6 (More) Things You Really Need to Know Before Joining the Military
Ever since I published the original article (which you can find here), I’ve received several emails from people who are looking to join up, asking question after question. Most of them have been very positive responses from people who are simply looking for information, because they’re tired of the side-stepping answers that their recruiters are handing out to them. This is entirely understandable, and it’s the whole reason I wrote that original article in the first place. This is a major life decision and you deserve to know exactly what you’re getting into before you make the plunge.
I wrote the first article when I was a freshman in the Air Force, back when I was still wet behind the ears and severely frustrated with how different the reality was, compared to the image I was given. My recruiters told me things that turned out to be blatant lies, or at the very least half-truths. It bothered me a great deal, especially when I spoke to my peers and discovered their mutual shock, and for a long time I regretted my decision to join up.
It’s been a few years now, however, and I’ve had time to change the filter on my respective lens. I’ve ranked up, changed jobs, met new people, and added many new experiences to my overall career and life, which means I finally have something new to add to the discussion. I’m also getting ready to leave this chapter of my life behind; in less than four months, I’ll be a civilian again.
The following information isn’t just about how your recruiter is lying to you (but believe me, they definitely are), or about how you won’t enjoy your experience (because you certainly might); instead, the following is simply a list of information that you need to understand before you make a decision that will definitely change the course of your life, even if you’re only planning to stay in for a single term. Hopefully it helps.
6. Your Base Pay is not Your Real Pay
For those who don’t know, every branch of the military pays its people the same rates. That means that if you’re an E-2 in the Air Force, your pay is the same as it is if you’re in the Army or the Navy. On paper, that doesn’t seem like a lot, and by and large it isn’t.
Don’t be fooled by the large numbers. That’s not what you get every paycheck; that’s your MONTHLY pay, meaning that it’s actually kind of shitty. But that’s because you aren’t seeing the other stuff, the expenses that you’d normally be paying out the ass for in the real world. Need a deeper understanding? Alright then, let’s do it.
Okay, let’s say that you’re brand new to the Air Force and you come in at the lowest possible rank (E-1). You’re monthly Base Pay is $1531.50. It’s pretty easy to do the math on that to figure out your yearly income, right?
1531.50 x 12 = 18,378
So when you start getting paid, you’re probably thinking you’ve got it pretty rough, because holy shit that’s kind of close to the poverty level and seriously, how are you supposed to afford that new Mustang? But just hold on a second, big shot, and think about everything else. What about food, medical expenses, and rent? How much does all that cost?
Well, the military pays for all of that stuff, too. They just don’t bother to tell you about it. Not at first, anyway. When you’re a freshly inducted airman, seaman, soldier, or marine, you’re usually thrown into the dorms, forced to eat at the Chow Hall, and you never see a dime of that. It sucks, because it also means you can’t eat where you want or live where you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still free.
Then, once you’ve done your time in the dorms (which varies for most bases and branches, but in my case took three agonizing years), you’ll be allowed to go get your own apartment somewhere, and you’ll be allotted a food allowance. In certain branches (like the Air Force), you’re given a specific amount of money for rent that is based on your local area, and if you don’t spend the whole thing, you can keep the remainder. That’s great news if you’re like me and don’t mind roommates, because you’ll end up saving a shitload of cash every single month. Yes, if you are smart, you will get roommates. The hassle is worth the extra five hundred bucks a month you’ll be putting away in your savings account, believe me.
Just for an example of how much money you’re now making, here’s what someone in my local area makes:
Housing – 1117
Food allowance – 355
Now look at that and add it with whatever your base pay is, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad. Just like that, you’re making like 30,000 dollars a year or more. Not too shabby, after all, right?
Here’s a housing calculator, if you’re curious (note: food allowance is usually the same no matter where you live).
There’s also other benefits, like dependent pay if you have a wife/husband/son/daughter, health and dental, as well as a higher bonus if you’re sent overseas to Germany or England, depending on the local cost of living. On average, by the time you’re an E-4, you’re making roughly 40k a year, which is pretty good when you consider the fact that you might be coming in fresh out of high school with absolutely zero training behind you. If that’s the case, count yourself lucky.
There’s also the downside. In some areas, the housing pay is much lower, sometimes only about 700, which is barely enough to afford rent. There’s also the fact that if you get sent to a place like Korea, where they don’t offer off-base housing, you’ll be living in the dorms until you leave. That means no housing allowance at all, and it could mean a serious pay cut if you’re arriving from a place where you had your own apartment.
