The decision to join any branch of the military is a big one. Having served in the Army for 24 years, I have often been asked the question, "Would you recommend young men and women to join the service today?" Considering I spent half of my life in the Army, I am surprised by how much consideration I have given this question on each occasion. Every time I have found my answer to be a firm “Yes” but with a few caveats that anyone considering a career in the military should be aware of before making the decision. As the son of a veteran, I joined the Army with a better understanding than most recruits that a career in the armed forces comes with opportunities unmatched in the civilian world. However, I also understood that there is a price to be paid for those opportunities. As a veteran, I consider it obligation to assist others in understanding the challenges of a career in the service, as well as its benefits, before they commit to it.
Joining the military is not like accepting a job as an accountant at a bank or clerk at the convenience store. It has its own set of rules that are not replicated in the civilian world and It goes without saying that the job can be hazardous. It is the military after all. Military service is a unique way of life with its own culture, rules, benefits and obligations. Before joining, every person ought to fully understand what he or she is getting into. Understanding and accepting the unique nature of this profession will make it easier to serve the nation and have a successful career in the process.
First, the military will demand a lot from you, more than almost every civilian employer. Unlike most jobs, it is a 24/7 responsibility. The oath you take when you join the service does not place any limits on when you will be required to work or where that work will take place. You will work nights, weekends, and holidays. You may be called upon to deploy for months (or longer) with little warning. You may find yourself living in a tent without the comforts of home for long periods of time, even if you join the Navy. You will miss birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, reunions and all sorts of other life events. You might get the chance to Skype or call home, but there will be times where you will not. Right about now, someone thinking of joining the service is telling themselves - "No problem, I can do that." It is a notion that works until you get to the third or fourth event you miss in as many years. At that point, you will question the logic of your choice. Serving in the military can bethankless, but if you can focus on the events you are there for and not the ones you will miss, you will have a chance.
The second thing to understand is you will not always get a vote on what needs to be done. The military is a hierarchy, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone thinking about joining. However, it is not a hierarchy that you can easily walk away from once you have taken the oath and signed a contract to serve. You will be expected to follow the orders of those personnel appointed over you. It is within this hierarchy that you will serve and be assigned tasks to accomplish. You may not agree with what must be done or how to do it, but you will be expected to do it nevertheless. If what you are being told to do is legal, moral and ethical, then it must be done. In my 24 years in the service, I can think of only one instance where I was asked to do something I considered to be unethical and possibly illegal - so do not think it happens often. The remainder of the time, I did the job I was ordered to do, regardless of how much I disliked the task, which can happen often.
Third, unlike a job at the mall, you cannot just quit when you don't want to do the task or no longer feel like serving. Remember you signed a contract and took an oath, so you have a moral and legal obligation to the nation. In fact, if you refuse to do something in the military, you can be punished by having your pay taken away, made to work extra hours, or even imprisoned for failing to do what you were directed to do. Show up late for your job at the mall and your boss may fire you. Show up late for work one day in the military and you may be called before a senior officer, who has the power to make you work for free for a couple of days. Do it repeatedly and you might find yourself working for free for a month - or worse. However, while a career in the military means a very specific set of rules, as long as you can live by those rules, it also comes with some great perks.
While even a short career in the military will require you to deal with its unique challenges, it will also allow you to experience its benefits. Perhaps the greatest benefit to joining the service is the leadership experience you will quickly gain. While you start at a low level, you can go as far as your ability and talent will take you or as long as you want to in the military. You will find you are promoted based on how well you perform and your potential to do more for the organization. Until you become fairly senior, you are the one who gets yourself promoted - mostly through talent and hard work. For naturally gifted leaders, promotions can come quickly. For others, there is time to learn about leadership and how to lead other people. While there are many sources places where you can lead, I doubt there is a better place to learn how to lead than the military.
