For several years, I was a soldier-medic in the U.S. Army. I saw countless military and family members. Now I am a veteran looking back.
What the Army Doesn't Teach You
The US Army will teach you everything you need to know to be the best soldier you can be. It will also teach you plenty of other things that will help you excel long after your discharge. In all, it’s a lot of stuff. Live by these lessons and you’ll have the edge for the rest of your life.
Then there are other things, other important life lessons that get left behind. It’s hard to believe, but once your time is up, there will be regrets because nobody sat you down, got in your face and told you this stuff. A few years down the line, you’ll think, “Why didn't anyone tell me?”
But don’t worry, I’m here to tell you. You’ll pick up a few things in this article whether you’re just thinking of joining the military or in the service right now.
You’ll see a lot of references to the US Army because that’s the only branch I served in. However, you’ll find that all of this applies to the other branches as well. If not, I’m sure someone will correct me in the comment section.
Also, I’ll refer to the service member as “he.” This will keep things simple. But don’t forget, our military is made up of women and men who serve our country proudly. Thanks for understanding.
What the Army Does Teach You
First, here are a few examples of basic life lessons that the US Army does teach you. You'll sit in a class and someone will officially tell you. Or a fellow service member will tell you unofficially as an aside. Guess which ones are which!
- Don't hit your wife
- Don't drink and drive
- Save your money
- Invest your money
- Take some classes (for college credits)
- Drink more water
- Wear more sunscreen
7. Time flies
Time flies. This is more true in the military than anywhere else.
I remember the day I signed my enlistment contract. My recruiter told me the exact date to expect my discharge. It was only a four-year contract but seeing that date on paper made it look like an eternity away. It knocked the wind out of me. It may as well have been 1000 years away.
That day sounded like something out of a science fiction book. By then, there would be flying cars and robots all over the place. Now, that day sounds like an eternity ago. I’d give anything to go back to the day of my discharge. The same day! Time flies.
Wait, doesn’t time fly everywhere? Sure, but the Army is different. No matter how much time you put in, three years or thirty, there is so much going on around you that once you finally have time to take a breath, you realize that you’re already wrapping things up.
Time flies so make the most of it. No matter where you are in life, make a plan with clear goals and stick to it. It won’t be easy but do your best. No matter how much you love-hate the service, no matter how boring it seems at times, it will be over in the blink of an eye.
Oh, and while you’re at it...
6. Take Some Pictures
OK, first and foremost: DO NOT take any pictures or videos of your workplace or team if it includes classified information. If you are in a classified location, DO NOT take any pictures or videos of anything. If you are ever in doubt, DO NOT take any pictures or videos at all! It’s too easy.
That said, this one might seem outdated. Everyone has a smart phone, so it’s easier than ever for anyone to document every moment of his life. YouTube has plenty of videos by soldiers showing what the Army is like.
What about you? Depending on your MOS (military occupational code), or job, it's easy to forget to do this. Still, there's no harm in taking a quick picture of you and some buddies at the barracks during a card game or just hanging out.
Not the sentimental type? That’s what I thought. Now, for my entire time in service, there are only five pictures of me. Five. Three of those are company photos I don’t even have. In another one I’m wearing a mask. In the last, I’m at dinner at a restaurant off post so I’m not in uniform. That’s it.
As petty as it seems, this was one of the biggest regrets of my time in the Army. I have tons of paperwork about my Army days but only a few pictures. You’re going to miss your buddies. You’re going to miss your days in the service. So don’t be shy: take a picture every once in a while.
Just don’t get carried away. Use your head. By the way, if you plan on taking more pictures, why not…
5. Travel More
While in the Army, you can be stationed anywhere in the world. Wherever the Department of Defense plants you, you'll live somewhere new. Your new duty station will be a good point to start some off-post R&R.
After AIT (Advanced Individual Training), I had only one permanent duty station. It was in the middle of America. At first I was disappointed, but it gave me the opportunity to see the Midwest and Deep South. I didn't see as much as could have but I did enjoy the places I did visit. I wouldn't have hit up cities like Austin, Chicago, or Louisville if I was stationed in Fort Lewis (Washington) or Fort Benning (Georgia).
No matter where you're stationed, getting off post will be a welcome relief. Instead of ending up in a local bar every weekend, get out of your comfort zone and see something new. But where should you go? That's up to you.
