Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet: when an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice; when an impression forms, assure yourself first of its certainty.
The decision to enlist in the military is one of the most serious choices you can make. It should not be undertaken lightly, and all potential enlistees have an obligation to be 100% aware of exactly what they are doing, every step of the way. This means not only having a full awareness and understanding of the military—both the positive and negative aspects—but also a full awareness of the recruiting process. One of the gravest mistakes you can make is assuming that joining the military will make you an expert on military life and practices. You must educate yourself and walk into that recruiting office an expert already, versed in your rights, understanding of your goals, and aware of the potential dangers ahead. Hopefully, this chapter will help prepare you to make a decision about whether or not to enlist in the armed forces; however, it is not the end-all, be-all in recruiting information, and I strongly suggest that you draw your information from a broad base of resources, both in favor of and against enlistment.
If you are medically eligible for enlistment, then we move on to the other areas of consideration that the military takes into account in order to determine your eligibility. For example, age is a factor. Each branch of the military has specific age cutoff requirements (between twenty-seven and forty-two); however, many branches offer age waivers to persons interested in specific career fields. Citizenship is another factor considered. There is no foreign legion in the U.S. Military. In order to be eligible for enlistment, the potential recruit must be either a citizen or a legal (green-card-carrying) resident. Some branches will not take a recruit with dependents (children or spouses) under eighteen. Be sure to check the requirements of the branch that you are interested in joining prior to seeing a recruiter, since in addition to the criteria I’ve covered, many branches will be interested in your financial situation, educational achievement, and criminal history. After you have determined that you are eligible for service, take some time for introspection and review the goals and desired outcomes you hope to achieve through military service. What is it about the military that you find appealing?
For many, it’s the desire to serve their nation, as one of the modern “Warrior Class.” They see military service as a continuation of the knight/samurai traditions of old, and view the American military as a chance to, in their own way, have a seat at the “Round Table.” I believe that this mindset creates the best servicepeople . . . and the worst recruits. This is because these individuals are the ones most committed to honorable service, and usually feel a deep, spiritual connection to the codes of Bushido and chivalry that inspire them. However, this eagerness and idealized vision of military life can also create a great deal of naiveté, almost gullibility, when going through the enlistment process. The desire to believe that the military is everything one has hoped it would be, both in terms of practical details and honorable intentions, can be quite a blind spot for our would-be knights in shining armor.
The second category of potential recruit is what I call the modern-day Conscript. In feudal times, as armies were passing through villages and towns on their way to battle, they would force able-bodied men to accompany them: conscripting them into service against their will. This practice of conscription is the equivalent to our modern-era draft. Obviously, there is no draft today. But this does not mean that every person enlisting in the military today is eager for military service. A great many men and women enlist in the military because of economic pressures. Coming out of underprivileged areas of the country, often with little resources for education or job opportunities, these young people enlist because the military seems like the best, or only, way out of poverty. Those in the Conscript category are often enticed into the military by a combination of pop-culture influence and economic incentives. Most don’t plan on making a career out of armed service, and fewer still anticipate having to see combat. Those in this category are likely most susceptible to recruiters who are extremely talented at making the military seem like any other career move—safe, smart, and beneficial.
The final category I divide enlistees into is the Berserkers. These are the individuals who don’t need a recruiter to talk them into enlisting—they’ve been eagerly anticipating joining the military for most of their lives. There is a difference, though, between the Berserker and the Knight, who might also have dreamed of a military career. Whereas the Knight is most interested in the glory of war, the Berserker is most interested in the guts. Berserker-type troops are usually drawn toward the Special Forces, or other career fields that allow them to work within highly dangerous, highly violent areas. If they go into Infantry, the Berserkers are going to be eager for combat and excited by the opportunity to kill and be killed. Berserkers are less concerned with trivialities like rules of engagement than Knights or Conscripts. Like the Knights, they are likely to make a career of military service. Unlike the Knights, they tend to gauge their successes by the final body count.