The service will expose you to the totality of the American experience and allow you to learn from it. Your team will be composed of people from all walks of life - people from Florida to Alaska, immigrants from other countries, recent high school graduates and those with advanced degrees. You will learn to lead in good times and bad, under tight deadlines and intense pressure, when things are going right and when they are going wrong. You will fail at times, but you will learn to succeed despite those failures. There is no school, occupation or place that will serve as a better classroom than the military. It can be a great experience, provided that you are committed. And that is just the first of the many benefits to joining the service.
The military can also offer you the ability to learn a technical skill and provide the hands on experience that will translate into a civilian career when you leave the service. From flying to cyber-security, the service has programs to train you to work in nearly any field, provided you meet the basic requirements. While each branch is somewhat unique, all have programs in place to provide you with the training necessary to teach you the skills to be successful in your chosen field. There is even opportunity to switch career fields later if you do not like what you are doing, and still get paid for it. The same cannot be said for your civilian employer - I have yet to find the civilian employer who would willingly pay one of its accounting staff to train for a job in cyber-security after a few years in the accounting department. The military will, provided you meet the entry standards for the new specialty, will provide training to help you meet those standards as well.
In addition to the leadership, technical training and experience, military service can provide you with a chance to see and experience life in the rest of the world (and not just Iraq or Afghanistan). There are training exercises in foreign countries, assignments to stations overseas, exchange programs with foreign governments, and other opportunities to travel. If you want to see the world, the military is a great way to do it. During my time, I have served on three continents, traveled to two more, and worked with personnel from every continent except Antarctica (for obvious reasons). I would not consider my experience unusual in the modern military – the Army alone participates in hundreds of exercises with other nations every year. While there are many jobs out there that will allow you to travel, few will provide the variety of experiences that a career in the military can.
On top of all this, you also earn education benefits which you can apply to college or technical training while you are serving and after you leave the service. It is not uncommon for someone in the service continue their education while serving, earning a degree or degrees during their time in the military. I earned my Masters degree in those 24 years, and knew many officers senior to me and sergeants who worked for me who did the same. For those who serve their time honorably, the government has established the GI Bill to help veterans pay for college or vocational training. In most states, it will cover the cost of a four year education at a public college or university. While some civilian companies provide education benefits, I can't think of any employers willing to make the same commitment to you after you leave the company.
There are other benefits for joining the military - health care, 30 days of paid vacation a year, and many others. A career in the military is unlike any other. Through it, you will see the best and worst in people, horrible leaders as well as great ones. It will show you that you can achieve whatever you set out to do if you truly want to do it. And it will change.
The Army I retired from this year, is not the same Army I joined 24 years ago. It has downsized, grown and downsized again. It shook off the peacetime mentality to go to war and then began to return to its peacetime footing. There have been uniform changes, institutional changes, and social changes. I imagine the changes will continue as the services adapt to an ever-changing world and its ever-changing threats. To be successful, you will have to understand and deal with these changes, even those with which you do not agree. Remember, the service is a rigid hierarchy and you may not get a vote. But change is found in every organization that seeks to learn new things, find out what no longer fits and become better at what it does. While it can sometimes be slowed by tradition, the military learns, adapts, grows and improves far better than most organizations. It is one of the things that kept me interested in serving for over two decades.
Like any choice, the decision to join the military is one with pros and cons. However, a career in the service carries with it a unique set of responsibilities. While I still recommend a career in the military to young people, I do so with the caveat that each person should fully understand the unique nature of the military before they join. As a veteran, it is an obligation I take seriously for their future, the future of the institution that I have given half my life to and the future of our nation. We will always need bright and dedicated young men and women to continue to serve our country and sacrifice on its behalf. They deserve more than a recruiting pitch before they make a decision that will impact the rest of their life. And while it may turn some great people away from the armed forces, that is okay.
The military isn't, and shouldn't be, a career for everyone. Service to the nation comes with a great deal of sacrifice. It should be left to those who truly understand the nature of the undertaking but, despite that, are still willing to commit to serving. Those men and women are the ones we want as our future Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen. I believe that they, with an understanding of their obligation and a commitment to the nation, will make the institution stronger and ensure we always remain the land of the free.