What the Recruiter Never Told You

Part 1 -- Deciding Which Military Service to Join

US military
Public Affairs Office Fort Wainwright/Flickr
Continued from Introduction

Should I Join the Military?

First and foremost, you should decide if you should even join the military. As I said, the military is not for everyone, and some people find that out too late. Ask yourself why you want to join the military? Do you need a job? Do you want to serve your country? Are you thinking of making the military a career, or just do a term or two? Is it for the college benefits?

Is it to learn a trade? Do you want to travel the World for awhile? Just need some time to "mature?"

Before you join, recognize the fact that a stint in the military is not civilian employment. It's not just like having a regular job. You can't just up and quit anytime you want to (See article, Getting Out of the Military). You can go to jail just for being late for work. (Granted, it's unlikely that a commander would impose nonjudicial punishment, or court-martial action the first time you are late for work, but it would be entirely legal for him/her to do so -- See Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).) No matter how high your rank, no matter which service you join, there will always be someone telling you what to do, and when to do it. Many times you won't like or agree with your orders, but you take a solemn oath to "obey the orders of the President of the United States and the lawful orders of those appointed over you." Disobeying those orders can have serious consequences.

If you can't live with this simple fact, save yourself and the government some valuable time and money, and don't enlist.

In a civilian job, if you don't like your boss, or don't like the job, you can simply quit. Not so, in the military. I get email all the time from recruits who just graduated basic training and/or technical school (job training), asking how they can "quit" the military.

The short answer is that you can't -- unless it is for a valid hardship reason (i.e., someone in your immediate family is terminally ill, and your presence is required). The military can throw you out for several reasons, but you can't simply quit because you don't like it. If the military decides to throw you out (discharge you), the consequences of the discharge (depending on the type of discharge you're granted) can follow you the rest of your life.

If you like to smoke a joint once in a while, don't join. The military uses random, no-notice urinalysises, and -- if you're found positive, you may very well go to jail (as well as being discharged). The DOD urinalysis test can find THC in your urine for three weeks after you've smoked a joint.

The military is allowed to discriminate by gender. If you're a woman, know that there are some jobs and positions which are not open to you (most in the Marines, fewest in the Coast Guard -- in fact, all ratings are open to women in the Coast Guard).

In today's military, expect to spend a significant time away from "home." The average Navy enlisted person can spend a significant amount of time each year at sea. On any given day, 40 percent of Navy personnel are assigned to a ship or submarine, and 35 to 45 percent of those ships will be deployed to sea (2003 statistics). Depending on your Air Force AFSC (job), and duty assignment, you may find yourself spending up to seven months out of every year deployed to such garden spots as Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

The Army deploys a significant amount of folks to beautiful downtown Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. The Marines are also scattered around (although not in as great numbers as the other services). Recently, however, the Marines have been taking their turn in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, unlike the Army (and like the Navy), a Marine may find him/herself spending significants amount of time deployed to sea on Navy and Marine Ships. Even if you elect to join the National Guard or Reserves, these branches now spend a significant amount of time deployed to areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Gulf (See National Guard and Reserves Mobilized).

Which Service Should I Join?

Next, you'll need to decide which service you are interested in. Sometimes, you'll know this in advance. Perhaps you had a friend or relative who served or are serving in a particular branch of the military and you want to follow in their footsteps.

You should give this matter much study. Each of the services are different, and some people may be more suited (based upon qualifications, temperament, and/or interests) for one service vs. another. Make sure you select a service that YOU are interested in joining, based upon YOUR interests. Don't join a service just because someone else liked it, or expects you to.

It's your life, your interests, your decision. The article, Pros/Cons of Each Military Service may help you decide which service is best for you.

The Marines are, without argument, the most "military" of all the services. If you join the Marines, expect to eat, sleep, and breath "The Corps," 24 hours per day, seven days per week. All Marines are considered a "rifleman" first, and whatever other MOS (Job) they hold second. This is attributable to the high level of marksmanship training that all Marines receive. The Army is probably the second most "military." Many Army Combat Arms units, such as the elite Rangers, are just as intense and "gung ho" as the Corps. The Navy, while not as "rigid" as the Marines and Army, has many deep-set customs and traditions which are immobile. For the "gung-ho" sailor, the Navy possesses, probably the best-known special operations force -- the Navy SEALs. The Air Force, tied with the Coast Guard, as the "least military" service, also has it's share of "gung ho," in the the elite Combat Controllers and Air Force Pararescue forces. For more information, see Special Operations Forces.

(Note: Recruiters see lots of folks who want to enlist and serve in one of these elite fields.

The truth of the matter is that most people who apply for the "elite" programs wash out due to the very rigorous training requirements. If you enlist to become one of these "elites," and you wash out of training, you don't get to quit. You'll be required to serve the remainder of your enlistment contract in a different job).

