I am a Navy veteran, Marine wife, and a full-time psychology student.
So You Want to Join the Military, Eh?
Maybe you've always wanted to join the armed forces, and be a soldier, sailor, marine, or airman. Then again, maybe you are looking for direction in your life, and you feel like the military is the perfect place to achieve that. Either way, you've decided that becoming a member of the US Armed Forces is the right job for you. Sounds simple enough, right? You go to the recruiting station, pick the job you want, complete boot camp and your technical school, and head out with your weapon to some far away land. If only everything were as cut and dry as it seems in the movies, or in those armed forces recruitment ads.
As a veteran of the US Navy, I found out firsthand that not everything they tell you at the recruiting station 100% true. Will they outright lie to you? No, generally not, but they have a way of wording things that make the military process sound... different. Here are some things I wish someone had told me before I signed up.
Choosing Your Branch
Perhaps you've always wanted to join the Navy, or you come from a family of Marines. If you're planning to join the armed forces, it's likely that you already have a specific branch in mind. Although it might seem like a good idea to choose your branch because family or friends who were in it did well, try to keep an open mind towards other branches. Do a little research before you join, because many jobs are available in more than one branch. For example, a desire to work on aircraft doesn't necessarily mean that the US Air Force is right for you. Yes, the Air Force has a ton of aircraft, but so does every other branch of the military, so don't let that be your deciding factor. This might seem like common sense to some people, but you'd be surprised at how many people don't know this. Also, if you can't stand the ocean, or get seasick, you might want to reconsider your decision to join the US Navy, or even the US Marines (yes, that's right, Marines can go on ships too). Talk to people who have served and ask them to be objective, because naturally and rightfully, most people have pride and a little bias toward their particular branch.
The ASVAB and Choosing Your Job
The ASVAB is basically a type of placement test that the military uses to decide what job(s) you'll excel in. There is a minimum score you'll have to make depending on which branch you choose, and depending on your score in different areas, you will be limited in which jobs you can do. The most important thing I can stress to you is to ask for a list of all jobs you qualify for with descriptions. If you don't, chances are they will put you in whatever job is the most difficult for them to fill, and not the job that is the most desirable. If you didn't make a high enough score for the job you want the first time, ask to take the test again. Also, do not accept whatever job is available immediately just because you want to ship out as soon as possible! It is really not worth over four years in a job you don't even like just to get in a couple of months sooner. If they tell you that the only availability that they have is for undesignated jobs or infantry, and you don't want to spend your days doing the "grunt" work that no one else wants to do, tell them that you will wait for a job to open up. Unless of course, chipping away at paint and then repainting sounds like the way you'd like to spend the next few years until you can get a different job.
Oh, and one more thing. Despite what your recruiter might lead you to believe, you can not change your job (or get a job if you're undesignated) when you get to boot camp. In fact, I was led to believe this very thing, and within the first two hours of arriving at the Recruit Training Command, we were all informed that we could not change our jobs for any reason. I felt my face flush. I was furious, but I had way too many things going on at the time to dwell on it.
If you are not absolutely sure about your commitment to the military, I would not recommend more than a standard four-year enlistment. Some more technical jobs require longer enlistments due to the length and amount of schooling required to do them. I was in one such job that had a six-year enlistment. Not only was it not a job that I was thrilled with doing (remember to get a good description of the jobs available) but I found myself, six months in, wondering how on earth I was going to handle doing a job I wasn't really interested in for another 5 1/2 years. These jobs with longer enlistments also typically offer sign up bonuses of a few thousand dollars, which you will receive at the end of your training (not boot camp training, but your technical training). This bonus means that you are stuck in this job until the end of your enlistment, be it four, five, or six years.
The truth is, some people just don't adapt well to military life. It is unpredictable and disciplined. You will be moving, deploying, and training while you are in... there's just no way around it. So if you're not sure that life is for you, a four0year enlistment is the way to go. If you really need to be close to home, the military is probably not the place for you.
Boot Camp and Beyond...
The big day has come. You swear in at MEPS and you're on your way to boot camp! Despite what you might have heard from your recruiter, it is not "a piece of cake" and it shouldn't be. Boot camp is made to train you to work as a team, and to learn that your actions have a direct effect on those around you. They cram as much of the important stuff about the military as they can into a relatively short amount of time. It is fast paced and physical. If you prepare before you get there, things are going to be a lot easier for you. Your recruiter should be going over basic things that you will need to know and do at or shortly after your arrival to boot camp... DO THEM! He is not telling you to do these things to make it easier on him. Your recruiter has already been to boot camp, and he's not going back. If you can't do a push-up or run a couple of miles without stopping BEFORE you get there, you're going to really wish you had prepared more.
Also, your drill instructors, RDCs, or whatever they're called in your particular branch, are going to break you down and yell at you. They're going to make you PT until you can hardly move and feel like you're going to throw up. This is their job, it's not personal. If you do what you're told, the way you are told, the first time you are told to do it, you will get through it. You may even look back on it fondly later. If you're going to talk back or be disrespectful, you might want to (once again) reconsider your decision to join.
After boot camp you will be sent to a more technical school, if you have one. Here you will learn more about your job and receive your orders. The odds are high in your first enlistment that you will not be going where you want to go. You might be sent somewhere in the United States, or there's a good chance you'll be sent to a base overseas. If you're in the Navy, you're probably going to a ship somewhere. If you're in the Marines or Army, you will probably be with a deployable unit. As a general rule, sometime while you're in, you will be deployed. Does everyone get deployed during their first enlistment? No, not everyone, but most people do, it's just a part of being in the military.
Finally, and most importantly, the life in the US Armed Forces is what you make it. It can be easy or hard. You can have fun or be miserable the whole time. A flexible, go with the flow attitude will get you far in the military. I really enjoyed my time in, despite encountering a few unexpected bumps along the way. I frequently look back on my experiences with a smile on my face.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Sarah Carlsley from Minnesota on October 14, 2010:
This is a very useful hub. Well done.