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Service Requirements to Retire as a Commissioned Officer

Military members need 20 years of active duty service and 10 years as a commissioned officer to retire as an officer, with a few exceptions for members of he Reserve Component.
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Military Officer Retirement
Table of Contents
  1. Qualifying for a Military Retirement
    1. Qualifying for Retirement from Active Duty
    2. Qualifying for Retirement from the Reserve Component
  2. Qualifying for Retirement as a Commissioned Officer
    1. Active Duty Requirements
    2. Reserve Component Requirements
    3. Exceptions to the Above
  3. What Will Your Retirement Pay Grade Be?
    1. Service Ending at O-4
    2. Service Ending at O-5 and higher
    3. Retiring at a Lower Grade
    4. Policy vs. Law
  4. Use This Information to Plan Your Career & Retirement
    1. If You Are Retiring from Active Duty
    2. If You Are Retiring from the Reserve Component
  5. Real World Examples of How These Rules Can Impact Your Retirement
    1. Example 1 – Passing Up Orders & Retiring
    2. Example 2 – Forced Early Retirement
  6. Be Informed

Earning a military retirement can be complicated, especially when your service status changes throughout your career. Complicating factors can include changing branches of the military, transitioning between active duty and the Guard or Reserves, or earning your commission after starting your career as an enlisted member.

Several service members have contacted me regarding the qualifications for earning retirement as a commissioned officer. As you might have guessed, there are rules that guide how rank is calculated for retirees. And the amount of service time a military member has as a commissioned officer can have a major impact on their retirement.

This article examines the service requirements for retiring as a commissioned officer. This article primarily applies to service members who were previously enlisted, then later earned their commission and remained in the service through retirement.

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF):

  • To retire from active duty as a commissioned officer, you must have 20 years of active duty service, with at least 10 of those years of service as a commissioned officer (the Secretary of the branch of service may waive this requirement to 8 years of service as a commissioned officer).
  • To retire from the Reserve Component as a commissioned officer, you must have 20 qualifying years of service (Good Years) and be a commissioned officer at the time of retirement.

I know this may seem contrary to what you may have read or heard elsewhere. So I’m going to dive into the details. Please read through this entire article, as we will look at examples and include references and links to Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which is the section of U.S. law that governs military service, including pay, retirement, discharges, and much more.

And, as you might have guessed, there will certainly be some exceptions to these rules. So I will try to point these out where applicable.

Keep in mind this can be a complicated topic and there can be exceptions to these rules beyond what is listed here. I recommend visiting with your Human Resources or Personnel office, or even your base JAG if you have specific questions about your career or retirement eligibility. When it comes to your career you need an expert to give you the facts in writing.

Qualifying for a Military Retirement

In most cases, military members must serve 20 years to be eligible for normal military retirement. There are some exceptions, including the Temporary Early Retirement Authority (TERA), which allows members to retire with as few as 15 years of service, and Chapter 61 medical retirements.

TERA is only offered when the military needs to selectively reduce the size of its force. It is generally only offered in specific branches, and then, usually only for targeted career fields and service classes (years of service).

Medical retirements are complicated and the situation is often unique to the individual. This type of military retirement will not be covered further in this article (you can read more about it in Ch 61 of the U.S. Code if you want the details).

There are also differences between retiring from active duty and retiring from the Guard or Reserves (Reserve Component, or RC).

Qualifying for Retirement from Active Duty

  • A normal active duty military retirement requires the military member to serve 20 years on active duty.

Qualifying for Retirement from the Reserve Component

Qualifying for Retirement as a Commissioned Officer

If you read the BLUF at the top of the page, I stated that prior-enlisted officers who retire from active duty need to serve 20 years on active duty, with at least 10 of those years being as a commissioned officer (waiverable to 8 years of commissioned service).

However, I also stated that wasn’t the case for members of the Reserve Component.

Let’s take a look at the U.S. Code that governs these types of retirements so we can see for ourselves how this works:

Active Duty Requirements

Let’s go to the source:

  • U.S. Code > Title 10. Armed Forces > Subtitle D – Air Force > Part II. Personnel > Chapter 941 – Retirement for Length of Service > §9311. Twenty years or more: regular or reserve commissioned officers
  • Note: this is the Air Force law, but it is the same for all branches.

