Joining the Military During a Drawdown

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A reader writes:

Nords, can you talk to me about my son joining the military?

Here are some things we are wondering about. Times are changing and the way it’s run doesn’t give the kids the options like they used to. For example we are told they are releasing them at four years and not letting them sign back up. A recruiter recommended that if he goes in to get everything he needs out of the four years period. There also seems to only be openings in Army infantry? My son wants to work with computers. He had originally wanted a plan like yours and I still will probably get him your book but it looks like “retiring” from the military is now only going to be for the very top and most highly educated people? What are you hearing and do you have any advice?

There seems to be some misconceptions out there about military benefits. I think people confuse active service benefits with 20 year military retirement ones. I worry so much for the boys at his school who have poor grades and think that the military is the way they will get ahead in life. With the cuts this may no longer be a way to accomplish that.

From the military’s perspective, the next few years will be terrible because the wars are winding down and the government is slashing DoD’s budget. The personnel staffs have to cut back on recruiting, although they still need E-1s and O-1s to fill in for the servicemembers who are promoted.

From your son’s perspective (or at least a parent’s), this could be a great time to join. The wars are winding down, fewer servicemembers are getting shot at, and everyone should be doing more training in garrison instead of deploying. However, budgets still get cut so there’s a squeeze on benefits (like tuition assistance), training suffers (not enough fuel or ammunition), wages don’t grow very fast, and promotions are slow. Meanwhile the servicemembers with a year or two of seniority are getting the good deals and the recruits might feel that life seems miserably stagnant.

Servicemembers seeking advanced training usually have to agree to longer enlistments. Infantry troops (with shorter enlistments) tend to leave the service at a higher rate while tech fields and advanced specialties may be overfull. Recruiters have to make their own monthly quotas (in numbers as well as specialties) so they don’t always have a full slate of choices every month. They also can’t guarantee re-enlistments, although people in the top third of any specialty can probably count on a career.

So here’s my advice, which might be tough love– or a realistic perspective on corporate downsizing.

Don’t Join the Military Just for the Retirement Benefits

Nobody should plan an entire career around the retirement benefits. It’s impossible to predict your attitude that far ahead, and it’s too big of a commitment to mentally lock yourself into. Join the service for the training, for the chance to fulfill your potential, to be part of something bigger than yourself, for the teamwork, for the incredible responsibility at a very young age, and maybe for the GI Bill. But don’t expect to stay for a military retirement any more than you’d expect to have the same civilian job at the same company for 20 years.

Look at the Skills, Not Just the Lifestyles

Your son might want to consider all of the services, no matter what he’s seen or heard. Focus on the training and the specialty, not the uniform. “We’re an Army family” or “My best friend joined the Air Force” or “I get seasick” are terrible reasons to pick one service over another. The Army might want infantry or medics but the Air Force also needs technicians, the Marines need leaders, and the Navy needs all of them in its own communities. If he’s looking for technical training (computers, electronics, or mechanics) then I’d highly recommend the Air Force or the submarine force or the Marines as well as the Army. There’s also plenty of tech in Navy air and surface ships. If he’s looking for incredible leadership and teamwork then I’d go Marines or Army Ranger. The Air Force has the highest quality of life and the highest percentage of servicemembers staying until retirement but it might bear the brunt of the drawdown and the budget cuts. The Navy could come through the drawdown better than the Army, although all the services will suffer. I understand if your son feels that only one service is for him, but he needs to explore all of his options before he makes a choice due to misplaced affinity.

Many people dismiss the submarine force out of hand because of claustrophobia or being underwater. However, in the rest of the military, he could also be spending his computer time in a windowless building or an underground bunker or in miserable weather. I think all of the services require computer skills, but in the submarine force, he’ll literally be surrounded by computer systems. More importantly, he’ll be surrounded by people who will make him part of the team, cross-train him in other skills, and push him to do his best. It’s probably the same culture in any part of the service where you have to volunteer for special duty.

