CAMP BEUHRING, Kuwait — Soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division — on a yearlong deployment to the Middle East — are cashing in on lucrative re-enlistment bonuses normally reserved for Special Forces soldiers or recruiters.

The soldiers, from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, known as Strike Force, can collect up to $20,000, depending on their time in service. And, because they are re-enlisting in a combat zone, their bonuses are tax-free and given in one lump sum.

The $20,000 bonuses are given to soldiers with more than 10 years’ service, said Sgt. 1st Class Scott Byers, 37, a Strike Force career counselor.

“Those bonuses have previously been reserved for Special Forces or recruiters,” said Byers, 37, from Cross Lanes, W.Va.

Soldiers with less than six years’ service can collect up to $10,000, while soldiers with between six and 10 years’ service are eligible for up to $15,000, he said.

After finding out that Strike Force would deploy to Iraq, counselors stopped re-enlisting soldiers in South Korea to allow them to take advantage of the tax-free status in the Middle East, Byers said.

“Some of the bonuses in Korea were a little higher, but they weren’t lump sum and they weren’t tax free,” he said. “As career counselors, we are supposed to be the honest broker between the Army and the soldier. The main thing is to take care of the soldier.”

The Army has not determined whether soldiers can extend their South Korea tours while they are in Iraq, which would mean even more money, Byers said.

“There is the overseas extension program that can add an additional benefit of some free leave and a plane ticket back to the U.S., or $2,000 cash,” he said. “… [But] with the issues about downsizing, I can’t tell how this will reflect on the availability of that.”

Several soldiers re-enlisted at Camp Buehring in the last two weeks while waiting to head into Iraq. One of them, Sgt. Joe Ramos, of 2nd Brigade’s Headquarters Headquarters Company, said it was a coincidence that his re-enlistment date fell while he was deployed.

The 34-year-old father from Kingsville, Texas, has eight years’ service, meaning he got a cool $15,000 from the Army. If he had re-enlisted in South Korea, he estimates he would have got the same bonus but it wouldn’t have been tax-free. So re-enlisting in Kuwait gained him about $6,000, he figured.

“I’m going to put it away and will probably invest some of it. I’ll put some of it into savings for my little girl for when she gets older so she won’t have to worry how she is going to pay for college,” he said.

However, re-enlisting was not about the money, said Ramos, whose father served 20 years in the Texas National Guard.

“It is good that I have got the money, but I always intended to re-enlist,” he said. “I love the Army and I have always intended to stay in.”

Some people back in the U.S. might think he is crazy, Ramos said.

“Who in their right mind would want to do the job I do? Not a lot of people can say I’ll go and deploy to another country,” he said. “One of the main reasons I do it is because I have my friends and family who I know are proud of me because of what I am doing.”

Soldiers can re-enlist in Iraq any time before their end term of service (ETS), Byers said.

“A soldier can re-enlist 12 months out from their end term of service. There is normally a 90-day window before the ETS when they can’t re-enlist, but in Iraq soldiers can re-enlist right up to the ETS,” he said.

Four career counselors deployed with Strike Force are providing information on re-enlistment options to all of the units on the ground, Byers said.

When a soldier asks to re-enlist, the career counselors ask them what their feelings are about the Army, he said.

Some soldiers don’t mind being deployed but others are concerned about the impact on their families. In those cases, the best re-enlistment option is often one that stabilizes the soldier with a duty station, Byers said.

“The soldier will have a stable home life and the spouse can get a job. The soldier can do his year deployment and come back there,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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