Emphasis Mine:

(a) The Secretary of the Air Force may, upon the officer’s request, retire a regular or reserve commissioned officer of the Air Force who has at least 20 years of service computed under section 9326 of this title, at least 10 years of which have been active service as a commissioned officer.

(b)(1) The Secretary of Defense may authorize the Secretary of the Air Force, during the period specified in paragraph (2), to reduce the requirement under subsection (a) for at least 10 years of active service as a commissioned officer to a period (determined by the Secretary of the Air Force) of not less than eight years.

As you can see, members must have 20 years of active duty service, with at least 10 years of active service as a commissioned officer.

However, the SecDef can, at times, authorize the Secretary of the branch of service to allow members to retire with as few as 8 years of commissioned service, provided they otherwise meet the retirement eligibility criteria. This is generally 20 years of service, unless they are authorized to retire early under TERA (remember from above, TERA allows members to retire with as few as 15 years of active duty service, if they are offered this by their branch of service).

Reserve Component Requirements

Let’s go to the source:

  • U.S. Code > Title 10. Armed Forces > Subtitle E. Reserve Components > Part II. Personnel Generally > Chapter 1223. Retired Pay for Non-Regular Service > §12731. Age and service requirements

Emphasis Mine:

(a) The Secretary of the Air Force may, upon the officer’s request, retire a regular or reserve commissioned officer of the Air Force who has at least 20 years of service computed under section 9326 of this title, at least 10 years of which have been active service as a commissioned officer.

(b)(1) The Secretary of Defense may authorize the Secretary of the Air Force, during the period specified in paragraph (2), to reduce the requirement under subsection (a) for at least 10 years of active service as a commissioned officer to a period (determined by the Secretary of the Air Force) of not less than eight years.

Title 10, U.S. Code

Notice there is no language requiring the member to have a certain number of years of commissioned service. Members retiring as an officer in the Reserve Component simply need to meet the 20-year service requirement.

That said, members may incur a service commitment when they commission, so they may be required to fulfill this prior to voluntarily retiring. There are also time in grade requirements to retire under a certain grade (see the section below regarding retirement pay grade).

Exceptions to the Above

If you parse the above sections, you can see there are some exceptions to the rule. Members need 20 years of service unless they qualify for early retirement under TERA (minimum of 15 years of service, and this is only available in select cases and when authorized by the Secretary of the branch of service). TERA can apply to both active duty and the Reserve Component.

Additionally, active duty members need 10 years of commissioned service, unless the Secretary of their branch of service has authorized members to retire with 8 years of commissioned service.

This combination of early retirement and the required number of years as a commissioned officer can have some unintended consequences, which we will examine later.

Finally, there may be other exceptions regarding Chapter 61 medical retirements, and for certain specific situations that will remain outside the scope of this article.

What Will Your Retirement Pay Grade Be?

This is governed under 10 U.S. Code §1370. Commissioned officers: general rule; exceptions.

There is a lot of legalese in the preceding link, so I’ll translate:

Service Ending at O-4

In general, if you will retire at the rank of Major or Lieutenant Commander or lower, you must meet the retirement eligibility requirements listed above and have at least six months of satisfactory service at that rank.

Service Ending at O-5 and higher

Officers must have served on active duty in that grade for not less than three years. However, the Secretary of Defense may authorize the Secretary of a military department to reduce this period to no less than two years.

There are additional rules regarding when the Secretary of Defense may authorize members to retire with less than three years time in grade, as well as the number of individuals in each rank that can retire with fewer than 3 years time in grade in a given year.

There are additional rules for retiring at the pay grade of O-7 through O-10.

Retiring at a Lower Grade

Officers who are retiring without the required time in service for the specific rank may be retired in the next lower grade in which they served satisfactorily, for not less than six months.

This article will not cover reduction in grade for conduct unbecoming an officer, or for other administrative reasons. Speak with your JAG if that situation applies to you, as they will be able to provide personalized information specific to your case.

