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Military Promotions: What Friends and Family Should Know

Navy chief is pinned by family

A military promotion is a significant achievement in a service member’s career. It’s a testament to their commitment, mastery of duties and skills, and to the service member’s leadership capabilities. Some promotions are more meaningful than others, especially as service members move up in rank.

Like most promotions outside of the military, with higher rank comes increased responsibility and accountability. The requirements and process for moving up the chain of command in the military is different than non-military promotions. As a loved one, understanding the significance and impact of your service member’s next promotion can help you prepare for this important milestone.

What to know about “pinning-on” ceremonies

Many service members receive their new rank insignia during an official “pinning-on” ceremony. As a parent, sibling or significant other, you may be asked to attend or even participate in the ceremony. This means you will need to actually pin the insignia to your loved one’s uniform for the first time. If you are asked to participate, a practice run beforehand can help ensure you know how the pin works and where to place it.

After the ceremony, parties or celebrations are common. These events are often steeped in symbolism and tradition that varies by rank and branch of service.

The connection between a service member’s pay grade and their rank

Military titles and ranks vary by service branch. However, pay grades – the amount a service member is paid at a given rank and time of service – are standardized. The pay grades are E-1 to E-9 for enlisted service members and O-1 to O-10 for commissioned officers.

For example, your loved one may have the rank of corporal in the Marine Corps and in the Army, petty officer third class in the Navy or senior airman in the Air Force – no matter the title, all of these positions are considered an E-4 pay grade.

Your enlisted service member’s military promotion timeline and process

  • Early promotions may happen more frequently. A service member’s current rank and branch of service has a considerable impact on the promotion process. Most newly enlisted service members can expect to reach E-4 within a few years. Depending on how long they have been in the military, an E-4 could see an increase in pay from $2,500 to $8,000 a year compared to E-1 pay.
  • Promotions beyond the E-4 pay grade are often more difficult to achieve. The number of service members allowed at each rank above E-4 is limited by Congress, so a service member cannot promote until there is a vacancy in the next rank. Your service member may serve with honor and competency for several years before earning a promotion at this level.
  • Promotions usually do not go into effect immediately. A service member may find out they will be promoted, and spend several months waiting for the promotion to become official.

Each service branch has a different approach to the promotion of its enlisted service members:

  • Soldiers in the Army receive “duty performance points” from their unit commander whenever they demonstrate core qualities of the next rank – including competence, military bearing and leadership. Certain point counts are required to achieve the next rank.
  • Marines in the Marine Corps compete for a limited number of vacancies after the E-3 pay grade. They want a “good composite score” on their service records, which combines factors such as physical fitness test results, time in service, and conduct and duty proficiencies.
  • Sailors in the Navy also compete for promotions past E-3, using a combination of exam scores and point system. Points can be awarded for time served in specific jobs, awards and completed schooling, among other factors.
  • Airmen in the Air Force compete for promotions past E-4 through their service records and recommendations from their superior officers. Some exceptional service members may qualify for accelerated promotion to higher enlisted ranks through special programs, like “Below-the-Zone” or “Stripes for Exceptional Performers,” or STEP.

What to expect for promotions of commissioned officers

  • In general, promotions for commissioned officers follow a similar – though not identical – process as enlisted service members.
  • Officers receive a written performance evaluation from superior officers, which are an important part of the promotion board’s ability to assess their readiness for a higher rank.
  • When up for promotion, officers are judged on the time spent in service and in their current rank, as well as their performance and willingness to take on responsibility.
  • If an officer fails to promote more than once, their chances for any future promotions are significantly diminished. Even so, in 2018, Congress significantly changed the way the military retains officers without promoting them.
  • The long-standing “up or out” policy – which put pressure on officers who did not continue to promote to leave the service entirely – has been replaced. The military is in the process of implementing a new “up or stay” policy, to keep officers with certain skills, such as flight instructors.

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