Each of these categories has distinct positive and negative traits. The Knights are honorable in their motivations and courses of action, yet prone to being gullible. The Conscripts are engaged and willing to sacrifice, yet often reluctant to act. And the Berserkers never hesitate to act, but must be wary of their tendency toward viciousness. To offer a (perhaps flawed) example of each, the soldiers at Iwo Jima were Knights; at Abu Ghraib, Conscripts; and at Mai Lai, Berserkers. There is no rule that says that someone with a Berserker or Conscript nature cannot excel within the military. In fact, I believe that nearly every personality type drawn to military service has the potential for excellence—so long as they are fully aware of their strengths and limitations and comfortable working both mentally and spiritually with every aspect of their nature.
I hope, however, that this exploration of archetypes will help you be more aware of your own innate strengths and weaknesses as we prepare to explore the recruitment process. Any drill sergeant will tell you that being aware of your limitations is the first step toward confronting and conquering them. I believe it is vital that you come into a full understanding of your own nature prior to committing yourself to any military contract.
What Your Recruiter CAN Promise You
The simplest rule is this: “If it goes into your contract, it can be promised.” So, things like bonuses, college aid, and term of enlistment can be promised while factors like final duty station cannot. This is an important thing to realize before entering into the decision to sign a military enlistment contract. Many recruiters, with the best of intentions, will make the military seem incredibly flexible. I’ve had young people tell me that they were promised that the military would train them as DJs or photographers if they enlisted. It is understandable that people—especially young people—would become incredibly excited to learn that not only can they serve their country in uniform, but they can do so without ever serving in a “dangerous” place and they can pursue their dreams of (insert groovy civilian job here) while earning money for college. It may come as a shock to realize that this is not always the case.
Honestly, the best candidate for military service is the one who wants to serve in the military. This may seem rather obvious, but there are a great number of recruits joining the military today not because they want to serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, or some other combat theatre, not because they are interested in training for a military career as a rifleman, convoy driver, or gunner, but because they need college money or need a job and see the military as a steppingstone toward their ultimate long-term civilian aspirations. These people are not dissuaded by the military recruiter. No one in the recruiting office is going to inform them of the other options they have available to them in order to succeed in their civilian goals. Military recruiters are, at their essential core, salesmen. And much like the guy selling cars, houses, or appliances, their job is to make sure that what they’re selling looks like what you want to buy.
I don’t want anyone to think that I’m insulting recruiters—they perform a necessary function for the military today and are a great help to those potential enlistees who are truly interested in a career in the armed forces. Recruiters are quite helpful at explaining enlistment standards and regulations, and if you have grown up knowing that you will never be happy unless you put on that blue or green or white uniform, the recruiter is your best friend. They will do everything in their power to help you succeed in your military aspirations. But if you fall into the former category—the person who desperately wants to be in radio, the arts, medicine, law, or journalism, and sees the military as a simple and relatively easy path toward that goal—then caveat emptor. The recruiters have goals and quotas of their own to meet, and they will do everything in their power to shape the image of the military into whatever you most want it to be, regardless of what the likelihood or the benefit truly is. Know yourself and your goals before you set foot into the recruiter’s office. If you want nothing else in life than to serve in the armed forces, you are in the right place! If, however, you are viewing the military as a tool rather than as a goal, spend some time evaluating your motivations and your alternatives before you sign on that dotted line.
What Your Recruiter CANNOT Promise You
“Laws and regulations that govern military personnel may change without notice to me. Such changes may affect my status, pay, allowances, benefits, and responsibilities as a member of the Armed Forces REGARDLESS of the provisions of this enlistment/reenlistment document.” This is just a bit of the fine print on the back of a standard enlistment contract. It is vitally important that everyone considering enlistment understand that the act of enlistment is a commitment to the unknown. Regardless of what the recruiter says, the playing field can and probably will change at some point in your career. It is up to you to decide if this is a situation you can live with. Military enlistment is a deeply personal decision and one that must be entered into with eyes open, and with an alert and discerning mind.
