- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Buoyed by more recruiters, bigger bonuses and an elite reputation, the Marine Corps has grown by nearly 27,000 members in a little more than two years — half the time that military officials believed it would take.

While the rapid expansion has stretched the Marine budget and put some recruits in temporary or quickly refurbished barracks, it is also easing the strain on Marine forces tapped for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In early 2007, the Marine Corps launched a program to expand its ranks — planning to add about 5,000 Marines a year for five years, and reaching a total of 202,000 by 2012. But this month the Marines already hit 200,000, and Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said they will meet their 202,000 goal in early 2009.

Brig. Gen. Robert Milstead Jr., commander of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, said the Marines brought on more than 500 additional recruiters and increased the budget for recruiting bonuses from $66 million in fiscal year 2007 to $89 million in 2008.

At the same time, as more recruits were coming in the doors, military leaders also launched a campaign to get more current Marines to re-enlist for another tour. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the budget for retention bonuses was $464 million, and that amount was boosted to $469.5 million for the current fiscal year.

The bonuses made their mark. In fiscal 2008, 35 percent of active duty Marines re-enlisted, compared with 24 percent two years ago.

As the Corps grew, officials increased the number of battalions from 24 to 27, and bolstered the ranks of critically needed specialties, including linguists, cryptologists and intelligence officers.

By 2007, Pentagon leaders approved plans to grow the Marines and the Army, the two services that have borne the brunt of combat duties for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving long and multiple tours in both countries.

Plans are to increase the numbers of active-duty Army, Army Guard and Army Reserve troops by 74,000 overall, with the active-duty force growing by 65,000 to a total of 547,000.

Lt. Col. Mike Moose, an Army spokesman, said the Army had grown to nearly 541,900 soldiers by the end of October. The active-duty troop increase will boost the number of Army combat brigades from the 2006 level of 42 to 48.

The Marine increase is already paying off.

Gen. Conway said putting just one more infantry battalion into the mix helps to extend the time other units get to spend at home between deployments.

It used to be that Marines would spend seven months at war and seven months at home before turning around and deploying again. Now, Gen. Conway said, they are getting nine or 10 months at home.

Marine leaders said retention rates may be benefiting a bit from the economic meltdown. Marines and their families may be deciding that now is a good time to stay on and wait out the plunging job market, Gen. Milstead said.

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