Choosing to enlist or join in the United States Military is a life changing decision that should not be taken lightly. I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of what you should know before deciding to join the military, so you can decide if enlisting is right for you.
There are 6 U.S. Military branches: Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Space Force. There are pros and cons of each one and you should put a lot of thought and research before signing your name on the dotted line at the recruiter’s office.
Funny enough, I had enlisted in the Air Force at 18 years old without doing much research at all. I enlisted because I had burned myself out of going to school in high school and did not want to continue my education in college.
I took the first job that was offered to me, and I shipped off to basic training 5 days after I walked across the stage at my high school graduation.
Hopefully, you do a little more research before you join, but the goal behind this article is to give you some things to consider before enlisting in the military that I wish I would have understood before making that life changing decision.
Family Considerations Before Enlisting in the Military
There’s a reason that family is the first topic that I wish I would have considered before enlisting in the military. Family comes first.
Family Members: Spouse and Children
If you are married or have children of your own, an important thing to understand that by enlisting you will be at the mercy of the military from the day you ship off to basic until the day you get your dd214. In most facets, your spouse and children will be as well.
However, at most bases, you will be able to live with your family. One of the biggest challenges to relationships and family life in the military is frequent TDY’s and deployments.
A TDY (temporary duty) is usually under 3 months, and deployments usually 6 months to a year.
This can be very hard on relationships. You will be away from your spouse and children multiple times a year, with no control of when or how long you’re gone. If you are someone who thinks family comes first, this is not ideal.
This might mean leaving your spouse alone thousands of miles away from family, and if you have kids, making them have to single parent with no family support for an extended period of time.
The first year of covid we could not leave the island we’re stationed on unless an immediate family member (parent, sibling) died, and they didn’t even approve that in every situation. This not only affected service members- my wife could not leave to see her family because we were overseas, and we were both subject to the strict rules enforced by the base we were stationed at.
Family Members: Parents, Siblings, Grandparents
If you’re close with your family back home, understand that during your time in the military you’ll only get to see them when you go home on leave, or they come to visit you at your duty station.
If you have had a bad home life or toxic family, the military can be a great opportunity to get away and better yourself. If you come from a tight knit family, military life presents challenges.
You will only have 30 days of leave that accumulate every year, and depending on how far you need to travel from your base to see them, the cost can really add up.
For example, here in Okinawa, my wife and I currently have to pay $3500 in plane tickets alone to see family, and they have not been allowed to visit the entire time we’ve been here. Living at our base in the states it was about $500 round trip per person to get home and back, or around 22 hours in drive time.
I do believe that it is important to spread your wings, get out of your parents house, and start your life on your own, but you should be aware of these factors before you join or sign a lengthy contract.
If this deters you, consider a national guard or reserve component program and get many of the same benefits. You can choose where you work, work part time, and work full time if you fill an active spot. I know people in the air national guard and the army national guard. They seem to love the flexibility that it gives them.
Enlisted / Commissioned Officer / Warrant Officer
Before you head to the recruiter’s office, you should understand the difference between enlisted, commissioned officers, and warrant officers.
Joining as enlisted has basic requirements. You need a high school diploma or GED, and you have to have a minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Test or ASVAB for your career field that you choose to join. This will vary depending on the specific job, but they should be found on each branch’s website.
As enlisted, you will do the “heavy lifting” of your career field. For example, I was enlisted as Aircraft Maintenance, and I was out turning wrenches on the flight line as I worked my way up through the enlisted ranks.
As you progress to higher ranks, you will slowly move to more supervisory or managerial roles, but will still be the subject matter expert.
Joining as a commissioned officer has the most strict requirements. To join as a commissioned officer, you will need at least a 4 year college degree. Additionally you will require leadership training through ROTC, a military academy, or Officer Candidate School.
