Military Benefits Guide: Active Duty
Joining the United States Military as a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guard member, or Space Force Guardian means accepting a commission or taking an oath of enlistment. The oath describes the new servicemember’s obligations to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
But after the oath, these new troops learn about the benefits they have earned by taking the oath. What ARE the benefits of joining a branch of the uniformed services?
How do they differ depending on your status as an active duty service member, National Guard, or Reserve component? Do military spouses and dependent children get benefits too? In some cases, the answer is definitely yes. In other cases, the benefits may have qualifying requirements.
Below, we’ll explore military benefits for all eligible applicants below, starting with active duty, Guard and Reserve, and finishing with information for spouses, dependents, and others who may qualify.
Military Benefits for Active Duty Personnel
Military benefits start with pay and allowances but also include healthcare, education, medical care, travel, free tax support, and home loans. Some benefits begin immediately, others require minimum time in service.
Some benefits cannot be accessed until the service member has completed Basic Training and any advanced training required before getting a first duty station assignment.
Military Benefits During Basic Training
When you enlist or accept a commission, some benefits are open to you right away. Military pay begins when you begin your initial training, and so do medical benefits in the form of on-base care from a military facility. All new recruits are automatically covered by TRICARE health insurance when they ship out to basic training.
What you do not get right away includes the GI Bill, the VA home loan, spouse tuition assistance, access to on-base child care, military leave, Space-A travel, and special pay/allowances like hazardous duty pay and proficiency pay.
Depending on your duty station, the nature of the duty, your branch of service, and other variables you may be offered a range of military allowances to offset certain costs associated with relocating to and working at a new assignment, deployment, TDY, etc. These allowances may include:
- Basic Allowance For Subsistence
- Housing allowance (overseas and stateside)
- Other “situational” allowances (Cost of Living, Family Separation)
- Clothing allowances
Most of these allowances must either be approved by your chain of command or you must apply to begin the approval process. The branch of military service, the type of allowance you need, and your rank will all play a factor in determining how much you are entitled to and when.
There are also many other special pay and allowance options that may be offered to you depending on your rank, your career field, and other variables. Many of these must be qualified for through specific service, testing (language proficiency testing is one of those), and experience.
Others may be offered by virtue of being assigned to a certain location (hazardous duty pay is one of those) or because a career field is understaffed and needs retention incentives.
Read More: Military Allowances Guide
“Situational” Military Allowances
Some military allowances are offered if the military decides you need them in specific circumstances. For example, a Cost of Living Allowance (also known as COLA) supplements basic pay in areas overseas where the cost of living is higher. Overseas assignments like Japan, for example, have traditionally featured COLA to make being stationed there more affordable.
Another situational allowance is FSA, also known as the Family Separation Allowance. This is paid to those who must perform duty away from their family.
This allowance is paid for those who are involuntarily assigned away from home and is not offered for those who volunteer to serve elsewhere. Situational allowances (our term, not the DoD’s) are paid when the service member meets the required conditions and is no longer paid when those conditions are no longer met.
Military Housing & Housing Allowances
Some will qualify for a Basic Allowance for Housing stateside or an Overseas Housing Allowance. What does it take to be approved for these housing allowances? Sometimes, it’s a simple matter of being assigned to a new base and not being given government quarters. In others, it may be a case of deciding which option works best for you. But what about those offered government quarters as single or married service members?
Some military members may qualify for on-base military housing. Some are offered this as single/unaccompanied service members, others are offered military family housing designed for legally married couples and any dependent children.
You may be offered on-post housing run by the DoD (getting rarer all the time) or you may be offered housing on base or off run by a public/private venture agreement between the federal government and a private housing provider.
If you draw BAH and live off base, you may or may not have the option to choose on-post housing later. Much depends on the assignment you’re at and the available on-base units at the time.