Policy vs. Law

The U.S. Navy, and by extension, the U.S. Marine Corps, follows the federal law for retirement pay grade. However, they also have their own policy regarding retirement rank. According to OPNAVINST 1811.3A, Navy Policy has the following Time in Grade requirements:

  • O-1 and O-2: 6 months
  • O-3 and O-4: 2 years (up to 18 months may be waived)
  • O-5 and higher: 3 years, subject to waivers allowed by law

In other words, the only changes are for O-3 and O-4, which require members to serve 2 years TIG instead of a minimum of 6 months required by law. However, COMNAVPERSCOM may waive up to 18 months of the 2-year period.

In short, it’s important to review the federal law, but you should also verify your branch of service’s policies.

Use This Information to Plan Your Career & Retirement

Don’t let retirement sneak up on you. Make sure you know your service class, when you will be eligible to retire, and at which grade you should retire.

This information can help you make important and valuable career decisions and help you avoid costly mistakes such as turning down orders and retiring before you have accrued the necessary service time as a commissioned officer, or the necessary time in grade to retire at that pay grade.

The difference can have a massive impact on your retirement pay.

If You Are Retiring from Active Duty

Qualifying for Active Duty Retirement:

  • You need 20 years of active duty service, with at least 10 years commissioned service.
  • Exceptions – active duty service time: you can retire with as few as 15 years of active duty service under TERA if it is offered by your branch of service.
  • Exceptions – commissioned service time: you may be able to retire as a commissioned officer with as few as 8 years of commissioned service if authorized by the Secretary of your branch of service.
  • Note: these exceptions are not always offered and are usually only available when the military is trying to reduce their force size. At the time of this writing, no branches are currently offering TERA or retirement as an officer with 8 years of commissioned service.

Active Duty Retirement Grade:

  • Your retirement grade will be the highest grade satisfactorily held.
  • If you are retiring as an O-4 or lower, you only need 6 months time in grade to retire at that grade.
  • If you are retiring as an O-5 or higher, you need to have 3 years time in grade to retire at that grade, unless your branch Secretary has authorized commissioned officers to retire with only 2 years time in grade.
  • There may be additional rules governing retirement as O-7 through O-10.

If You Are Retiring from the Reserve Component

Qualifying for Retirement from the Reserve Component:

  • You need 20 years of qualifying service (Good Years) and be commissioned at the time you retire
  • TERA rules may apply when authorized by the Secretary of the branch of service.

Note: You may incur a service commitment when you earn your commission. There may be a requirement to fulfill this service commitment before you will be allowed to voluntarily retire. Speak with your human resources or personnel office for more specific information.

Reserve Component Retirement Grade:

  • Your retirement grade will be the highest grade satisfactorily held.
  • If you are retiring as an O-4 or lower, you only need 6 months time in grade to retire at that grade.
  • If you are retiring as an O-5 or higher, you need to have 3 years time in grade to retire at that grade, unless your branch Secretary has authorized commissioned officers to retire with only 2 years time in grade.
  • There may be additional rules governing retirement as O-7 through O-10.

Real World Examples of How These Rules Can Impact Your Retirement

Again, it pays to understand the mechanics of retiring as an officer.

Example 1 – Passing Up Orders & Retiring

When you are in the latter stages of your career, you are often at the mercy of your functional or career advisor. They will often send you where the need is the greatest, whether or not it is a desirable career move or your preferred location. And since they know you need to follow orders to remain in the military, they have you in a tough spot.

This is where you need to decide whether or not to accept or decline the orders. Accepting the orders means you pick up your life and move (yet again). Declining your orders pretty much means game over for your military career. It’s actually not uncommon for military members to receive orders after they are eligible for retirement and decide they would rather retire than uproot their families for another cross-country or international move.

Diving into that decision is a topic for another day. But it’s important to understand how it will impact your retirement. If you are a prior-enlisted officer with 20 years of active duty service, but fewer than 10 years as a commissioned officer, you might want to think long and hard about the impact this could have on your retirement benefits.

