Prior Service Enlistments and Rejoining the Military

The Complications of Rejoining the Military

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Many veterans are thrilled to get out of the military at first. But then, after a few years, many decide that perhaps they fit better in a military profession than a civilian job. And in some cases, service members want to get out of one service to join a different service.

Regardless of why a veteran with prior experience wants to re-enlist, unfortunately it's not that easy. The truth is that it's tough to rejoin the military for two reasons: the size of your year group and your previous training (the job that you are skilled in may not be needed at your current time in service).

An example of the above issue is when a Marine with six years of service wants to get out of the USMC and join the Navy SEALs. The recruiters have to look at their six years of service not as an asset, but determine if there is room for someone with six years of service at a specific rank to join the Navy and enter the SEAL program. Some years may be wide open, but some year groups may be over-manned and not allow for a six-year Marine to join the Navy and attend SEAL training. 

Record of Previous Service

The other hurdle for many with 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

Prior Service Enlistments and Rejoining the Military

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So, what exactly is considered "prior service?"

The Department of Defense definition for "prior service" is not standard as each of the services defines it differently:

Army. 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 and given an RE Code (or receive a waiver) on their DD Form 214.

Air Force. 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 and given an RE Code (or receive a waiver) on their DD Form 214. 

Navy and Marine Corps. 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
  • Those individuals who have failed to complete recruit/basic training, and who have been given a DD Form 214 and assigned a reenlistment code
  • Those individuals who have fulfilled their military service obligation within a reserve component

Coast Guard. 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 limits 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. It is because a "prior service" enlistment slot is the same as a "re-enlistment" slot. Given the choice, the military will allow someone currently in the service to re-enlist before they allow a prior-service applicant to re-join.

In most cases, prior service candidates must enlist in the military job they had at the time of separation unless the service declares there is no need for that job. Only then can the member elect to enlist in a different job.

What to Expect

The Air Force is the hardest active duty service for prior service to enlist, and the Army is the easiest. The Marine Corps and the Navy accept prior service, but not in large numbers.

The Air Force has accepted only a handful of prior service applicants during the past decade, only those who are already qualified in extremely hard-to-fill jobs, such as Pararescue, Combat Controller, or Linguist.

So, for a prior-service to enlist, the service must be under their goal for re-enlistments. For the past several years, re-enlistment rates have been right on target for all of the services.

With the exception of the Army, waiting times of a year or more for prior service to enlist are not uncommon.

Because there are usually many more prior-service who want to enlist than there are available positions, some of the services do not even give "enlistment credit" for recruiters to enlist prior service. Some of the services do give "enlistment credit," but not until the applicant goes on active duty (which might take a year or more). Add this to the fact that prior service enlistments require more "paperwork," and effort by the recruiter, it's understandable that many recruiters would rather spend their valuable time working with non-prior-service recruits.

Repeating Basic Training

Whether or not you have to go through boot camp varies in each of the services. The Marines pretty much require all prior-service from other services to go through Marine Boot Camp. In the Army, former members of other services (except the Marine Corps), are required to attend the four-week Warrior Transition Course at Fort Bliss, Texas. Former Soldiers and Marines who have a break in service of more than three years must also attend this course. 

For the Navy, the boot camp decision is made individually, after examining the person's military experience. In the Air Force, few prior-service must go through Air Force basic. Instead, they attend a 10-day Air Force familiarization course at Lackland Air Force Base.

For the Coast Guard, non-Coast Guard veterans with more than two years of active duty service attend a 30-day basic called "Pit Stop." All others attend the full-Coast Guard Basic Training.