Single and unaccompanied service members who are not offered BAH are usually housed in “the barracks”, which in today’s sense are more like college dorm rooms (depending on the location, housing conditions, and quality in these facilities can vary greatly) than what you might envision a barracks environment to be like. Your options may include:
- Government-owned on-base housing
- Privatized on-base housing
- Single or unaccompanied quarters
Read More: Military Housing Allowances (BAH and OHA)
VA Home Loans
The VA Home Loan benefit is offered to those who serve a minimum amount of time in uniform after completing initial training. VA loans typically require a minimum of 90 days of continuous active duty service but if you joined in an earlier “service era” than the current Gulf War era, your time in service minimums may vary.
Read More: VA Loan Basics
VA mortgages offer zero-down payment options, have no VA-required mortgage insurance, and there are no penalties for paying off the mortgage early. You may have the option of using a VA mortgage to build a home from the ground up, purchase a condo unit or mobile home, and you can use VA mortgages to purchase mixed-use properties that are primarily residential. VA mortgages limit certain costs the lender can pass on to you, the zero-down option is a huge advantage for many buyers, and you cannot be penalized for early payoff of the home loan.
Read More: The VA Home Loan Guide
To apply for a VA loan, you must first get a VA Certificate Of Eligibility and apply through a participating lender. Eligibility for the VA loan program is not the same as VA loan approval, and you are required to credit-qualify for a VA loan the same as any other mortgage program.
Read More: The VA Loan Certificate Of Eligibility
Qualifying for the VA loan benefit does not mean instant loan approval. You must credit-qualify for a VA mortgage the same as any other major line of credit. That said, VA loans are easier to get than some conventional mortgages because they have more forgiving credit standards.
Read More: VA Loans: Why Credit Scores Matter
VA Loans allow you to buy, refinance, renovate or build a home from the ground up. You can buy property in the United States or in its territories, but VA loans cannot be used to buy property overseas.
Read More: Questions And Answers About VA Home Loans
Basic Allowance For Subsistence (BAS)
What is the military’s Basic Allowance for Subsistence, informally known as a Subsistence Allowance or BAS? This is a tax-exempt military allowance designed to offset the cost of a service member’s meals. BAS, also known amongst some service members as “separate rations” or more derisively as “separate rats”, is a callback to the days of old when the United States Military and other military forces offered both room and board for its troops.
BAS is offered when the federal government declares that an assignment or duty location warrants the allowance due to a variety of factors which can include the availability of kitchen facilities for service members to use, the cost of food or food-related expenses for the service member, and whether or not the command feels it’s practical or necessary to provide BAS.
BAS Is For Service Members Only
BAS is offered to the servicemember only. Family members (spouses included) do not qualify for BAS as this is an allowance designed to offset any associated food costs with a new duty station, deployment, duty-related travel, etc.
BAS is based on the most current food cost estimates made by the federal government via the USDA Food Cost Index, and the rate of payment is based on your status as an officer or enlisted member.
BAS is one of the rare cases where military pay and allowances are actually higher for enlisted members. Officer pay is considerably higher than enlisted pay; officers are thought to be better able to afford their day-to-day living expenses as a result. That is why enlisted members get more food dollars. Like most military allowances, BAS is subject to annual adjustments based on the anticipated increases in food costs from year to year. But the BAS increase you get is not tied to the same factors used to determine yearly military pay raises; these are separate processes.
Read more: Military Allowances Guide
The GI Bill is one of the most important and most-used military benefits. This option is open to currently serving, retired or separated, Guard and Reserve members, and even some dependents. GI Bill options for active duty service members include the ability to transfer the GI Bill to a spouse or school-age dependent child.
You are required to serve a minimum time in uniform before you can apply for GI Bill education benefits. For those on active duty today, the minimum is typically 90 days, which may vary depending on when you joined the military.
Read More: Am I Eligible For VA Education Benefits?
The GI Bill pays participating schools tuition, fees, and other expenses. You may find the entire cost of your basic education is covered in some cases. In others, you may need supplemental assistance from options like the Yellow Ribbon Program, state veteran education resources, etc.
Read More: The Yellow Ribbon Program and how it can enhance your GI Bill.