Likewise, you may consider taking the orders if you recently promoted and will not have the time in grade to retire at that pay grade. Only you can decide whether or not taking those orders is worth the additional income (and stress) that comes with accepting new orders. The key is to be aware of your options and the impact of accepting or declining.

Example 2 – Forced Early Retirement

In a perfect world, military members would be able to remain on duty until they were ready to move on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way, and the military does, from time to time, force people out of the military through involuntary separations and forced retirement.

For example, in 2014, the Army forced a group of prior-enlisted active duty officers to retire with 20 years of service or under TERA rules. Unfortunately, while some of them were qualified to retire, several of them did not qualify to retire as an officer because they did not have 8 years of commissioned service (the Secretary of the Army had authorized commissioned officers with less than 10 years of service to retire as commissioned officers during this period).

In effect, these Soldiers had been rewarded with career advancement for their exceptional service, then they were later forced out due to Force Shaping requirements, and were not allowed to retire as officers because they did not have the requisite service time. As you might imagine, this did not go over well.

Thankfully, enough attention was raised about this issue, and after a Congressional inquiry, the Army allowed the members to retire as officers.

Be Informed

As our good friend, GI Joe said, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Use this information to guide your career and make the right decisions. You should be able to avoid the unintended consequences of turning down orders at the end of your career and,

  • a) be forced to retire as an enlisted member because you didn’t have the requisite service time to retire as a commissioned officer, or
  • b) retire before you have the time in rank to retire at that pay grade, or
  • c) you could get a double whammy and miss out on both.

And while Example 2 is outside of your control, being aware of this situation gives you the information you need to file an appeal or work with your JAG to see if anything can be done to avoid missing out on the retirement benefits you have earned.

Photo Credit: Photo by Master Sgt. John Hughel. This work is in the Public Domain. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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About Ryan Guina

Ryan Guina is The Military Wallet's founder. He is a writer, small business owner, and entrepreneur. He served over six years on active duty in the USAF and is a current member of the Illinois Air National Guard.

Ryan started The Military Wallet in 2007 after separating from active duty military service and has been writing about financial, small business, and military benefits topics since then. He also writes about personal finance and investing at Cash Money Life.

Ryan uses Personal Capital to track and manage his finances. Personal Capital is a free software program that allows him to track his net worth, balance his investment portfolio, track his income and expenses, and much more. You can open a free Personal Capital account here.

Featured In: Ryan's writing has been featured in the following publications: Forbes, Military.com, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, Reserve & National Guard Magazine (print and online editions), Military Influencer Magazine, Cash Money Life, The Military Guide, USAA, Go Banking Rates, and many other publications.

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  1. David L McDonald says

    Ryan,
    What law allows the Army to retire you as an enlisted even though you have 20 AFS of which 10+years were commissioned. I was reverted to enlisted at the end of my 20 AFS. There are settled Board of Correction cases that predate my retirement that support an enlisted at the end of 20+AFS YEARS who retire as OFFICERS
    Yet I am on my 3rd Board and have been retired since 2012.

    Whay are your thoughts?

    My contact info:
    Dave McDonald
    [email protected]
    507 210 3157

  2. Joseph Erskine says

    The Navy enlisted retirement policy is different from all other services, please see the following link for understanding:

    Fact Check: https://va.org/understanding-retainer-vs-retired/

    An enlisted service member must have 30 years in order to be considered retired from active duty. If they serve 20 years plus but not the entire 30 years of active service, then they are transferred into the “Fleet Reserves,” which is an inactive reserve status.

    Case in point, for me, I was enlisted, officer, back to enlisted for retirement purposes. I reverted back to my highest pay grade held (E-9), once I reached my full 30 years (active duty & fleet reserves) I was eligible to request for highest pay grade held…which was O-3E. Even though I did not complete the entire 10 years of commissioned officer (to retire), I was able to revert back to enlisted base upon the Navy Commissioned Officer program I was selected under…Limited Duty Officer…which our enlisted records remain open for a certain amount of time…in case the service member want’s to return back to their enlisted rank and rate. Once again this is Navy, all other services are different.