When, after research and contemplation, you have decided to sit down with a military recruiter and discuss your potential military future, it is important to be aware of what a recruiter can and cannot promise you. I would like to thank Rod Powers, the U.S. Military Guide at About.com, for his assistance with this section. Mr. Powers was an invaluable resource and aid to me throughout the research process, and I cannot thank him enough. I highly recommend that anyone considering pursuing a career in the military spend as much time as possible reviewing his site; it’s an absolute wealth of information.
One of the first things to understand is that recruiters are required to meet certain quotas in order to maintain their military record. This means that their primary goal is to get signatures on contracts—not to act as a career planner or to look out for your personal interests. Most recruiters are honorable, honest people who are simply doing the task they’ve been assigned to fulfill; however, that task involves getting more people into a uniform—everything else comes second. Recruiters operate under a great deal of pressure from their commanders, and this stress can unfortunately lead to instances of less than upfront or honest behavior. I strongly recommend that anyone planning on meeting with a recruiter (and everyone joining the military will have to do so at some point) remember the following tips:
1. Get everything in writing. If it doesn’t go into your enlistment contract, then it doesn’t count. Verbal assurances from your recruiter count for nothing when it comes to determining your career field, duty station, and a great many other factors that the average recruit is concerned about.
2. Take someone with you. I cannot stress this enough! I am a firm believer in using the buddy system when meeting with recruiters, and I personally feel that the person who accompanies you should be someone who is not personally considering military service. You need a critical ear, a voice of reason on your side, because the recruiter is there for the hard sell.
3. No matter how well the meeting goes, or how appealing the facts presented are, take some time to think about it before you sign an enlistment contract. Never, ever sign anything on your first trip to the recruiter. Take a few days or even a week or two to talk to family and friends, and, if possible, meet some current service personnel and ask their advice.
Once the decision has been made to enlist, you’ll want to know what a recruiter can and cannot promise. The following sections offer a brief overview of what you need to know before you sign on the dotted line.
In 2005, all military recruiters were required to undergo ethics training, in response to an embarrassing rash of “less than honest” recruiters making national news. Again, I want to stress that the vast majority of recruiters are honorable, honest people. However, there are times when the stress of the recruiting numbers game wears them down and it’s all too easy to slip into habits of not really lying but not really telling everything. So, in the interest of making sure that everyone who joins the armed forces does so as a fully informed, educated, and prepared adult, I will discuss a few of the most common inaccuracies used by recruiters.
“You won’t see combat.” The fact is that you are joining the military and, frankly, odds are good that at some point in your career you will see some kind of hostile duty. Regardless of whether you are joining the military for the college benefits or because you truly want to build a career there, you must understand exactly what you are signing up to do. Many young people considering enlistment think that if they don’t sign up for a career in Infantry, Special Forces, or Armory, then they’ll never be sent to the front lines. The unfortunate reality of modern warfare is that there are no front lines—when you are in country, the front lines are everywhere. A sobering reminder of this is the fact that Shoshanna Johnson, one of the first prisoners of war (POWs) captured in the Iraq War, was a member of the 507th Maintenance Company. She was a woman (technically “barred” from frontline combat) and a cook, and yet not only did she “see combat,” but she was captured and held prisoner for twenty-two days. Yes, career paths matter. You might never be asked to carry a weapon. But the fact remains, if you wear the uniform, you might see combat. There are no exceptions.
“You’re more likely to be murdered in any American city than to be killed in combat.