Not all GI Bill options are the same. If you signed up for the Montgomery GI Bill, for example, you do not have the option to transfer your benefits to a spouse or school-age dependent. If you signed up for the Post 9/11 GI Bill you may have the option to do so but there may be an added service commitment required in exchange. Some may be offered the opportunity to switch from the Montgomery GI Bill to the Post 9/11 version. Once you make the switch, it is irreversible.
Read More: GI Bill Facts And Fiction
There were many changes to the GI Bill thanks to a piece of legislation known as the Forever GI Bill, which is a law and not a separate, new GI Bill option all by itself. The Forever GI Bill changes the way benefits may be transferred and used, how Post 9/11 GI Bill housing stipends are paid, and more.
There are GI Bill options for members of the Guard and Reserve, and the requirements for these troops differ from those on active duty. It’s good to know your options long before you want to use them as a member of a Reserve component.
Read More: Veteran Education Benefits Guide
Military Education Benefits
Branch-specific tuition assistance programs and on-base education options include:
- Air Force Tuition Assistance
- Army Tuition Assistance
- Navy Tuition Assistance
- Marines Tuition Assistance
- Coast Guard Tuition Assistance
- National Guard Tuition Assistance
- Reserve Tuition Assistance
These programs are offered to those who meet minimum time-in-service requirements and other criteria. For example, the Air Force paid 100 percent of tuition, up to $250 per semester hour, and $166 per quarter hour for accredited off-duty courses.
The rules for each Tuition Assistance program will vary depending on the branch of service. Some military tuition programs specify that only one degree per degree level (undergraduate, graduate, etc.) may be funded.
All military tuition assistance programs have minimum grade point average requirements and those who fail to maintain satisfactory progress may be required to pay back some or all tuition assistance depending on circumstances. This type of assistance may not be offered to troops with disciplinary issues, failed fitness tests, or other problems.
Read More: How To Use Military Tuition Assistance
Education Benefits For Disabled Veterans
There are also military education benefits offered specifically to help disabled veterans, and some benefits are offered to both those still serving as well as those who have retired or separated.
These are typically offered at the state and local levels. You may find that these programs are administered in some cases by veteran service organizations and in others by a state government agency such as a state-level Division of Veterans Affairs or Department of Veterans Affairs (not the federal agency).
The features, qualifications, and application requirements of these programs are NOT standardized and will vary depending on the state, the agency, and other factors. In some programs, it may be the veteran and/or dependents who benefit, in others, it may be the veteran only, or the spouse alone. In others benefits may be offered only to dependent children of qualifying service members.
Read More: Education Benefits For Disabled Veterans
The basic rule of thumb for military healthcare: those currently serving on active duty enroll in TRICARE for health coverage for themselves and immediate family members. In general, active duty service members and their families do not receive care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, though some service members are encouraged to begin working with the VA as soon as they have obtained retirement or separation orders.
Active duty members and their families may be treated at an on-base medical facility or an off-base facility that is within the service member’s TRICARE network. Overseas your options may be more dependent on the on-post treatment options provided, but this is not necessarily true in all cases. Much depends on where you are stationed, for how long, and the nature of your assignment.
- On-base medical care is an option for servicemembers and their families.
There are a variety of TRICARE options including:
- TRICARE Prime
- TRICARE Select
- TRICARE Prime Overseas
- TRICARE Select Overseas
TRICARE may be an option for some qualifying military retirees. Those who are retired or separated have the option of applying for VA healthcare options which may depend on the applicant’s medical condition, any VA-rated service-connected medical issues, and more. When you are an active duty military member transitioning out of military service you may have the option to get temporary TRICARE coverage when separating, dependent care included.
Read More: TRICARE: A Comprehensive Guide
Life Insurance (SGLI)
If you are currently serving, you are eligible to apply for Servicemembers Group Life Insurance or SGLI. This benefit does require you to make a minimum monthly payment that is set based on the amount of life insurance coverage you opt into up to $400,000.