Here's how I did it: On any random Friday, I'd pack a two-day bag and ask a friend for a lift to the nearest bus station. From there I'd look at the schedule. Wherever the next bus was headed, I'd get a ticket and roll out. If the city was more than a few hours away, I'd skip it and catch the next one. You get the idea.
Since you're seeing so many new places you can...
4. Keep a Journal
Daily journaling is a good habit to have, especially in the military. The list of therapeutic and practical benefits is endless.
This country is at war. Believe it or not, every day is history in the making. No matter where you're stationed, a lot of stuff will go down. A journal will help you document it, process it, and then reflect on it later in life.
I started a daily journal when I was 15 years old. Every day of my college life is on paper. In the first two weeks of Basic Combat Training, I was too busy and exhausted to write daily. Then the rest of it and all of my Advanced Individual Training is on paper. I'm ashamed to say that my journal gets spotty after that.
Now and then I pick up my “tomes” and l am grateful for what I have. My Army journals seem to be the only thing I can pat myself on the back on. I could have done better though.
Military or civilian, start writing. Start small. Take a look at the video below to see what happens when we start small.
Always remember: you are important. That’s why you should also...
3. Make More Friends
You're going to make friends automatically in the Army. I don't care how introverted you are. I don't care how vapid or clumsy or abrasive you are—you will make friends. That's just the way the Army works. There are plenty of reasons why.
The easiest way to explain this is, “Misery loves company.” But I prefer this one: "The squad that spends all Saturday morning picking up cigarette butts in the DFAC parking lot wearing their Kevlar helmets and full body armor because some idiot got drunk at the military ball and threw up in the punch bowl together stays together."
I wish I made more friends while I was in the Army. The reason I didn't was because I wanted to spend as much time on my own as possible. I was traveling, reading, studying, or doing something—always on my own. Some d-bag side of me thought I was different from everyone else in a way. I didn't feel I was better as a soldier, only different as a civilian.
Traveling is highly recommended but it's easy to balance this with making more friends. Early on, I was surprised by how easy it was and then I took it for granted. Fellow soldiers moved on, deployed or stationed elsewhere. Then, one day I moved on, discharged. I hardly got to know the soldiers outside of my department.
While you're making friends be sure you...
2. Keep in Touch After You're Discharged
I completely blew it here. These days, I only keep in touch with one person I served with. He's a good friend of mine but he's the only one. I have no idea where anyone else is. There are plenty of ways to find them now but how hard was it to ask a buddy for a civilian email address or a phone number while I had the chance? The tragedy is that it's so easy to do but I didn't do it.
This doesn't only apply to battle buddies. Don't rule out civilians you meet in the military. As a medic, I worked alongside plenty of civilian healthcare providers. I was fortunate enough to get a couple letters of recommendation but that's it. I never kept in touch.
Although I screwed up here, I doubt you will. With sites like Facebook and Instagram, it's easy to keep in touch. In fact it's too easy, so don't blow it!
1. You'll Miss It as Soon as You're Out
In the end it's all about one thing: you'll miss the Army once it's over. If I knew this then it would have lit a fire under me to do everything else on this list.
Sometimes the military really stinks but sometimes it's not so bad. No matter how we feel during it all or what we lived through, we find that the civilian world just isn't the same. This is how the memory works in general. Whether it’s high school, a job we worked at or a relationship we once had—as time passes, the tough times fade and the good times shine.
For me, my Army days are no exception. I write plenty of articles about the Army but when I look back on my journal, I’m surprised at how miserable I was sometimes. It was no cakewalk.
Now it's funny. I remember and I laugh. It's all over and I made it through in one piece but sometimes I miss it.
What did you learn here?
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.
What do you think? Did I miss something?
RTalloni on April 08, 2019:
I also enjoyed this read and you style of writing. There's a neat cadence to it and a reality that can't be dismissed.
Sharing your personal experience and these tips is a valuable service to others. Everyone can benefit from most of it.
Leland Johnson from Midland MI on June 04, 2018:
Cecil: I liked your article and took the quiz. I want to travel more. I was in the army too. 4 years. I got to see a lot of places. I agree with your words of wisdom. I'm glad you took so much from your service. You have a unique writing style. Kind of folksy, direct, conversational. I look forward to reading more of your work. Good job.