    I suggest you call DFAS Tier 2 High Three Calculation Department: 216-204-0835, they can fact check your questions 1, 2, & 3. I know for sure they will be able to provide you the correct answers, I call often to get understanding of my situation.

    Please review this DFAS site (if you haven’t yet): https://militarypay.defense.gov/Pay/Retirement/, this site will answer the different types of retirement scenarios…based on when you entered the service. May explain some of your concerns/questions.

    The only other suggestion I may provide is to contact the Air Force Personnel Command (Active/Retirement).

    I hope my 2 cents helps.

    • Doug Nordman says

      You’re asking great questions, Raphael.
      1. I’m not familiar with Air Force personnel policies, but if you voluntarily retire from active duty with less than 10 years of commissioned service then the Army and the Navy will consider your pension as though you’ve never been commissioned. Your pension would initially be based on High Three pay tables for an E-6. After a combined total of 30 years of service (active duty and retired) you’d be able to apply to the Air Force to “upgrade” to your officer pension, which will be based on your High Three officer pay.

      2. I’m not sure what an MEB would do to your rank if you were retired on a disability pension, because you could be forced to retire involuntarily. In that situation, you’d be considered to have served satisfactorily after six months and the 10 years of commissioned service would probably be waived. You’d want to discuss this situation with a JAG and with PEBForum.com.

      3. Going to the Guard as a commissioned officer until 10 years of commissioned service does count for the “10 years of commissioned service” pension requirement. However you might also be required to serve a Guard service commitment of at least six years, even in the IRR. In addition, if you retired awaiting pay from the Guard with your 20 years of active duty, you’d still receive a non-regular (Reserve) pension which would not start until age 60.

      I normally get this question from servicemembers who’ve reached financial independence and want to give up the active-duty pension for a better quality of life, while knowing that they’ll still receive the Reserve pension at age 60.

      4. The “higher grade after 30 years” regulation is in federal law. For Air Force servicemembers it’s Title 10 U.S. Code section 9344 “Higher grade after 30 years of service: warrant officers and enlisted members”:
      https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/9344
      This is why the other services feel comfortable with retiring officers (with less than 10 years’ commissioned service) on enlisted pensions regardless of their officer High Three pay. Perhaps the logic is that you’ve voluntarily retired and you’re willing to accept the lower pension until the point where you would have been involuntarily retired.

      • John says

        In item #3 you mentioned “still receive a non-regular (Reserve) pension which would not start until age 60.” I have two follow-up questions:
        Does this apply to AFRC transfers, i.e. I have 20 TIS but only 6 commissioned and am considering AFRC to complete 4 more years?

        Would I ultimately be foregoing my High-3 until 60 y/o, versus suspending it until I finished my time in AFRC?

  3. Raphael L says

    Hello! This is the most insightful site I’ve seen about enlisted/officer retirements. Its so hard to find information on this so thank you!

    I’ll explain my situation and then pose my questions. I joined the Air Force in January 2005. I commissioned in August 2018. All of this is Active Duty with no breaks in service.

    1. If i retire in 2025 with only 6 years of commissioned service, how is my retirement pay calculated (High 3 as an officer or high 3 as my highest enlisted rank (E-6)?
    2. If I get MEB’d after 2025 but before August 2028, would my retired pay be officer or enlisted (not concerned about disability pay and all that, just what rank is my retirement pay being calculated at).
    3. If I join the guard after 2025 as an officer and stay until August 2028, would that count as my 10 years as a commissioned officer to receive officer retirement pay?
    4. Finally, I’ve never heard of retirement pay increasing to highest rank served after 30 years. Where is the regulation for all this? I will happily do research on my own. Im jsut having trouble finding the reg i should be looking at.

    Thank you!

  4. Philip A. Smith says

    I joined the USAF August 1981 and got out 1 May 1992. After 17 years, I was commissioned in the National Guard 20 May 2009. With one deployment to Iraq, I retired after an MRD extension on 31 May 2019 as an O-4 for two years. My MRD was Nov 2018. I thought I read in 2011 in an Army Reg. that a SM would get Final Pay if retired after MRD. Regulations were updated in 2015. I am not able to find what I thought I read now. Was I mistaken or did the new regulations cancel it out?