And of course, three years living in the dorms, only collecting your Base Pay will ultimately prove tiring. That’s a long ass time without that extra cash, and every day you’re in that cubicle they call a dorm room will be another day you could have made more money.
Of course, many people will avoid this sad reality by getting married as quickly as they can, which brings me to my next point…
5. Do NOT Get Married For the Benefits (Or in Tech School)
Something is going to happen when you get out of Basic Training. You’re going to lose control. Maybe that takes the form of getting completely shitfaced and puking your guts out, picking up that awful smoking habit you struggled so hard to drop when you came in a few months earlier, or even pigging out on your favorite foods because you’ve been dreaming about sushi and pizza and chocolate ice cream for the past eight weeks and you’re just that kind of gal.
Or maybe you’ve just decided you’re going to get laid.
After two months of being trapped and restricted and told what you can and cannot do, you’re going to want to get out there and celebrate. It’s bound to happen, sort of like when a caged animal gets let loose and they just start running wild. But before you start humping everyone around you, or having weird hotel sex parties, keep in mind that your mental state is a little impaired right now and you most certainly are not thinking clearly at all. In fact, you’re basically an idiot.
Once you get to Tech School, you’re bound to hear about people getting married. Maybe not right away, but give it a month or two. Eventually some moron will mention the fact that he’s engaged to the girl he met three weeks ago, and that she’s the one he’s been waiting for all this time. Believe me, when I was at tech school, I saw it happen plenty of times. It’s so common, in fact, that it’s become something a joke among military personnel. For your own sake, don’t become that joke.
But wait, you might be thinking. What if I meet the girl of my dreams and we get orders to different bases? What then? WHAT THEN?!
You might think it’s a good idea to marry the first girl that looks at you, but try to remember the consequences. Most military marriages, especially tech school marriages, end up failing. That’s because, most of the time, you’re dating someone you barely know (even if you think you do), and then you end up marrying them without fully understanding who they are. Once the excitement has settled down and you actually start your jobs and ease into your new mundane lives, you’re going to start realizing that this person you married isn’t actually who you thought they were when you were in Tech School. Why? Because Tech School is the military equivalent of college, and everyone is living on a high and partying all the damn time. It’s flat out stupid to expect that person to still be the same individual they were during those few months, because everything about their life was different.
If you manage to make it through Tech School without falling in love, then for Fuck’s sake, don’t marry just to get out of the dorms. This actually happens more often than the Tech School marriages, and it’s absolutely stupid. Sure, if you get married, you’ll get paid that housing and food allowance a little faster, but look at the cost of it all. Not only are you getting married sooner than you normally would have (i.e. before you were ready), but if you change your mind, it’s going to cost you a shitload of money. Divorce is very common in the military, and if you change your mind in a year or two, guess what? The fee isn’t small.
Within a year of arriving to my base, every single one of my peers in my shop was married. I was the only one who never made the leap. I can see why they did it. It got them out of the dorms, and they probably didn’t see the harm. But they barely knew these people before they arrived here. Should it be a surprise, then, to learn that most of them are now divorced, separated, or unhappy?
Think seriously about this kind of decision. It’s even more important to your life than joining the military. Remember, you won’t always be stuck in the dorms, which brings me to my next point…
4. After the Dorms, Life Gets Better
As I said before, I was stuck in the dorms for three years. It was terrible. Sure, I had a roof over my head and a Chow Hall to eat at, but by and large it was nothing like living on my own. I was 26 when I joined up, so I had plenty of time to live in the real world, rent apartments, cook my own meals, and so on. Giving all of that up to live in a room that is the size of half a bedroom is pretty brutal.
That is, of course, if you’re lucky enough to get your own room. Certain branches actually shack you up with one or more roommates, meaning you’ll rarely have any time to yourself at all. Good luck bringing home a girlfriend/boyfriend to that mess. Your place will either be so small or so crowded that you’ll learn the true meaning of claustrophobia. These rooms aren’t built for your pleasure (and neither is that mattress); it’s all about saving money at your expense, and there’s not much you can do about it.