This is one inaccurate recruiting promise that Mr. Powers addresses beautifully. It wasn’t originally on my list of “unauthorized promises,” but I believe that it should be addressed. I’ll quote Powers directly: “On average, 50 military members are killed in action and 481 are wounded in action each month in Iraq. The Army and the Marine Corps bear the brunt of these casualties. While the numbers fluctuate somewhat from month to month depending on rotation schedules, there are about 133,000 troops deployed to Iraq at any given time. If you live in a city with a population of 133,000 and you have 50 murders per month and 481 violent crimes per month which result in injuries, I’d move, if I were you.” His analysis is absolutely correct. There are certain groups that are called “heroes”: police officers, firefighters, and military personnel among them. They are called heroes because they face incredible danger every day in order to do their job. Ultimately, regardless of what career field you enter into, the military is an inherently dangerous job. In most cases, this is true, with a few exceptions. If you undertake training for your selected career field and fail the required courses, then you may be reassigned to any needed MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) position at your commander’s discretion. However, even if you complete your training, pass the courses, and obtain the ratings necessary to work in your chosen field, you may get to your duty station and find out that the unit has too many already, or that your career path has been eliminated. In these cases, you’ll be retrained for another function—again, one of your commanding officer’s choosing. Finally, in combat situations, all bets are off. If a task is needed, the position will be filled, and the fact that you were trained to be a radio operator (for example) will mean very little when they hand you the keys to the Humvee and tell you to hit the road with the next convoy. Most of the time, your career choices will be honored, but it’s important to be aware of the exceptions as well. Make sure your career preference is written into the enlistment contract exactly as you express it, but understand that extenuating circumstances will sometimes prevail.
These two go hand in hand: "If you don't like the military, you can always quit" and "If you try to back out of your contract, you'll go to jail." The secret is that you have every right to change your mind up until the day you leave for basic training. They will not arrest you, deprt you, revoke your citizenship, or ruin your life in any other way. They will put a lot of pressure on you to stay. They will remind you of the educational benefits, career training, bonuses, and lots of other potential perks(be sure you've done your independent research!), but they cannot have you arrested for changing your mind. As long as your decision is made before you get on the bus. Once you arrive at basic, the story changes. You cannot simply "drop out" of basic. Yes, there is such a thing as "failure to adapt," which can result in your discharge from the military before completing basic, but keep this in mind: it is a drill instructor's job to break down all your civilian habits, patterns, and ways of thinking in order to create a soldier, airman, sailor, or marine. In short... drill instructors are there to make you adapt, and they will use every technique in their book to do this before they ever consider you for a failure to adapt discharge. This makes perfect sense when one considers the amount of time and financial resources that are put into every recruit, even prior to their arrival at basic. It is in the best interest of the military to ensure that this investment is not lost. Therefore, those who do not adapt easily (or at all) to their new environments can face being “recycled” through training over again in the hope that they can indeed adapt if given enough time. Those hoping to exit the military after they’ve arrived at basic face an uphill battle, and, while it’s not impossible, they must be absolutely unshakable in their desire to leave. The drill instructors are used to dealing with fear, rebellion, and anxiety, and they do not give up on their recruits easily. Any potential to create a solider will be exploited—that is, after all, the goal. You have rights and options available to you after you sign your contract, but you must exercise them before you begin your training.
"You can sign up for a year or two and when you're done, you're done."
The reality is, any enlistment contract (even the new short-term “trial” enlistment) actually commits you to a potential eight years of service, in the active-duty military, the Reserves, or the Individual Ready Reserves (IRR). The IRR allows the military to recall you to active duty for several years after your enlistment contract expires. The Department of Defense has also been issuing “stop-loss” orders, which allow personnel in the field to be retained by the military involuntarily for an indefinite period of time, until their services are no longer required. Stop-loss orders have been used by all branches of the military at one time or another, but only the Army and the Marines have exercised this option in recent years. Regardless of what your enlistment contract states, you are signing up for a total of eight years of potential military service
If, as you pursue military enlistment, you encounter claims from recruiters that sound too good to be true, they very well might be. I highly recommend Mr. Powers’s website, usmilitary.about.com, as well as www.military.com and www.militaryonesource.com to fact- and reality-check their claims before you sign anything.