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Military Promotions: How Do They Work?

While every branch of service has their own military promotions system, at their core, they are all essentially the same. Military promotions usually require a certain amount of time in service, time in grade, basic educational requirements, a physical fitness score, promotion test scores, performance evaluations, and then military occupational skills. In some cases, official photos of the promotion candidate in full uniform with ribbons and badges is also required.

Military promotions are earned through merit, although some might argue otherwise, and as service members climb in the ranks, the competition gets harder, and the promotions get tougher. The service branches also must have a need for the person to be promoted. For this reason, military promotions are significant milestones in the lives of service members.

Military promotions represent a service member’s commitment, mastery of duties and skills, and the service member’s leadership capabilities. Depending on a service member’s occupation and branch, the promotions can be deeply meaningful, especially when service members enter the non-commissioned officer ranks, or the field grade ranks.

The more rank earned, the more responsibility a person is given. Higher rank has always meant increased responsibility and accountability. The requirements and process for moving up the ranks in the military is different than climbing the corporate ladder.

Military Promotions Ceremony
Many service members receive their new rank insignia during a “pinning” ceremony. Family, friends, or close work colleagues usually attend the event and might be asked to participate in the ceremony.

The term “pinning” is used because ranks used to be pinned onto a person’s uniform. The term is still mostly applicable these days, but in some cases, if the person is wearing a combat uniform, the “pinning” will be simply affixing the new rank patch to the uniform.

Pinning the new rank onto a person is considered an honor. It is usually an action reserved for someone significant in the life of the person who is being promoted. It’s not a bad idea, if the person doing the pinning lacks experience in military promotions, to do a practice run beforehand to ensure the pins enter the uniform smoothly and that it is placed properly.

After the ceremony at most military promotions, there are quaint parties or celebrations where unit members gather, congratulate the promoted person, socialize and sometimes gifts are given. Some of these events are often steeped in symbolism and tradition that varies by rank and branch of service.

Military Promotions and Pay Grades
Military titles and ranks vary by service branch. However, pay grades, the amount a service member is paid at a given level and time of service, are standardized and do not change regardless of the branch a person might serve in. The pay grades are E-1 to E-9 for enlisted service members and O-1 to O-10 for commissioned officers. Warrant Officers are W-1 to W-5.

For example, a service member might be a staff sergeant (rank) in the Air Force, which makes them an E-5 (grade). However, an E-5 in the Army is a sergeant, not a staff sergeant. The grade of E-5 is paid uniformly by the U.S. military regardless of rank or title. Both the Army and Air Force E-5 might have different ranks, but their base pay is the same. 

The same applies to commissioned officers. A colonel (O-6 grade) in the Marine Corps, is referred to as a captain in the Navy. In fact, to confuse things more, the Space Force, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps all call individuals in the O-3 grade, captains. The point is, a service member’s rank is specific to their branch of service, a person’s grade refers to their pay level.

It is important to note that certain military occupations are going to receive more money because of the skills they hold. For example, an infantry captain (O-3), will make the same amount of money as an Air Force captain (O-3) who works a desk job in supply. If they have both been in the same amount of time, and hold the same grade, the pay will be the same. However, if the infantry captain is on airborne status and maybe speaks a foreign language that is used in his military job, he will get paid for those skills, so the infantry captain might make a little more money per month.

Similarly, an Air Force captain who is a medical doctor, will be paid much more per month in incentives than that regular captain who works in supply. The service pays certain professions a little more if they have certain skillsets they bring to the table.
Military Promotion Timelines
Military promotions for enlisted personnel in most branches happen quickly. For example, a junior enlisted member entering the service as an E-1 can expect to be promoted within the first year. A service member’s current rank, military occupation, branch of service and other factors impact the military promotions process. After several years, most enlisted service members can expect to reach E-4 within a few years, again, depending on the previously mentioned factors.

Military promotions beyond the E-4 pay grade require more effort to achieve. The number of service members allowed at each rank above E-4 is controlled and limited. Service members cannot promote until there is a vacancy in the next rank. And it’s important to note that promotions usually do not occur immediately. A service member may learn they are promotable, but they might have to wait for the promotion to become official.

As mentioned earlier, each service branch manages their military promotions differently. For example, 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. Each rank has a point score that must be achieved.

The Marine Corps promotes in a similar manner, however, the Corps has much less slots to promote people into because of their smaller size. There are a limited number of vacancies after the E-3 pay grade that Marines compete for. Marines, like the Army, 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.

Like the Navy, Airmen in the Air Force compete for promotions past E-4 through scores and points. Some exceptional service members may qualify for accelerated promotion to higher enlisted ranks through special programs, like “BTZ” (below the zone) or “STEP” (stripes for exception performers).

Officer Military Promotions
Generally speaking, military promotions for commissioned officers follow a similar process as enlisted servicemembers.

Officers receive performance evaluations from superior officers, and these are reviewed by the promotion boards when officers are assessed for their readiness for a higher rank. Officers are assessed on the time spent in service and in their current rank, as well as their performance and potential (which is mentioned in the evaluations).

If an officer fails to promote more than once, their chances for any future military promotions are significantly diminished. Even so, in 2018, Congress significantly changed the way the military retains officers without promoting them.

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