I’ve had a lot of people ask me to talk to their kids about joining the military. I love giving my input and answering any questions they may have, which is why I decided to write a letter to any kid (or anyone) who is planning to join the military.
This is directed towards younger people, because I’ve noticed a vast difference between those who join the military straight out of high school, and those who join later after living/working in the civilian sector for a while.
This is also written from a Christian perspective, which isn’t exactly the most common perspective to write from when talking about the military. Sure, pretty much everyone is a Christian when they’re getting shot at, but the military life isn’t always set up perfectly for Christians to thrive.
Personally, I’m an airman, but I’m going to try to keep this as generic as possible, which is why I’ll use words like “servicemember,” or “military member.” So keep in mind that this applies to anyone planning to join the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, or Navy.
Step 1: Basic Training
Basic Training, also known as Boot Camp, or Recruit Training, or Basic Combat Training… well, for the sake of brevity, we’re going to refer to it as Basic. Basic will be a “fun,” and interesting experience.
I’m not going to go into great detail, because there are plenty of articles and videos about the specific training your branch will offer. I’ll just mention a few points that are usually left out of articles on Basic.
When it comes to social interaction, Basic is going to feel a lot like high school, which is weird when you go through it at 25 like I did. With the age limit to enlist increasing, the age range is starting to vary. You’ll make some of your best friends and memories in Basic, and you’ll learn some lessons… mostly about yourself.
The important thing to remember in Basic is that they’re going to play mind games, but practically everyone makes it through to the other side. Don’t worry about failing, focus on overcoming everything thrown your way, and being the best you can be, every single day.
You’ll likely be at Chapel every Sunday, even if you don’t consider yourself “religious.” Some people live Chapel to Chapel… some people live chow to chow. Whatever it takes for you to keep going. Keep reminding yourself that if the military is your goal, when you’re in Basic, there’s nothing more you can be doing at the current moment to push you towards your goal, than what you’re doing right now.
Also, just know that everyone who went through Basic before you is going to tell you it was harder than yours. You’ll hear a lot of “back in my day, Basic was…” stories. Also, if you meet someone from a different branch, they may tell you the same. Sure, some branches have a physically harder training, but the isolation, separation from your family, uncomfortable environment, and introduction to new concepts applies to all branches and all time periods.
Discipline: Yes. Responsibility: Sort Of.
You’ll learn discipline immediately. You’ll make your bed everyday. You’ll be physically active. You’ll wake up early. But making amazing hospital corners on your bed doesn’t equate to being a responsible human being.
This is something to look out for. When you join the military straight out of high school, you’ll learn a lot of great things. For example, you’ll learn the responsibility of showing up to work on time (which means 15 minutes early). But at the same time, the military takes care of you in a similar way to how parents take care of you.
You won’t have to worry about where you live, or paying for it. You’ll either eat for free, or have a specific allowance for food. Your medical care is fully provided for you to cover anything you need (more on this in a moment). You’re told what to do practically every minute of everyday, in the beginning.
So will you learn discipline? Sure. What about responsibility? Some, but since the military takes care of so many typical “adult” things, many kids struggle when/if they get out after four years, because they’ve literally never had to worry about a lot of bills, or housing, or food, or medical care.
Don’t let that happen to you. Acknowledge the fact that the military takes care of everything for you, and seek to learn how to adult, despite the military making life so easy on you. It’s kind of ironic, but responsibility isn’t always common in the military.
Now let’s get into some fun stuff you’ll do and learn. Then we’ll talk about money.
You’ll Make Fun of Other Branches
Whichever branch you choose will be the best branch in your mind. Don’t let that go to your head. I have the utmost respect for the Marine Corps., but I changed my mind to join the Marines because I didn’t want to get my value and worth from being a Marine. I want to get my value and worth from being a child of God.
That doesn’t mean all Marines get their value and worth from being a Marine, but I know me, and I knew there was a good chance it would go to my head. If you’re considering the Marines, go for it, but keep your humility about you.
