BAQOUBA, Iraq – At a checkpoint on the barren plain east of Baqouba (search), word of a new U.S. Army plan to pay soldiers up to $10,000 to re-enlist evoked laughter from a few bored-looking troopers.
"Man, they can't pay me enough to stay here," said a 23-year-old specialist from the Army's 4th Infantry Division (search) as he manned the checkpoint with Iraqi police outside this city 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
His comments reflect a sentiment not uncommon among the nearly two dozen soldiers in Iraq who have spoken with The Associated Press since the Army announced the increased re-enlistment bonuses for soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait on Monday. Other soldiers at home were divided about the offer.
The soldiers in Iraq who spoke about the bonuses were serving in a range of assignments, from training the new Iraqi army at a base east of Baqouba to patrolling some of the most dangerous roads in the country, like those leading north from Baghdad (search).
Some cited the monotonous routine of a lonely life spent thousands of miles from loved ones. Others offered simpler reasons — such as the fear of an early death.
Griping about Army life is a tradition among soldiers, and it is unclear how many will actually opt out to take their chances in a civilian economy where jobs are scarce.
However, Staff Sgt. Julian Guerrero, 38, who runs a re-enlistment program for a battalion in the 4th ID based in Tikrit, said only 10 of the battalion's 80 eligible soldiers have taken the deal so far.
At Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, a few soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division preparing to ship out to Iraq seemed evenly split over whether the Army was offering enough money.
"For three years, that's kind of cheap," said Spc. Derek Gay, 24, of Tampa, Fla. "Some people would re-enlist anyway, but there's more incentive for a good chunk of money."
Staff Sgt. Raymond Strickland, 30, said he received a $5,000 bonus when he re-enlisted in 2002.
"No matter how much it is, it's a good thing," he said.
Col. Patrick Donahue, commander of the 1st Brigade, said some soldiers flying out Wednesday would sign re-enlistment papers when they arrived in Iraq so they could receive some of the bonus tax-free while in a combat zone.
But along the road leading north from Baghdad and into the "Sunni Triangle," the heartland of Saddam Hussein's support and the center of anti-American resistance, a sergeant from the 1st Armored Division said he's not interested in the money because he has been shot at a "few times" and "I don't want to die here."
According to the Defense Department, 332 soldiers have been killed by hostile fire since the Iraq war began March 20.
"Every car, every person are potential weapons. We can't trust anything," said the sergeant, who has been in Iraq since May and is due to leave in two or three months. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The increased bonus program is part of an effort to avoid a manpower crunch. It's aimed at soldiers like Spc. Justin Brown of the 4th Infantry Division. "I don't want to be in the Army forever and just keep fighting wars," said the 22-year-old from Atoka, Okla.
Back-to-back wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have stretched the Army thin. Nearly two-thirds of its active duty brigade-sized units are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the troops currently in Iraq rotate out this spring, the U.S. plans to lean heavily on the National Guard and Reserves for replacements. The Pentagon said Wednesday that the number of U.S. military reservists called to active duty jumped by more than 10,000 in the past week.
"What we're trying to do is to manage the force now so that we don't have a falloff in recruitment or retention a year from now, and then have a gap where we have to scramble to rectify that," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
Under the program, soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait who re-enlist for three years or more will be paid bonuses of up to $10,000, regardless of their military specialty.
Bonuses are frequently used by all branches of the military to retain troops. But they tend to be targeted at those with special skills, like fighter pilots, who were offered $20,000 or more by the Air Force a few years ago.
The bonuses offered under the latest program are earmarked for every soldier. And $10,000 is a tidy sum for low-ranking soldiers who earn $25,000 to $35,000 a year.
At the checkpoint outside Baqouba, the 23-year-old specialist, who refused to give his name saying he feared retribution from military higher-ups, stubbed out a cigarette on the side of a Humvee. As he began to speak, he was interrupted by the blast of a Kalashnikov rifle a few yards up the road. An Iraqi policeman fired the rounds in a mound of dirt for no apparent reason.
"You see what I have to put up with?" asked the soldier. With two months left in a 12-month tour, "there's not enough money in the world to make me stay a month longer."
Of course, there are also soldiers who said they want to stay on.
Back in the United States "we spend most of our time training and it can get to be a pretty monotonous," said Master Sgt. Rohan McDermott, a single 38-year-old, who is also with the 4th Infantry Division and is helping train the new Iraqi army. "It's harder over there than it is over here ... doing here what we're always training to do."
But for those with wives waiting at home, life is a lot lonelier in Iraq.
"Maybe if I were single I'd think about it," said Sgt. Dante Legare, 32, of the 4th Infantry Division.
"That's pretty good money ... enough to maybe put a down payment on a house," said Legare, a New York City native. "But is it worth it? I've already been away something like nine months. I want to see my wife."