The military last went through a drawdown in the 1990’s, following the Cold War and the first Gulf War. During that time, the military contracted in many ways, including the retirement of weapons systems, base closures, and the mass attrition of personnel. Following a decade of relative peace, the world was rocked by the terror attacks of September 11th, which brought us into the War on Terror. Instead of decreasing in size, our military increased its numbers and even implemented measures to temporarily prevent some members from leaving the service. Many military members were unable to leave the service when they originally intended to, as several branches enacted stop-loss measures that kept servicemembers in uniform long past their initial separation date.
However, as the war slowed, the need to keep as many servicemembers in uniform decreased. In recent years, each military branch has used different methods to reduce their force size, including offering servicemembers the opportunity to get an early transition from active duty to the Guard or Reserves, a transition to another branch of the military, or even get an early out through Force Shaping or other measures.
Now, the military is offering select servicemembers the opportunity to retire with only 15-19 years of service, a substantial reduction from the normal requirement of 20 years of good service. This program, called the Temporary Early Retirement Authority, or TERA, was last available to servicemembers during the end of the Cold War era, or during the 1993-2001 fiscal years.
The National Defense Authorization Act signed in 2011 reauthorized the branches to offer the Temporary Early Retirement Authority program to select members who meet certain criteria. (This law is currently set to be on the books until 2018). The time in service requirement, which is more than 15 years and less than 20 years, is set by law. The other criteria are set by each branch so they can determine how best to shape the quality of their force. Generally, this program is only available to servicemembers who are in overmanned career fields. You will need to check with your respective service to determine if you are eligible for early retirement under TERA.
Is Early Military Retirement a Good Decision?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, so let’s look at how the program works so you can decide for yourself. First, let’s assume the military member is working toward a normal military retirement under the High-3 system, or the Career Status Bonus (REDUX) retirement system.
How to Calculate High-3 Retirement: This retirement plan gives the servicemember a pension based on their average basic pay for their highest 36 months of service. Under this plan, each year served is worth 2.5% toward an annual pension. For example, serving 20 years would result in a pension worth 50% of their average base pay. Each additional year served increases their base multiplier by 2.5%. So 30 years of service would be worth a 75% pension. Under this plan, the annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), is based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI). More info.
How to Calculate REDUX Retirement: In 1986, the military began offering servicemembers their choice of the High-3 retirement system or the Career Status Bonus/REDUX retirement. With the CSB/REDUX plan, servicemember would receive a $30,000 cash bonus at their 15-year mark in return for accepting a reduced retirement multiplier and COLA rating. REDUX is calculated in a similar fashion as the High-3 retirement plan, with a few notable differences. Instead of using a 2.5% multiplier across the board, the REDUX plan uses a 2.0% multiplier for the first 20 years, then 3.5% for each additional year of service. In this example, a 20-year retirement would be worth 40% of base pay, while a 30-year retirement would equal 75%, the same multiplier as the High-3 system. However, there is one more catch: under the REDUX plan, the annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), is based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) minus 1%. Since the annual Cost of Living Adjustment is less, the pension grows more slowly over time. Read more in this article about deciding if REDUX is worth it.
How to Calculate TERA Retirement: The Temporary Early Retirement Authority retirement plan is based on the above retirement plans, but it is reduced by a Reduction Factor equaling -1% for each year under 20 years served. For example, 19 years served would be 99%, 18 years would be 98%, 17 years would be 97%, etc.*
Start with whichever retirement system you chose, the High-3 or REDUX, then apply the following formula:
Active duty pay x Percent Multiple x Reduction Factor (-1% for each year short of 20 years) = TERA Retired Pay
In this formula, your Active Duty Pay is the average of your highest 36 months of pay, the percent multiple is the multiple based on your retirement plan and the number of years served, and the Reduction Factor is a percentage that further reduces your retirement because you didn’t serve the full 20 years. Here are two examples for someone who served 15 years:
- High-3 Plan at 15 years: Average pay x (15 years x 2.5% * 95%) = 35.625%
- REDUX Plan at 15 years: Average pay x (15 years x 2.0% * 95%) = 28.5%
As you can see, taking the TERA early retirement option results in a much smaller retirement benefit, especially under the CSB/REDUX option.
*Calculating more than 15 years of service, but less than 20 years: It gets a little more complicated if you want to calculate your retirement benefits if you served over 15, but less than 20 years. The military gives credit for months served, so your base multiplier wouldn’t necessarily be a round number, such as the 95% we used above. Here is a pdf that explains in more detail, and an article which also discusses the value of an early military retirement.
Other Retirement Benefits
To be clear, this is a full military retirement, complete with TRICARE and TRICARE for Life, starting immediately, the same COLA adjustments, base access, and access to the same benefits available to other military retirees. There is no special decal on your military ID card, and no one will have to know if you don’t tell them. The biggest considerations include your final pension and your quality of life.
Is Early Military Retirement a Good Decision?
Now all you need to do is run the numbers and look at your future income potential and take into consideration quality of life issues. To be clear, there isn’t always an easy answer. If you are financially secure and are ready to move on to the next stage of your life, then an early retirement may be well worth it from a quality of life standpoint, even with the reduced pension. This may also be the case if you believe you have a high income potential after your military service. Many civilian jobs pay much better than a comparable military job, and the difference in the pension can be easily made up with the higher civilian salary.
On the other hand, if you aren’t financially secure right now and your income potential isn’t as high, then you may consider avoiding the early retirement option. This isn’t a decision to take lightly. Take your time, run the numbers, consider your quality of life if you stay or get out, do some soul searching, and speak with your spouse or significant other. This is a major decision and one you should spend some time on.