Study the ASVAB and the SATs

If he wants his choices from the day he takes the oath then he has to nail the top scores on every part of the ASVAB. Study guides will help with this, and their cost is cheap considering the future benefit. When he has the scores then he can shop the recruiters and see if they’ll match another service’s best offer. He may want your help at parsing the enlistment contract to discern “good-faith promises” from “guarantees”. If he wants advanced technical training he may also be asked to sign up for six years instead of four. This can be a very intimidating obligation but it’s well worth the price in skills and promotions, both in the military and afterward.

He might want to consider ROTC, which pays all tuition and gives him a stipend. (ROTC does not pay for room & board.) The first year is totally free of obligation but the second through fourth years carry an enlistment payback if he drops out. If he has at least 600 verbal & 600 math on his SATs then I recommend learning about service academies. If he’s not granted a service-academy nomination on the first round then he may be sent to a one-year prep school with a guaranteed appointment to the next service academy class. (Some caveats– ROTC and service academies have an age cutoff of being less than 26 years old at graduation, and service academy students can’t be married or parents.) The irony is that if he doesn’t feel ready for college now, then 12-18 months after enlisting he’ll realize that college is a better deal than he thought.

Take Some College Classes

If he decides to enlist instead of going to college, then his goal should be to complete that 4-6-year obligation while doing some undergraduate courses on the military’s tuition assistance money (when the TA funding cuts are restored) and his own time. (After his enlistment he’ll have the GI Bill with a housing stipend.)

Nobody can predict what military retention will be in the next few years, and he can’t predict how he’ll feel near the end of his obligation. If he likes what he’s doing then he can apply to re-enlist and see how it works out. If he doesn’t like it then he can go into the Reserves or National Guard (for the camaraderie and the income) while pursuing a college degree. He could combine Reserve/Guard duty with federal or state civil service, or leave the military behind and go his own way for a civilian career. Linkedin has a huge military/veterans network, and after a decade of war once again the employers appreciate what veterans can do for them.

Volunteer for Advanced Training in Any Service

If, after exploring all of the other choices he still chooses Army infantry, then I suggest he try for the Rangers. He has to have physical potential but the Rangers offer plenty of practice. They’re experts at safely building muscle & endurance while showing trainees how to do more than they ever thought possible. The Rangers are seeking the intensely hypercompetitive hard-driven young adult who won’t quit and who can work with a team. Only volunteers can be Rangers, and it requires more persistence and cognition than just showing up for the physical training. It also requires computer skills. I highly recommend a library copy of Dick Couch’s “Sua Sponte”, or I can introduce you to Rangers and other Army experts.

Related articles:
Guest post on Early Retirement Extreme: Join the Military to Get Rich and Retire Early?
Joining the Military to Retire Early – The Rest of the Story
Should You Join the Reserves or National Guard?

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

22 Comments
  1. Anything about Medical Waivers??….I got an AC surgery where they fixed it using a screw and wire which I can’t take out….I was cleared to wrestle in college and have full ROM….chances of being able to join during the drawdown??

    • It’s possible, Dan, but the recruiter will have a doctor do a full evaluation during the entry physical as part of granting the waiver.

      After that it depends on what specific skills the military is seeking and what you’re willing to sign up for. The best way to sort out the options is to visit the recruiter and start the conversation.

  2. Doug, I have a question. I’m a Vet of 15 years, I did 11 active duty Navy, and then 4 more in the Army and Air National Guards. I got out in 2000, and now looking to go back and work towards my retirement. I called the Navy Recruiter and was told my break in service was too long. Do you know if this is waiverable? I meet the requirements, I have 10 years to complete 4 years and change, for 20 years of service. Thanks!!

    • Many of the Navy’s entrance (or re-entrance) requirements can be waived, but I don’t know whether the Navy would be willing to waive your age or your break in service. It depends on how undermanned the service is for the skills you have, and also on what other undermanned specialties you’d be willing to serve in. I’ve served with a submariner who had a 16-year break in service, but he was willing to convert to a new rate and re-enter at a lower rank.

      If you haven’t done so already, I’d recommend visiting your local Navy recruiter in person, and ask them about drilling in a Reserve unit as well.

