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What Does It Mean to Be Retained in the Military?

Written by Everett Bledsoe / Fact checked by Brain Bartell

what does it mean to be retained in the military

What does it mean to be retained in the military?

Military retention is when a service member voluntarily stays in the military after their obligated term of service, and the rate by which this happens.

Retention rates in the military are typically viewed in conjunction with attrition rates. The latter is also known as the churn rate, and it is the number of service members who leave expressed as a percentage.

For example, the Army retention rate in 2019 was 87% and the Navy retention rate in 2021 was 69% (for sailors serving 6 years or less).

To complete your understanding of the topic, continue reading. You will find our curated information on why retention is vital in the military, what the military does to increase its retainability, what problems exist, and what regulations (by branch) are currently in place. So, make sure you read until the end.

Retention in the Military – What Is It? And More!

1. What Does “Retain” Mean?

In general, to retain means to continue to have something.

In the military context, retention refers to the military continuing to have a certain service member. And the overall measure of retention is a rate, expressed as a percentage, applied to the whole military population.

By the above definition, when a service member gets retained in the military, he or she continues to serve despite it being the end of his or her obligated (contractual) service term.

2. Why Is Retention Important to the Military?

Retention is important to the military as it is elsewhere (i.e, in schools, businesses, etc). The key importance is to (1) preserve morale and unit readiness and (2) avoid the costs of training new service members.

3. What Does the Military Do to Increase its Retention?

The military runs recruiting ads and offers recruiting bonuses and retention bonuses in order to increase its retainability.

Recruiting Ads

The military is currently running ads on TV and Facebook.

Recruiting Bonuses

  • Army – The top bonus is $50,000. Those who sign up for 6 years of enlistment in a high-demand career field can get bonuses up to $50,000.
  • Navy – Also known as a signing bonus, the Navy offers at least $25,000 to those willing to ship off early (between April and June).
  • Marine Corps – The Marine Corps also offers bonuses, which are usually around $8,000. Careers that are in higher demand or are more dangerous can entail bonuses of up to $50,000 though. In general, the branch is setting aside $31 million for recruiting bonuses.
  • Air Force – The Air Force is offering bonuses, as well. Bonuses can reach $100,000, depending on the career.

Retention Bonuses


  • Army – The Selective Retention Bonus (SRB) Program: An incentive for soldiers in selected MOSs who reenlist for at least 3 years. The maximum bonus is $25,000 per year.
  • Navy – Service members who retain military rank for an additional three years can receive up to $100,000.
  • Marine Corps – Service members who decide to reenlist can qualify for bonuses. The exact value is based on the duration of the member’s extended enlistment and how early he or she indicates their reenlistment. Bonuses start at $8,000.
  • Air Force – The Selective Retention Bonus (STB) Program: The cap is $100,000, though there is a separate career cap of $360,000, as well. The Air Force has also recently expanded the program to include over 60 more career fields.

4. What Else Affects Retention in the Military?

Congress also influences the retention rates in the military. In general, it affects through authorizing and funding:

  • Compensation Levels (Especially compared to compensation in the private sector)
  • Quality of Life Initiatives
    • Meant to increase a service member’s (and his or her family’s) satisfaction with the career
  • Retention Programs
  • Retention Incentives (Such as reenlistment bonuses)

It is also possible to think that Congress impacts retention through the end-strength levels it sets.

  • If the end-strength goals were drastically increased for a service branch, the branch would have to push for higher rates of retention by investing time, effort, and money.
  • If the end-strength goals were substantially decreased for a service branch, the branch would not have to invest too much time, effort, and money into pushing for retention rates.

5. Problems With Retention in the Military

There is a common problem with retention in the military: an imbalance in the rates.

From this, two scenarios can occur:

  • Scenario 1: Too few service members stay. In this case, several issues can emerge, such as:
    • A shortage of experienced leaders
    • A drop in military efficiency
    • A reduction in job satisfaction
  • Scenario 2: Too many service members stay. Contrary to what most people think, this also causes problems, like:
    • A decrease in promotion opportunities
      • Which eventually leads to a reduction in job satisfaction
    • An excess of experienced leaders (And therefore a too “top heavy” force
      • Which eventually leads to involuntary separations

These consequences can make the military unappealing, and they have a negative impact on future recruiting.

Since 2020, the military has faced problems with “Scenario 1.” The reasons being (but are not limited to):

  • A nationwide labor shortage
  • Competition from the private sector
  • Public scandals making the military look unappealing (to job seekers)
    • The 2020 murder of Vanessa Guillén
    • The suicides on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier – As a result of poor conditions aboard the ship (namely lack of basic amenities, like hot water and ventilation).
  • Americans refusing to get vaccinated (Deeming them unqualified for the military)
  • More and more Americans becoming obese (Deeming them unfit for the military)
  • Failure to direct ads to the main recruiting demographic
    • Those from 17 to 24 years old are no longer watching TV (where military ads are); they are on other social media platforms, such as Tiktok (banned from government-issued phones)

6. Some 2022 Updates on Military Retention


Retention is not looking good for the military this year. There is a shortage that can severely influence the long term strength of the Armed Forces, too. Here are some metrics:

  • Five months into the fiscal year and the Army has reached only 23 percent of its active duty target for new recruits.
  • In the first quarter of the fiscal year, the Air Force welcomed 2,300 fewer recruits.
  • The Air Force continues to have a shortage of pilots. Several headlines report that the shortage is, at present, 1,650 pilots.


To recap this article on what does it mean to be retained in the military, military retention is a rate (expressed as a percentage) for the number of service members who voluntarily stay in the military after their obligated term of service.

It is essential for the military as it upholds morale and readiness and cuts the cost of training new service members. Retainability depends on a range of factors, but all branches are currently ‘convincing’ recruits with incentives like recruitment bonuses and retention/reenlistment bonuses.

Hopefully, it has been informative and interesting. Feel free to bookmark this article for future reference, share it with other readers, and leave your thoughts or questions in the comments. Thank you!

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