Making fun of other branches is a fun brotherly/sisterly love that everyone can appreciate. It’s a weird respect thing that only military members understand. The fact that we can talk trash about each other and still love each other may seem strange to the average civilian, but it’s part of our way of life… and it really is fun.
The being said…
You’ll Respect Other Branches
Hopefully you’ll have the opportunity to work with other branches, and see what they do. It’s always amazing to see the Army’s show of force, or the Marines and their precise training. The Navy’s battleships still amaze me. The air power the Air Force brings is unmatched by any other country. And the way the Coast Guard takes down entire drug operations blows (no pun intended) my mind.
We make fun of each other because we respect each other. That’s why we also defend each other when civilians make fun of any branch. When you start believing the things you’re making fun of other branches for, there’s a problem. The stereotypes of funny, but they’re just that: stereotypes.
There are positive and negative stereotypes for every branch. I didn’t create them. And I’m not saying they’re true, but that’s the ammunition the military often uses to joke around with other branches.
Most of the people I know, across all branches, defy those stereotypes (the negatives at least), but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny to pretend like they don’t when I’m talking to them.
The military community is a tight-knit group of some awesome people. You’ll make lifelong friends even if you’re only in for four years. There are some seriously amazing people in the military. By the way, don’t believe the stereotypes, but feel free to use them in good fun.
Back to some serious stuff: money…
Finances in the Military
Contrary to popular belief, you actually make pretty good money in the military. If you’re single, you live and eat for free. If you’re married, you’ll receive a tax-free allowance for food and housing.
Military pay is set up in a tax-friendly manner to keep you in a lower tax bracket, and therefore, pay less taxes. But you’re still earning quite a bit of money.
I’ve seen kids come straight out of Basic, and start spending like crazy with their first paycheck. Don’t do that. Wait. Plan. Budget. I know it’s exciting to make good money, especially if you’ve never earned much before now, but don’t be that guy that blows all his money on new clothes every paycheck.
Your medical benefits are unmatched. It’s all covered and paid for. You also have the option to invest in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which I highly recommend. Just be sure to actually invest that money. It will start in the G fund, but you’ll want to reallocate it to a fund with a higher return.
My friend Ryan, from The Military Wallet, has a great guide to the TSP. Dave Ramsey also has some solid advice on the TSP that I agree with. Ultimately, if you budget well, live below your means, and invest in the TSP, you’ll already be a step ahead of most people.
A final note on finances… you can go to college for free. Not only do you get the G.I. Bill, but you get $4500/year for Air Force, Army, Marines, and Navy and $2,250/year for Coast Guard 1, in Military Tuition Assistance. There’s no reason not to go to school. If nothing else, it’s a great tool for a fall-back plan.
That was a quick summary on military finances. There are some great websites dedicated to everything military-finance. So check out:
These bloggers are all friends of mine, and they have so much great advice on military finance that I’ll stop here and let you read those blogs to learn more. Of course, you can always comment below with specific questions.
On to another important topic…
A Higher Standard, But Not Always
As a military member, you’re held to a higher standard. Society expects more out of you, and people are watching. We not only follow federal and states laws, but we have the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice), which is an additional set of laws we—specifically as military members—must follow.
That’s the expectation anyways. But I must warn you, the military community isn’t exempt from bad people. I’ve personally had to deal with other people involved in domestic disputes (I once broke up a fight between a military member and his wife), theft (there’s actually quite a bit of theft on base by servicemembers), alcohol-related incidents (I don’t think I could count the number of ARIs I’ve witnessed, but that seems to be expected), and even attempted murder (someone on my base was stabbed while sleeping by another military member).
I say all of that to say this: the military is not immune to crappy people. On average, it does seem like people in the military are more likely to have high aspirations, goals, and dreams, but then there are the bad eggs. Don’t be surprised when you come across them. You will come across them.