  3. This is something that concerns me. I am currently working to get into shape to join the Army, Im just worried that they wont have my desired MOS open. I was looking into the Civil Affairs MOS and doing Active Duty if thats possible, or possibly PsyOps. Do you know if those are still sought after MOS’s by recruits? Thanks

    • Good question, Matt!

      The Army tracks all of their MOSs against their expected requirements versus recruiting, and they’ll adjust the MOS openings as necessary. Summers (after high-school graduations) can be the busiest times for demand in a particular MOS. If you’re ready to go now, don’t delay. If you’re ready later, then consider a Delayed Entry Program enlistment now for your desired MOS, and keep working with the recruiter to get in shape.

      Go talk to your recruiter and see how the forecast is shaping up.

  4. The big thing I noticed in the Marine Reserves was the difference between when they have you by the ba**s, versus when you are an ‘at-will-employee’.
    If you sign up for a regular USMC contract it is usually 4×4, meaning 4 years active duty and 4 years IRR.
    The usual initial USMCR contract is 6×2, meaning 6 years with a Reserve unit (SMCR) and 2 years in the IRR.
    During those first 6 years you are called an ‘obligor’: they have you by the b***s. Any time after that, in the IRR, you are an ‘at-will employee’. If you don’t like the job you can quit at any time. If the unit doesn’t like you, they can drop you anytime (more or less).
    The USMC has ‘operationalized’ the Reserves, which basically means you WILL deploy even if the Soviets don’t invade West Germany. The expected schedule is at least once every 5 years, so for a typical USMCR enlistment you’ll deploy once or twice, guaranteed.
    After that, your career is up to you. Many Reservists join and detach units based on their personal preferences. Good job, good leadership: stick around. Crap job, bozo in charge: see you later.
    There are a lot of opportunities for IRR Marines to earn a paycheck, long and short term. Contact me or Nords if you are a Marine in need of a paycheck because you got laid off or are between semesters.
    s/f

  5. Traditionally the Reserves is a ‘stay put’ type of military career. Very few Reservists move around to different jobs. I’m an anomaly in that I have 5 AFSCs and have had jobs all over the Air Force (except the Pentagon). My experience with a unit as a commander was that most had come in as Reservists and stayed that way – also, most had stayed in the same squadron or at the same base as their civilian job had priority, so they stayed where their civilian position was or moved if their civilian position moved (civilian in this case meaning most federal government employees, state government employees, contractors and those of us who had jobs outside the military-industrial complex). So, a Reserve career starting as a Reservist is a choice. Most came in thinking they’d only have to do the 1 weekend a month, 2 weeks a year – Iraq and Afghanistan has disavowed any of that, however, currently deployments have slowed down considerably. In fact, if there is no continuing resolution, I’ve been told there is no money to pay for any Reserve duty – in the Air Force parlance RPA money which pays for IDTs and Annual tour. Non-pay points may be required to make the minimal 50 points this year. It’s amazing how times rotate…..went through this in the late 80’s early 90’s with the Berlin Wall demise and peace dividend. Lucky to get 50 points a year then.

    • Thanks, Deserat! I’ve heard that the funding faucet has pretty much shut off for the Navy Reserve as well, although that could change as the continuing resolution works through the process.

      The drawdown has to be a reason that so many readers are researching Reserve retirement here.

  6. Nords-

    What’s your take on a young person going straight into the Reserves/Guard?

    The tuition assistance cut has me temporarily frosted since this essentially amounts to a 30-40% pay cut for a traditional reservist looking to go to school, but there are still some great programs out there with more options and vacancies than active duty. I’ve also heard folks (myself included) referencing the accountability that comes with reserve drilling/duty being a helpful factor in their civilian career and schooling as well.

    What are the various services’ opinions of folks who have never been on active duty? I think I’ve got the Air Force’s take, but I’d like to hear some others.

    Thanks for the great post.
    R/
    LB

    • Absolutely, LB, the Reserves & Guard are a great option for those who can’t (or don’t want to) obligate for active duty.

