Is the Military Right for Me?

Military Officer

Careers in the Military

This is a big question, but it can be broken down into smaller ones that are easier to answer. Some of the most important questions are listed below; if you feel like you have good answers to all these, you should be able to proceed with more confidence. If you're not sure about some of them (or really worried about one), you may want to give it more thought, talk to some people with military experience, or continue doing research into what will be involved. If you're worried about most of them, the military is probably not a good fit for you.

The Questions

1. Why do you want to join? This may come as a shock, but it's best to have thought about this decision carefully and have (good!) reasons why you want to join before committing to it. Some typically solid reasons*:
  • You feel strongly about wanting to serve for your country. So long as you have this feeling yourself, and are realistic enough to know that there's more to the experience than patriotism (you're not guaranteed to always like your leadership, what you're doing, or who you're working with), serving because you think it's the right thing to do is rarely a bad reason.
  • You want to improve yourself — your character, your self-discipline, your skill set, etc. The military does offer fast and hard life experience of a unique kind, and those who join tend to mature rapidly. And, for certain professions (like medics), military service can also offer early hands-on experience that can give you a leg-up into your chosen field later.
  • You want the benefits: a steady income, health care, and/or money for education. Self-explanatory. However, if the benefits are all you're after, definitely consider service in the Reserves or National Guard first, as the conditions of service are usually much more flexible.
  • You think you would benefit from a stronger sense of community. Those who join the military often find a sense of tight-knit friendship or even family there. If you come from a background lacking a support system like that, gaining one could be an empowering experience that sticks with you for the rest of your life.

 *Keep in mind, none of these end goals work if you are not also fully aware of and comfortable of all that will be required of you in the military to achieve them. And a lot will be required.

Some typically questionable reasons:
  • There's a family tradition of service that you're trying to live up to. You are the one who's going to have to live through this for the next few years, and you're going to need your own internal motivation to make it work. Above all, don't do this just to please someone else.
  • You don't think you can hold down a regular job. Being in the military is still a job, just with higher standards and harsher conditions than most other entry-level positions by far. If there are things holding you back from being successful in civilian life, they will likely keep you from being successful here as well.
  • You want to get in shape. Join a gym. A lot more is going to be asked of your character than of your muscles.
  • You want praise. Nope. Wanting to earn self-respect is one thing, but again, you can't do this for anyone else's approval.
  • You want to get into a position of power — whether over other soldiers, civilians, or foreign citizens. There's a reason it's called "serving". This is no place for a power trip, and any actions coming out of a motivation like that can cause lasting damage in more ways than one. Aside from which, it's not like other soldiers are going to be impressed by your superiority complex.
2. How does the military fit into your 'plan' for the next few years? (Trying to go career military? Job experience for four years and then get out? College or trade school afterwards?) This question is not about making sure you know exactly what you're doing for the next 10 years. Instead, just be able to picture ways the military might help you get to the future you want down the road. Are you hoping for work experience (or life experience)? Are you trying to get a financial leg up into a different sort of work? In what ways do you picture the military contributing to your success in the long run? And, on the other hand, in what ways might several years in the military hold you back from other things you want to do? If military service is only going to disrupt or delay the future you want for yourself (it's going to be a lot harder to date anyone, for example, and four years in the military is four years you aren't in college or beginning a different career), consider whether your reasons for wanting to join actually outweigh those costs. Maybe you're not concerned because you have no idea what you want in the long run — but if that's the case, do you really want to sign a completely binding four-year contract with anything, let alone something this demanding of all your time and energy? What if you do figure out what you want for yourself, but have to wait 3+ years to pursue it? 3. Is your character a fit? There's no one personality type that succeeds or fails in the military, but the job being what it is ("99% boredom and 1% sheer terror"), having certain characteristics can make it a lot easier. Some good things to be: adaptable, hard-working, respectful, level-headed, good under pressure, willing to work (and sacrifice) for the good of the group, willing to obey authority and, eventually, willing to pick up some of the responsibilities of authority yourself. Some things that will make it harder: an urge to question authority, a preference for cutting corners, getting nervous under pressure, highly competitive, a strong attachment to creature comforts (good beds, air conditioning, etc.), the tendency to get bored with routine and, on the flipside, the craving to keep only to a known routine. 4. Are you physically and mentally fit to serve? You will not  get into the military if you don't meet the minimum requirements for physical and mental health, but even beyond that, you should feel relatively confident in your ability to live up to everything that is going to be demanded of you. Basic training will be about testing your limits, making you fail, and then making you stronger; does this feel like something you can handle? Do you physically trust your body to stand up to punishment? And mentally, even if you haven't been clinically diagnosed with anything, do you often deal with psychological hurdles (heightened anxiety, for example) that are likely to make your time in the military too difficult to be worth it? 5. Will the people in your life support you during your service? If you think they won't, are you okay with this? Joining the military, you will be going far from home, living among strangers, and facing an entirely different way of life than what you're used to. Everything gets easier with time, and strangers won't all remain strangers, but this is still likely to be an enormous adjustment for you — and it's going to be hard on the people who love you as well. Are you on the same page with the important people in your life? Do they support your decision to join the military, or at least understand it? This is, ultimately, something you can only do for yourself. If you can't get support from your family or friends, that may just have to be what it is. But, if that's the case, are you prepared to deal with the fallout of your decision? Are you ready to go face this new challenge on your own?  

Final Note:

If you're still interested in exploring a future with the military, one last recommendation would be to check out "What The Recruiter Never Told You" over at usmilitary.about.com. It offers a look at what the military is like and how it actually works broken down into 14 different categories (such as pay, housing, assignments, promotions, etc.), so if you're serious about getting to know what you'd be signing up for, this would be a great place to start.

Next Step: Choosing a Branch

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