That brings me to my next point…
Being a Christian in the Military
As Christians, we’re called to be a light to the world. That’s never more true than when you’re in the military. Sin is sin, and it exists in the military and the civilian sector, but as much as servicemembers are called to a higher standard, they don’t always live up to it.
It’s common in the military to see people take their wedding rings off as soon as they leave home for a deployment or training. It’s common to see people getting completely wasted, and making some
unbelievably stupid pretty questionable decisions. You have to be careful who you look to as a mentor.
I have plenty of military mentors. I look at the parts of their life where they have what I want, and I get advice about that part of life. I have mentors that I would listen to for military advice, but not marital advice. I have other mentors for spiritual advice that I wouldn’t listen to for fitness advice. It’s ok to have different mentors for different parts of your life.
Make sure people are where you want to be before you listen to them. Simply put, don’t take fitness advice from someone who has been overweight for years. Don’t take marital advice from someone who has been married three times. Don’t take financial advice from someone who is in mountains of debt.
It’s not always easy to be a Christian in the military. Like I said, most people seem to believe in God when they’re getting shot at, but during other times, there aren’t a large number of people trying to live a Christian lifestyle.
That being said, you will meet a lot of great Christians, and non-Christians, in the military. Chaplains are always there—at almost every possible location—to give you spiritual advice. Sure, they have to be open to all religions, but I’ve found that most chaplains do have a Christian background.
After a certain point in your career, you’ll have to decide if you want to keep being the light in the darkness, or if you want to leave the military. It’s not an easy decision; the day will come when you have to make it.
Once you join the military, you’ll have a lot of tough decisions. Every four or six years, you’ll have to decide whether to keep going, or get out and do something else. The other thing I urge is that if you decide to get out, please have a plan. Don’t get out without a plan.
We’re almost done…
No One Can Tell You What to Expect
One thing I don’t see when I read articles about joining the military is the fact that everyone’s experience is so different, no one can tell you exactly what to expect.
First off, there’s your job (AFSC, MOS, ratings, etc.), and even if someone else has the same job, there’s likely a great deal of variety within it. Second, there’s your base, and that makes all the difference. Are you going to a busy base overseas, or a slower, training base in the States? Those are two different worlds!
Basic is the same way. Your technical/drill instructors are all going to be different, and that’s going to make your experience different. While a few things are the same for everyone, beware of phrases like “they’re going to do this” or “you’ll have to do that.” There’s a good chance they aren’t and you won’t.
People don’t talk about how different of an experience everyone has. That’s exactly why some people say it wasn’t what they expected. And why some people love it and others hate it even though they both got the exact job they wanted.
It’s Your Choice: Choose Wisely
If you want to join the military, I recommend doing it. I’ve never met anyone who regretting joining, but I’ve met plenty of people who regretted not joining. Hopefully now you have a better idea of what to expect, but you may be more lost than you were when you started.
I know I wrote a lot of words about what to expect, and then told you that no one can tell you what to expect, but that’s because I want to emphasize the importance of not expecting one specific way of how things will go. Because it will probably be different from what you expect.
If you maintain a positive attitude, and prayerfully join the military, you’ll have a great experience. Don’t fall into all the sad nonsense and drama that others will try to drag you into. Some military members have a miserable existence, because all they do is work, and they never leave base. Don’t be that guy.
See the world, explore every new town the military sends you to, even if you’re in middle-of-nowhere, North Dakota. There’s always something to see. There’s always something new. Go out and find it. Enjoy the experience.
The majority of the population isn’t even capable of joining the military. That’s why we’re the one percent. Make the experience count, and get every possible thing you can out of the military, because the military is going to get everything it possibly can out of you.
Good luck. I salute you, and I thank you for your desire to serve.
Further Book Reading
- The Military Guide to Financial Independence & Retirement by Doug Nordman
Over to You!
- For those who plan to join, do you have specific questions?
- If you’ve served, what advice would you give to kids?