      I see the TA suspensions as a way to incite a PR backlash against the defense budget cutbacks. I’m sure there are other cuts taking place that will never make the press, but the services could have reduced their TA percentage or limited the amount per servicemember. It also annoys the heck out of me that defense contractors are discovering “new efficiencies” to keep their people working. Apparently those efficiencies were not detectable until the sequester helped them focus on their finances?

      A friend of mine in her 40s joined the National Guard after her divorce. It’s turned out to be a great support for her, financially and professionally as well as personally. However I’ve also read that you have only achieved the proper balance among your Reserve/Guard chain of command, your civilian boss, and your family– when all three are equally pissed off at you.

  7. I lived through lean years in the 90’s military and we still managed to have a good time. I say go for it if your heart is in the right place! If your reader’s son is still considering Army, feel free to put him in touch with me. I’d be happy to talk with him.

    • Good points, Jan, Mike– every time we draw down I hope that personnel computing systems have advanced enough to avoid the mistakes of the previous drawdowns. I take it personally: submarine officers in YG96 are practically guaranteed command these days because of the deep recruiting cuts imposed during the 1990s drawdown, and all of the Navy warfare communities are concerned about the quality of their current group of COs.

      Mike, I’ll send a note to the reader and point him to your blog.

  8. I highly reccomend another recruiter in a different town. Different recruiters, different opinions, different quota. Obviously, this recruiter needs to fill infantry.
    Otherwise, I agree with everything you have said. Other then the Army, the other services have already slimmed down. The Army is moving fast and furious. It is the 1980’s all over again…without the benefits.

  9. From what I understand, the Army won’t enlist you ‘open contract’, so a new enlistee will know what his specialty (MOS) will be before he ships to boot camp. If you don’t like the MOS, don’t sign the contract. It might help to wait a few months until the MOS you want opens up. The Marines will take you open contract, and it’s likely you’ll end up in the infantry, but you could just as easily be a cannoneer, a cook, a truck driver, or whatever else they are short of when you finish boot camp.

    It is entirely possible that good service members will not be allowed to re-enlist after 4 years. I saw that happen in the Marines in ’92-’96. If they were allowed to re-enlist they often had to change MOS to do so.

    I think serving in uniform is full of opportunities for someone looking to ‘get ahead in life.’ You’ll have decent pay and a lot of responsibility early. But it is no free ride — it can be a life of privation and hardship, especially for junior enlisted.

    Be aware that most (>50%) Americans age 17-22 years old can’t even qualify to get in the service — they dropped out of HS, have a criminal record, are overweight, or are completely out of shape. Not everyone walking into a recruiting station will be accepted.

    As for Nords’s comments of submarine duty: some of the most motivated, intelligent sailors I met, with the highest job satisfaction, were in the submarine force. On the other hand, all sailors are looking at longer deployments with fewer port calls these days due to budget cuts for ship building and maintenance.

    So sign up for 4 years if you think you’ll like it, and adjust your plans from there.

    • Thanks, Rob, good advice on the MOS.

      Around here a recruit can join the Marines on a delayed entry– among other reasons, perhaps to wait for an opening in a particular skill? While they’re waiting, they’re “invited” to participate several times per month in supervised PT with active-duty Marine volunteers and retired Marines (particularly those involved in JROTC). Of course that depends on the amount of time & money and the quality of the recruits, but it keeps the recruits motivated and helps them gain a little more perspective on what they’re getting into…

      • I think delayed entry is usually used for timing purposes, e.g. sign up now, ship out after HS graduation. Any more detail than that is beyond my experience.

        • Every time I think I have a program figured out, I learn about an exception or a change…

        • I figure at this point in the comments I’ll “keep my mouth shut and be thought a fool, rather than opening it and removing all doubt.”

          Your warning there was when I said, “I think …”

  10. Hi Nords, What a geat post! If I were 17-18 again, I’d have a lot of new options to consider rather than just heading off to the local university.

    • Thanks, Jay! I think that’s how many servicemembers end up in the military– for a variety of reasons they’re just not ready for or not interested in the local university.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?