If you are planning on being an officer in the Navy or the U.S. Air Force you will have to take a test similar to the ASVAB but for officers to find what careers you qualify for. As an officer, you will be working hard mentally by thinking about military strategy, planning, and leading the troops underneath you. Some careers vary such as pilots, they focus on operating multimillion dollar equipment under high stress environments.
The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard have warrant officer programs. This is specifically a technical expert that provides subject matter knowledge when needed. Typically, you must be prior enlisted to achieve this tier. This tier of ranks is higher than enlisted, but lower than commissioned officers.
The only way to become a warrant officer without prior enlisted experience is if there is a low manned career field. For Example, the Army is offering the career Aviation Warrant Officers as of July 2022 without prior experience.
Choose the career path that is right for you.
Understanding the Significance of a Military Contract Before Enlisting
A military service contract is a somewhat confusing document. You agree on your career field, enlistment bonus, and what length of service that you agree upon. The most typical length of service upon an initial enlistment is 2 years, 4 years, or 6 years.
New recruits often do not realize that by agreeing to those years of service and signing the contract, you are bound to civilian law and military law which is known as the UCMJ.
There is no easy way out of your contract unless you are administratively discharged under an other than honorable discharge or you qualify for a voluntary discharge program.
It is a serious commitment that you should think about. Consider your career goals, educational goals, and personal goals, and choose the length of service that benefits you the most regardless of the bonus. Any enlistment bonus you get will be the cherry on top.
What a lot of people do not understand is that by enlisting in the military, they are agreeing to an 8 year service commitment no matter what. The way it works is that you can finish your original agreed upon enlistment and get out, you will be in an individual ready reserve pool. You will be called upon in case of any contingency or national emergency up to your 8 year mark.
Educational Benefits of Enlisting in the Military
All active duty military members are able to receive tuition assistance up to $4500 a year. With that alone, it will take you around 6 and a half years to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, but with the training that you get within your military career, some colleges will give you credit for your training and military experience.
For example, I transferred 60 college credits of my military training in Aviation Maintenance towards my Bachelor’s degree. This had me halfway there before I even started.
Tuition Assistance is a great benefit to jump start your higher education. You could even obtain your Bachelor’s degree as an enlisted member of the military, and apply to Officer Training School or Officer Candidate School as prior enlisted.
The COOL program, or Credentialing Opportunities On-Line program is a benefit that can earn you certifications that will make you more marketable in your military career and in the civilian world. You will get $4500 over the lifetime of your career to use towards an approved certification that corresponds with your career field. Do your research to find out which certification will benefit you the most and go for it.
For example, I used AF COOL to obtain my Airframe and Powerplant rating through the FAA. I qualified for this because I was an aircraft mechanic, and I choose to go for it because it made me marketable in the civilian workforce outside of the military.
The GI Bill is the ultimate benefit for anyone who wants to do a short amount of time in the military to get their education completely paid for. There are two types that you have to pick from, the Montgomery GI Bill or the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
The Montgomery GI Bill gives you up to 48 months of a set stipend a month to pay for college tuition, housing, and other fees associated with your college, and it can also be used as supplemental income through an approved apprenticeship, but the percentage you receive goes down every 6 months. The catch to this is that you pay $1200 into it through your first year of military service.
The Post 9/11 GI Bill lasts for up to 48 months, covers all of your tuition costs by paying it directly to your college, gives you a housing stipend, and gives you an allowance for books and other needs. If you do an approved apprenticeship, you can receive a percentage of the housing stipend for the duration of the apprenticeship. You do not have to pay into this program.
When you are offered to sign up for the Montgomery GI Bill in basic training, I would recommend doing it. The reason for this is because you can opt into the Post 9/11 GI Bill at any time and receive your $1200 back, but it does not work the other way. There are some instances where you stand to make more money through the Montgomery GI Bill. Do the research and do the math to find out which one will benefit you the most.
Understanding Military Retirement Plan
The military does supply its members with a pretty generous retirement plan. There is a Thrift Savings Plan which is the federal government’s version of a 401k. The new Blended Retirement System offers a match of your contributions of your basic pay up to 5 percent, and after 20 years you will be eligible for a pension that is equal to 40% of the average of your highest 3 years of your base pay.
