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.
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?