      • Joseph Erskine says

        Update: As of Aug 2020, I am in receipt of the following information from NPC PERS 912: (Mailed to me via USPS)

        “Retirement Order and Authorization for Transfer from The Fleet Reserve to The Retired List
        (Encl) DD Form 363 (Certificate of Retirement)
        (Encl) Prior Higher Grade ltr (if eligible).

        Please contact us for any further information you require.

        Thank you,
        MyNavy Career Center
        833-330-6622”

        Update: For PERS 835/Officer Retirement, ASC Yarbro, has been relieved by PSC Bishop. PSC is the original person in the billet…he was TDY on an IA, ASC Yarbro was filling the billet while PSC was out of pocket. You can contact PSC Bishop at 901-874-3183, https://www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/career/retirement/OfficerRetirements/Pages/default.aspx

        Update: PSC Bishop is working on all current applications that were submitted while he was TDY on his IA. He is squared away, no issues with speaking with him on my situation…he will help you out. My application has moved forward and up the chain of command.

        Note: If you have reached your 30 year mark while in Fleet Reserves and reverted back to enlisted from officer to retire. As you read above, the Prior Higher Grade Letter/application will be enclosed in your package (Retirement orders & DD Form 363). Follow the instructions and return to PERS 835, PSC Bishop or whomever is sitting in the chair at the time.

        Note: At the time of my inquiry (June 2018) about receiving my 30 year certificate…in order to get the application for the Prior Higher Grade, you had to wait to receive the 30 year certificate package …at that current time PERS 912 was backlogged in sending out the 30 year packages. I was fortunate enough to be referred to PERS 835, ASC Yarbro (at the time) and he sent me the application via email. Kept me from having to depend on PERS 912 to send me the package at a TBD date in the future. I stated all above because…if you don’t get your 30 year certificate package in a timely manner, just call PERS 835 separately and have PSC Bishop to send you the application via email.

        Update: In March 2020 NPC transitioned to a new ticketing system which is now linked to DEERS for personal data updates. When I called (Jul 2020) to get an update, not knowing the latter…All of my old case numbers from the old ticketing system (prior to March 2020)…the NPC reps could not recall the old case numbers. I had to start all over again as if it was my first time calling, even though I had been waiting since June 2018 when I reached my 30 year marked.

        Note: Please ensure you verify your personal data: mailing address, phone, email, and SSN…the old system was not connected to DEERS…the new one is, any changes you may need to make please do so via DEERS or use DFAS MYPAY to make changes such as email and/or mailing address…It will save you frustrations, trust me.

        Bottom Line: The new system has seem to be efficient…after waiting two years for my 30 year certificate and higher pay grade advancement…I’m finally getting traction…I have no more worries.

        Note: If you have any questions on pay matters (High 3/Retirement advancement pay), NPC reps will tell you to contact DFAS. Please see below information for DFAS Tier 2 High Three Calculation Department:

        DFAS Direct Number: 216-204-0835

        Please call the number above only….it goes directly to Tier 2 High Three Calculation Department…if you try any of the other DFAS numbers…you will be on the phone for hours and be transferred to multiple departments until you are finally directed to Tier 2 High Three…Trust me!

      • Doug Nordman says

        Philip, I’m a Final Pay retiree who’s tracked the system over the years, and I’ve never ever run across that. It’s definitely not in federal law or the DoD Financial Management Regulation.

        In 1999 there were changes to the old High Three/REDUX pension system (reverting to a higher pension multiple and bringing in the Career Status Bonus). There have been various TERA initiatives over the last 30 years and waivers for the length of commissioned service, including the drawdown legislation during 2010-2018. However I’ve never heard of any DoD initiatives to bring back Final Pay.

        Your pension should be based on the system under which you started your service: the average of the highest 36 months of pay for the pay tables in effect when you begin your pension. Depending on the dates of your Iraq deployment, you may be able to start your pension three months early for every 90 days in a fiscal year that you’re deployed to a combat zone. Please let me know if you have more questions about that and we’ll dig into the dates & point counts.

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