The decision to join the military is one of the most significant choices a person can make and should never be made lightly. Service is a path that offers not just challenges and duties but also a range of benefits that extend beyond the term of your contract. Joining for the right reasons is crucial, but that does not mean you shouldn’t get out of the venture what you put in. The pay isn’t great, the food is often worse, but the other benefits more than make up the gap.
Professional Development and Skill Acquisition
One of the primary benefits of military service is the professional development it offers. Service members receive extensive training in a variety of fields, and each one is like a crash course. Instructors at the School of Infantry used to say “learn one, do one, teach one” in reference to the speed new skills can be picked up when you apply discipline and focus. Civilian organizations prefer to hire veterans for several reasons, but their ability to learn a task and then run it full speed is high on the list.
Leadership experience in the military is particularly noteworthy. Service members often find themselves in leadership roles at an early age, managing personnel and resources in high-pressure situations. While it might not feel like you’re in charge of much, consider this; an infantry squad leader, age 22, can be responsible for the lives of a dozen people and literal millions of dollars of government property, and that doesn’t even feel like a lot at the time. After that experience managing an office is as easy as waking up in the morning.
Educational Opportunities and Benefits
Education in the United States is ludicrously expensive, there are no two ways about it, but in the ongoing public discourse over loan forgiveness and the outrageous cost of student loans, those who served aren’t really paying much out of pocket. Education for the servicemember comes in many forms, from tuition assistance programs to college credits being given for military training. Basic training alone can rack up a significant number of credits. Certifications which can often be difficult to obtain and expensive can often be acquired on active duty by tracking down the right on base resources and simply filling out the right requests.
After transferring back to being a civilian, various types of GI Bill are available, which covers tuition, money for books, and an additional stipend for housing. Even online classes can offer you a little extra cash in your pocket while enrolled, so why not take advantage? If you already have a degree, or use all your GI Bill benefits, there are even more programs to reimburse higher level degrees or pay for certification programs.
Even if you join with existing student loan debt in your pocket, programs like the College Loan Repayment Program offer a means to reduce or eliminate that financial burden, providing a clear path to financial freedom.
Becoming a Superhero
While this may sound a bit hyperbolic, as you won’t receive any superpowers, I stand by it. What is the difference between the average civilian in his mid-20’s who thinks they would crush it during a zombie apocalypse and someone who served? One of them gets bitten on the first day because Call of Duty isn’t a training program, and the other ends up building a survivor community.
Military service is a unique experience that fosters immense personal growth. It challenges individuals physically and mentally, pushing them to discover their limits and capabilities. The discipline and resilience developed during service are qualities that benefit individuals throughout their lives. Absent resources or prep time, those who serve are often ready to take charge of a situation and work their way through it quickly… And they don’t clap when the plane lands.
Healthcare and Retirement Benefits
The double-edged sword of military healthcare is that it is comprehensive and free… But you’re more likely to need it. An acceptable risk when you consider 26 million Americans don’t have health insurance. Having said that, military health care and insurance covers everything anywhere. When my son was born (out of network, no less) it cost me $25. The average cost of childbirth in the United States is almost $19,000, and even with insurance you’re on the hook for around $3000 of that. With dental and vision included nothing stateside comes close.
In terms of retirement, the military provides one of the most generous pension plans. Service members who complete 20 years of service are eligible for a lifetime pension, a benefit that few civilian careers can match, especially in a system where corporations will try and get rid of you rather than pay out. Additionally, the Thrift Savings Plan offers a government-sponsored retirement savings and investment plan, similar to a 401(k). Diversification of your retirement accounts is always a good plan, but few products offer the stable growth of the TSP.
Community and Lifelong Connections
The bonds formed in the military often last a lifetime. Service members develop strong relationships with their comrades, forged through shared experiences and challenges, what the shrinks call “trauma bonding”. This sense of community extends beyond active service, with a vast network of veterans across the nation.
I met my best friend two decades ago (give or take) and after multiple combat tours, teaching at an officer’s infantry school, dealing with our post active-duty careers, and traveling all over the world, he is more of a brother to me than my own blood. These bonds are formed in military service like nowhere else on the planet, and alone make enlisting worth the ache in my knee when it rains.
If “friendship” sounds a little too soft for your tastes, consider the following. We all ‘know a guy’. If I need my HVAC looked at, my taxes done, my car upgraded for offroad, my rifle rebuilt, I know a guy. Veterans permeate all corners of society, and that network builds on itself exponentially. What’s better than having an expert in whatever you’re trying to do available for free (or a few beers and a pizza, that’s only fair)?
Making an Informed Decision
While the benefits of joining the military are substantial, it's also important to consider the challenges and sacrifices involved. Military service can entail rigorous physical demands, extended time away from family, and the potential for deployment in conflict zones. If anyone could do it, everyone would do it. There is a special mental fortitude required, much like steel is needed before a blade can be forged.
When you decide whether to stand on those yellow footprints or sign that contract, make sure you choose that path for the right reasons. It is possible to have an easy military career, certainly, but as we often say, some experiences may vary.