But before you get all up in arms about your terrible living situation (and yes, it does suck complete and utter ass), just remember that in the end, it will get better. Like I already told you, the money increases, but there’s more to it than that. By the time you’re out of the dorms, you’ll have a lot more freedom to do what you want. It’s almost like graduating high school all over again and becoming an adult, even if you’re 28 years old (sigh). There’s no more room inspections, no more constantly cleaning your room because of the imminent threat of someone invading your non-existent privacy (thank Christ); there’s no more recycled garbage they call food getting forced down your throat at the Chow Hall, because now you’ve got the money to actually go out and buy groceries and cook your own damn meals (finally, you can stop praying that they’re serving spaghetti or steak, instead of baked fish); there’s no more giving up your Saturdays to go outside and trim the hedges or mow the lawns or scrub the stairs in the dorms because apparently the Wing Commander is coming by and your bosses want them to think your building isn’t complete dog shit (even though it clearly is). You are FREE. At long, long last, you are an adult.
3. If You Have A Degree, Be an Officer
Your recruiter is going to lie to you about this. They’re going to tell you that nobody is taking officers, or that it’s really hard to get into the program, or that you stand a low chance, even though you have a degree. Don’t listen to them. If they are an enlisted recruiter, they’re just trying to meet their quota (yes, they have quotas), and at the end of the day, they don’t give two shits about you. Sure, they might act like they do, and maybe they even believe what they’re telling you, but don’t listen to them. Go and track down an officer recruiter, which is different from the one you’re probably talking to now, and talk to them. Do your research and you’ll find that it is far more beneficial to go into the military as an officer than it is to be enlisted. Here’s why:
-Higher pay (almost twice as much as a new enlisted person)
-No dorms after tech school
-Much more respect
-Better chance to move around (officers generally only stay in one place for a few years)
Being an officer is like being a manager at a civilian business. You usually have a desk and you spend your time managing people and helping them; you’re instantly treated like an adult; and the pay is on an entirely different level. Being enlisted, on the other hand, is like being the factory worker, always getting your hands dirty, rarely receiving proper recognition for the labor you’re putting out there, and most people think you’re an idiot (and hell, sometimes you are). The two are completely different experiences, with officers clearly having it better.
According to a recent poll, only 58% of enlisted people actually felt like they were fulfilled, compared to 73% of officers. This statistic was true of everything from whether or not they felt they were being paid fairly to whether or not their promotion rates were fair. Officers were shown time and time again that they had the better quality of life.
Your recruiter will try to tell you that the enlisted side is more fun, that you’ll be able to do more and experience more, and maybe that’s true to some degree. But I’m here to tell you they’re full of shit. If you have a degree, be an officer. Don’t settle for the life of a teenager when you can be an adult—there’s just no reason to do that. I’ve never met an officer that hated their military experience, but I’ve known a LOT of enlisted folks who did.
If you can, for your own sake, become an officer. But if you never had the chance to go to school, but you still plan on joining anyway, this next one’s for you…
2. Make Sure You Go to School While You’re Still in the Military (Don’t Wait Until Later)
Most people who join the military do it for one of three or four reasons: because they’re desperate for a job and they need the stability; they want to travel the world and see new things; they feel like it’s genuinely what they’re meant to do and they want to serve their country; or they simply want an education without having to pay out their ass for it.
If you’re one of the people who actually wants to go to school, or if it’s just one of the many reasons you’re considering joining, then for the love of God, do it. Go to school. Don’t just sit there in your little bubble and tell yourself you’re going to do it eventually—actually fucking do it. I’ve met plenty of people who came in for the education benefits, only to watch them put it off repeatedly until eventually they just never went. If you wait until after you get out to finally start going, you’re screwing yourself over, and not in a fun or kinky way, either.
Let me explain. First, most people probably know that you get a free education when you join up. You’ve probably heard about the GI Bill, which basically pays for your degree. That’s all true, but here’s what your recruiter won’t tell you: it doesn’t cover all four years of a normal degree program. That’s right, it only covers three, or thirty six months to be exact.
Now hold on a minute, you could be thinking, I heard it pays for all my classes. Well sure, you’re right, it probably will (depending on the cost of your school, that is), but there are limitations. You’ll get exactly 36 months of housing and food allowance while you go to school, which means you won’t have to worry too much about paying the rent during that time, but since most degree programs are actually 48 months long (4 years), you’re going to find out that eventually, that rent money’s gonna be gone. If you’re smart about it, you’ve planned ahead and saved some of your money, but if you didn’t, well, it certainly sucks to be you.