What is cool about this new retirement plan is that you can walk away with a decent retirement at 59.5 years old by investing early in your life in the Thrift Savings Plan. You do not have to do 20 years or walk away with nothing.
I highly recommend reading my article, How To Become A TSP Millionaire to get more insight of how the Thrift Savings Plan works and how you can use it to become wealthy.
Importance of Choosing Your Job Before Enlisting in the Military
Considering your professional goals before you enlist in the military is not stressed enough in my opinion.
Do you want to learn a trade that will benefit you in the long run?
Do you envision yourself working as an FBI agent or part of the secret service?
Do you just want an easy job to do your time and get out and go to college debt free?
You need to do your research of all of the career fields that interest you.
Depending on your professional goals, you will want to pick a job that relates to what will help you in the long run.
The biggest thing that I would tell anyone considering enlisting in the military to consider when choosing their career would be to choose something they could see themselves doing and enjoying in their civilian life outside of the military.
- Bonus tip: If you are unsure about a career field, try to network to find someone who has worked that job before. You can ask questions on reddit or Facebook groups, but finding a real person that you know would be best.
Lifestyle after Enlisting in the Military
The lifestyle of an enlisted member of the military will vary greatly depending on which branch you join and the career field you choose. However, there are common themes within the total force.
One of the hottest topics here in 2022 is health readiness. If the military says that you need an immunization or medical procedure, you have to get it. You can apply for an exemption which in the current administration, rarely gets approved.
A common theme in this article- ironically, by joining the military you are losing many freedoms, while fighting to protect them. Refusal can lead to punishment under the UCMJ or an other than honorable discharge.
There will be a strong sense of comradery among the people that you work with and you will make lifelong friends. This increases exponentially when you go on deployments and TDY’s together when you have nothing to do but hang out with one another.
You will get to travel for free and see things while you are in the military that you may never get the chance to see otherwise. It is likely that you get stationed overseas for multiple assignments in Europe or Asia, spend time in 3rd world countries in the Middle East, and see many bases across the United States. All while doing your job and contributing to the mission of defending our freedom. You can’t put a price tag on that.
As I said before, the lifestyle of the enlisted members of the military can vary, but we are paid well enough to have a decent quality of life if you are smart with your money.
You will get compensated through your base pay, a housing allowance, subsistence allowance, and a cost of living allowance if overseas.
As new members of the military, you will start your career in the barracks or the dorms if you are single. You won’t receive a housing allowance because you have housing provided, and there will be a deduction from your subsistence allowance if you have to utilize a chow hall or dining facility. That is okay though because you won’t have many bills, and it will allow you to save money.
Changes in Yourself After Enlisting in the Military
Before writing this article, I did not even think about the changes that I have noticed in myself over my time in the military. If I never would have decided to enlist, I would be a completely different person.
I know this because the friends that I had in my hometown dropped out of college, got deadbeat jobs, took years to get out of their parents house, and I could have been right there with them.
Instead, I was forced to instill into myself maturity, discipline, leadership, work ethic, and attention to detail to have a successful military career. Now, I am always situationally aware of what is going on around me everywhere I go because of the training that was embedded into my brain. I have anxiety around large crowds, and there are things that I have been a part of in my military career that sometimes keep me up at night.
The changes that I have experienced are mostly positive because they helped me get my life on the right track, and I have skills instilled into me that most people do not have.
The Enlisted Experience
Again, choosing to enlist into the military is an extremely important decision, and you should think it over hard before you sign a contract and head off to boot camp or basic military training.
It is a great commitment to your country and yourself that you should take pride in if you decide to pursue it. It is not for everyone and if it was easy, everyone would be taking the oath of enlistment.
Is enlisting in the military right for you? If so, welcome to the club.
- The NCO You Never Had