If you like shooting (a lot), and want a complete change of lifestyle, to include a deeply ingrained pride of service, commitment, and sense of loyalty, the Marine Corps may be just what you're looking for. This may be a minor point, but it is very telling: When you ask an airman what he does, he will respond, "I'm in the Air Force." When you ask a sailor what she does, she'll respond, "I'm in the Navy." If you ask a Marine what he does, he'll say "I am a Marine."

If you want a little more flexibility in your lifestyle, but still want a strong sense of being in the military, the Army may be for you.

If you like to crawl through the mud and blow things up, using the latest and greatest of "blowing up toys," consider one of the Army's combat arms branches. You'll likely get all the time "in the field," that you want.

The Navy is probably the best place for those who like to travel -- a lot. There are few ratings (jobs) in the Navy that won't spend a significant amount of time at sea. This might be great if you are single, but might be something you'll want to think about if you have a family.

The Coast Guard has the advantage of having a real, "peacetime" mission, in active law enforcement, rescue, and ocean safety. On the "down side," the Coast Guard only has 23 enlisted jobs to choose from, and you usually cannot get a "guaranteed job" at the time of enlistment. On the plus side, pretty much all of those jobs directly relate to the civilian job market. Additonally, with fewer jobs, the Coast Guard doesn't "specialize" as much as the other services, and one may get a wider range of experience within a specific job.

Of all the services, the Air Force is probably the most (but not exactly) like having a regular job. The Air Force is, in my opinion, far ahead of the other services in many "qualify of life" issues such as dormitories and base housing units. If these things are important to you, then the Air Force should be something you look into. However, in terms of educational requirements and overall ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Appitude Battery) scores, the Air Force (tied with the Coast Guard) is the hardest service to get into. For details, see Minimum Required ASVAB Scores.

National Guard and Reserves. All of the services have a reserve component and two of the services (Army and Air Force) have a related National Guard, as well. The primary purpose of the Reserves and National Guard is to provide a reserve force to supplement the active duty forces when needed. The biggest difference between the Reserves and National Guard is that the Reserves belong to the federal government, while the National Guard belongs to the individual state government.

While both the Reserves and the National Guard can be called to active duty by the Federal Government, under the authority of the President, individual state governors can also call out their National Guard units to assist in individual state emergencies.

Following basic training and job training, members of the Reserves and National Guard drill (perform duties) one weekend each month, and two weeks every year.

However, it's become more and common to activate Guard and Reserve units to supplement active duty deployments to such garden spots as Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In fact, as I write this paragraph (May 2004), 171,917 Guard and Reserve members have been mobilized in support of such deployments (See Guard/Reserve Mobilized for current figures). For an overview of the services, and their basic functions, see U.S. Military 101.

There are also differences in education benefits, assignments, job guarantees, and education programs, and enlistment/re-enlistment bonuses, which we'll discuss in the later parts of this series.

In addition to deciding on a military service, if you have a 4-year college bachelors degree (or above), you should decide whether you want to join that service as a commissioned officer, or whether you wish to join as an enlisted member. Commissioned officers make a lot more money than enlisted members. Additionally, their "quality of life" is generally better (better housing, quarters, ect.). However, they have a much greater degree of responsibility. For an overview of the differences between commissioned officers and enlisted, see U.S. Military 101.

The competition for commissioned slots is tough, and merely having a college degree is not enough.

Factors such as college grade point average, and officer accession test scores are given much weight. It's also much harder to get approved for waivers (medical, criminal history, etc), for commissioned applicants than it is for enlisted applicants. If you decide you wish to apply for a commission, ask the recruiter to refer you to an "Officer Accessions Recruiter."

Once you've decided what service(s) you're interested in, you may wish to make appointments and talk to the recruiters of all of the services that interest you. Don't begin the enlistment qualification process, however, until you're fairly sure what service you want to join. It's unfair to make a recruiter do all the work to pre-qualify you, set you up for testing and medical, then back out and join a different service, instead.

  • Continued in Part 2 -- Meeting the Recruiter.
  • Other Parts to this Series:

    • Part 2 -- Meeting the Recruiter
    • Part 3 -- The Enlistment Process and Job Selection
    • Part 4 -- Enlistment Contracts and Enlistment Incentives
    • Part 5 -- Military Pay
    • Part 6 -- Housing, Housing Allowance, and Barracks
    • Part 7 -- Chow Halls and Food Allowance
    • Part 8 -- Education Programs
    • Part 9 -- Leave (Vacation), and Job Training
    • Part 10 -- Assignments
    • Part 11 -- Promotions
    • Part 12 -- Military Medical Care
    • Part 13 -- Commissaries and Exchanges
    • Part 14 -- Morale, Welfare, & Recreation (MWR) Activities