So what do you do about it? How can you prevent that kind of situation? Well, there’s two things you can do.
First, if you join a branch of the military that has its own college (like the Air Force or Navy), you can get your Associate’s Degree for free (half of which is actually completed automatically by the time you finish tech school). You can then CLEP most of your remaining classes, which means you can just take a test and pass them (study guides are at your base library, FYI) instead of taking the whole class, and then you’ve got your two year degree in the bag. There you go, you’ve already saved yourself 24 months of your GI Bill, and you can do it in a year or less.
Second, there’s a program in the military called Tuition Assistance. TA is basically free money that you get every single year that is solely dedicated to your education. It has nothing to do with your GI Bill. Basically, you’re given access to $4800 of school money that you can use to take classes at any university or college you want. There’s a cap of what they’ll cover per credit hour, but most military friendly schools have a system in place that will make it easy. You can potentially earn a Bachelor’s Degree, a Master’s Degree, and a PhD, all while you’re still in the military. And yes, people have done it. Then, once you’re out, you’ve still got your GI Bill in your back pocket, which you can use for whatever education you still want.
1. Even if You Join and You Get Everything You Want, Your Job is Never Secure
In fact, it’s far from it.
During my four year stint in the Air Force, I witnessed the military cut (fire) tens of thousands of people. They do this because they realize they’re taking on too many people and that the budget simply doesn’t allow for it. Eventually, something’s gotta give, so why not just cut the salaries of thousands of innocent people? From a numbers perspective, it makes sense. Not only are these people sucking up money through benefits and pay, but the longer they’re in, the closer they get to retirement, which means they’ll get paid a stipend for the rest of their lives, and Lord knows we can’t have that. I’ve seen people get forced out of the military less than two years away from their retirement, all because they happened to work in a field that was downsizing and they didn’t qualify for retraining.
This year the military began having boards where, depending on your rank and job, you were judged on whether or not you deserved to stay. Who cares that you’d been in for six, twelve, or fifteen years. If they decide they don’t want you anymore, that’s it. You’re kicked to the curb and your retirement is probably gone. Oh, sure, if you’re lucky and they allow it, you might be able to keep a small fraction of it, but they don’t have to give it to you. You’re nothing to them, just another number on the page.
The military, you see, is becoming much more like a big corporation. The boys upstairs no longer make decision based upon what’s best for the individual soldier; instead, they’re looking at the numbers. More specifically, they’re looking at the budget, and right now the budget is dwindling.
Over the course of the last few years, especially during the government shutdown, the military has seen some major cuts, and with those cuts there have been mass firings. Some of these people were counting on making it to twenty years because they wanted to get that retirement, but not anymore. Not after they’re were abruptly let go and sent back to the civilian world. But that’s the reality of business, these days. Sometimes you have to make the tough calls.
In other words, if you’re going into the military and banking on retiring when you’re 38 years old, think again. None of that is in the contract you signed, and despite what your recruiter might tell you, most people never even make it that far.
In fact, according to the 2015 budget from Congress, the plan is to cut approximately 35,000 more troops, along with benefits from education, housing, and even healthcare and retirement. Still interested? If not, consider this next option…
Bonus Round: Consider the Guard or Reserves, Too
Your recruiter is probably going to tell you not to go Guard or Reserve, but as we’ve already covered, you can’t trust anything they say. If all you want is an education and you seriously don’t want to deal with the military lifestyle or the full-time commitment, join the Guard or Reserve. You instantly get your GI Bill, unlike the active duty side which requires you to wait THREE YEARS before you can touch it (although only one year before you can use your TA, thank God).
Even after you join the Guard, though, you can still go active. And I’m not talking about active duty military; I’m talking about Active Guard/Active Reserve. There’s a difference.
Active Guard/Reserve essentially places you in a normal full time position, just like if you were really active duty, but you’re working at your guard base and you’re in their program. You aren’t subject to the same rules as an active duty military member, which means you don’t live in the dorms, you aren’t forced to go to the Chow Hall, and you have much greater flexibility in your life (including going to school right away). Not only that, but Guard and Reserve personnel are largely much more relaxed due to the simple fact that many of them are only part timers and range in age and experience. If you’re looking for something that isn’t as rigorous and feels a little more relaxed, or if you want to start school immediately, consider this alternate route. You might be glad you did.
Still have questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments, or you can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org