At press time, the highest monthly payment is listed as $25 per month for the maximum coverage for $400k. SGLI payments are automatically deducted from your base pay amount each month. You must meet eligibility requirements to sign up for SGLI. This benefit is for service members only and does not provide life insurance coverage for any member of your family. This is a “contingency” type benefit that provides a life insurance payout to your surviving beneficiaries if you die while covered.
Read More: Who Is Eligible For SGLI?
If you are retiring or separating from military service, you have the option to continue this life insurance coverage under a different program called Veterans Group Life Insurance or VGLI.
You become eligible to apply for VGLI within a year and 120 days from your date of discharge. You may apply for an amount up to the same coverage you had through SGLI.
- Space-A Travel (active duty Space A)
Space-A travel is an option for active duty military members, family members, and retirees. Short for “Space-Available”, Space-A is an option that lets you apply for empty seats on military aircraft flying missions approved for extra passengers.
Space-A flights originate from military bases and you sign up for seats on these flights at the base military passenger terminal or online at the official site for that terminal or command. You may be permitted to sign up via e-mail or online.
Some Space-A flights are dedicated back-and-forth trips between military bases in a specified area, others may be added to the Space-A roster last minute based on changes to a mission or its requirements.
Signing up for Space-A travel means you must have authorized leave paperwork if you are a military member, and there is seating priority on all Space-A flights requiring mission-essential travel to be prioritized first, followed by passenger categories from Category I (those on Emergency Leave orders) all the way down to Category Six, which includes:
- Reserve members
- ROTC, NUPOC, CEC
- Veterans with a total Permanent Service-connected Disability
- Surviving Spouses of Service Members who died on duty
Space-Available travel is a great perk of military service but seats are never guaranteed to non-mission-essential personnel. You must be prepared to fully cover the cost of a commercial flight back to your duty station if you cannot get a seat on a Space-A flight.
Space-A flights typically originate and end at an on-base airport or runway. You won’t fly into a commercial airport, and you’ll be responsible for your own travel once you are shuttled off of the runway or allowed into the passenger terminal.
Read More: Space-A Travel: Everything You Need To Know
Paid Vacation/Military Leave
You’ll earn 30 days a year plus some holidays, starting in your first year. Servicemembers accrue leave at a rate of 2.5 days per month and you can carry a maximum of 60 days of leave into the new year. Any amount above 60 days is considered “use or lose” time. In some circumstances, additional leave accrual beyond 60 days may be authorized such as during
Read More: How Military Leave Works
AAFES, Commissary Access
Military members and their families have access to many perks of military life including the ability to shop on base or on-post tax-free at Army/Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) outlets, base commissaries, “Class Six” liquor stores where available, gas stations, and much more. Depending on which branch of service is responsible for a given post or installation, you may find options including:
- AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange Service)
- MCX (Marine Corps Exchange
- NEX (Navy Exchange Service Command)
- CGX (Coast Guard Exchange)
Exchanges are basically like big-box retailers like Target or Walmart. You’ll find a similar variety of options there including clothing (military clothing sales, too!), electronics, household items, and sometimes even motor vehicles.
Not all amenities are offered at all installations, but the bigger the base the more elaborate the options are likely to be. To enter an on-base commissary, Base Exchange (BX), Post Exchange (PX), or another facility you must show a current military ID card, dependent ID card, etc. You may be carded for all purchases on post to verify your status as an authorized user but that is a small inconvenience.
There are a number of free tax support options for military members and their families. MilTax is a military-centered tax software program that walks you through a list of questions to determine which military-related tax issues may be present for the current year’s tax filing. You access MilTax through the DoD-funded Military OneSource official site.
There is also an option you can use on-post if offered there; the VITA Program, also known as Volunteer Tax Assistance. While this is not offered at every single military base in the DoD, it is offered at many of them and you can use a VITA locator to see which bases closest to you offer the option.
Read More: Free Tax Support For Military Members
About the author
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter/editor for Air Force Television News and the Pentagon Channel. His freelance work includes contract work for Motorola, VALoans.com, and Credit Karma. He is co-founder of Dim Art House in Springfield, Illinois, and spends his non-writing time as an abstract painter, independent publisher, and occasional filmmaker.