as high as $50,000 apparently not enough to lure enough would-be sailors to join up, the US Navy is trying a new tactic by targeting Americans drowning in debt: offering to pay off their student loans.

Recruits who are willing to ship out by September 30 and meet other requirements will be eligible for as much as $65,000 in loan repayments, bringing their total bonus potential to $115,000, the Navy announced on Saturday. The offer applies to new sailors and to veterans who seek to return to service and who didn’t receive a bonus for their first enlistment.

“This is an opportunity without precedent” that could be “life-altering” for those burdened by student loans, said Navy Recruiting Command chief Rear Adm. Lex Walker. Nearly one in five US adults has student loan debt, averaging around $30,000. The country’s student borrowings total nearly $1.75 trillion.

The offer comes just six months after the Navy raised its maximum enlistment bonus to $50,000 from $40,000, citing a competitive labor market. That incentive apparently wasn’t enough to fill the personnel need, as all branches of the US military are reportedly struggling to meet their 2022 recruiting targets.

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The Pentagon has estimated that only about 1% of 17- to 24-year-old Americans are both eligible and inclined to enter military service. About 77% of people in that age group are disqualified because of obesity, drug use or criminal records. Most of the remaining 23% have no interest in joining the military.

Even in active-duty ranks, more than 17% of US military personnel are considered obese, according to a 2019 Pentagon study. The Navy had the highest obesity rate among all branches, at 22%.

The latest incentives are designed to help the Navy meet its recruiting requirements for specific job roles needed “to ensure fleet readiness,” according to a Navy Recruiting Command memo released on Thursday. Bonus caps vary by specialty. For instance, recruits assigned to high-demand jobs in the nuclear field, such as specialized electronics technicians, can be eligible for the maximum bonus of $50,000. Air rescue swimmers can qualify for up to $38,000, while special warfare boat operators and hospital corpsmen can get $36,000.

Recruiters can be less picky at times of greater need. In April, for example, the Navy offered a $25,000 enlistment bonus for all recruits who were willing to ship out before summer.


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