Here’s a relatively complicated post about an apparently straightforward subject, and I’m counting on you servicemembers & veterans to cover anything that I miss!
A reader writes:
“I was curious whether there are any benefits for people who got an honorable discharge after finishing the six-year obligation they signed up for but chose to not stay in until military retirement.”
Before I get into the long list, let me start with the summary: job skills, education, and experience.
But don’t join the military just for the job skills, the educational benefits, and the experience.
Perhaps you don’t want to go to college and you’re having trouble finding a civilian job, so the military seems like a good idea. Maybe you’ll join the military to get away from your neighborhood. But the best reasons to join the service are for the chance to fulfill your potential and be part of something bigger than yourself. Do it for the challenge, for the teamwork, and for the incredible responsibility at a young age.
Let’s start with the military benefits page of “Today’s Military”, the Department of Defense’s website for young adults curious about military service. Their disclaimer says it as well as I can:
“The environments can be dangerous. The conditions can be challenging. The stakes are always high. And though 91 percent of military jobs are not in direct combat operations*, rigorous personal demands are the rule. It requires self-discipline, education, intense physical work and a dedication to excellence. Deployments can mean extended periods away from friends and family.”
[* Note for servicemembers & veterans reading this post: only nine percent of military jobs are considered direct combat?!? What do we call the rest? “Indirect combat”?]
As a geezer spouse & parent, let me be blunt: you can be killed or permanently disabled. The odds are a fraction of a percent (perhaps a little higher than police forces or firefighters) but it’s happened to thousands of servicemembers over the last decade. You may discount these odds (especially if you’re focused on the opportunities) but your loved ones will worry.
If you’re hoping for a nice safe office job which just happens to require a military uniform, be aware that hundreds of thousands of other recruits before you have had the same idea. If those “safe” jobs ever existed, they’re already filled. It’s difficult to join for a billet in logistics, maintenance, personnel, or other “non-combatant” roles. (Servicemembers in these areas have also seen significant combat over the last decade, too, but in smaller numbers.) Even if you do aspire to one of these occupations, they’re the first to be cut during a drawdown– especially if they can be outsourced to a civilian contractor. If you join the military, assume that you will encounter combat. You will not be disappointed.
With that disclaimer out of the way, next I’m going to review the benefits you’ll receive while you’re on active duty. When I started writing this post, I realized that many veteran’s benefits are based on your service and follow you in some form after you leave the military. Here are the main categories of active-duty benefits:
- Compensation (pay & perks)
- Education support
Your military pay starts out low: poverty-line low. However, your pay normally rises a little each year and you have the opportunity to earn several promotions. You’re highly likely to have a job for the next six years, too– military layoffs are rare.
The perquisites that come with the pay are better than those of a civilian entry-level job, and your employment expenses are much lower. You’re fed, clothed, and housed for free (but you won’t have to live with your parents). Your medical and dental care is completely free– not even an insurance premium or a copayment. You get 30 days of leave per year, while most civilian jobs start at half of that. You can buy cheaper consumer goods & groceries at military stores, with savings of 5%-25%. You have free entertainment & exercise facilities. You’ll live close to work, so you might not need a vehicle. You can buy cheaper gas for your vehicle– and even have a chance to rent tools and a service bay to do your own maintenance. You get free legal services (you’ll need a will and a power of attorney). Your spouse and kids are eligible for the same medical & dental benefits (at a small cost to you) and many other family support services.
If you volunteer for some military specialties (demolition, aviation crew, flight deck, diving, submarines, and others) then you may be paid a few hundred extra dollars a month. (See pages 4-9 of that PDF.) This reflects the additional training, hardship, and occupational hazards that you’ll deal with. Once you realize what you have to go through to earn these special pays, you may feel that it barely compensates you for the extra effort.
By the time you leave the service your total compensation will be competitive with an equivalent civilian job at 70%-110% of their pay & perks. You can use this online calculator to see roughly how much you’ll earn each year and how it will change over time.
Along with completely free medical & dental insurance, you’re also insured for death & disability. You have to pay a small life insurance premium but most of the policy cost is subsidized by your employer. If you’re disabled then the military and the Veterans Administration are obligated to take care of you for the rest of your life. However, the system is getting a lot of (well-earned) bad press because it’s antiquated and overwhelmed by a decade of war. Military disability issues tend to be more complicated and far more costly than civilian job injuries. The bureaucracy is difficult to navigate, and fraud/abuse are common. The “good” news is that you have disability insurance and that the process can eventually work.
A side benefit of your service is your eligibility for membership with insurance companies like USAA, Armed Forces Insurance, and other military-friendly corporations. You’ll be able to buy cheaper insurance for your vehicle, personal property, home, and spouse.
Your training comes from all of the formal military schools that you’ll attend, as well as simulators and on-the-job assignments. The amount of training depends on the specialty you choose, and you may be asked to extend your enlistment to eight years for advanced skills. A few of the training courses may also make you eligible for specialty pay.
While your civilian peers are pursuing entry-level jobs, perhaps answering phones or making copies (or even making coffee and running errands for the office staff), you’ll start with similar drudgery. If you stay alert for the opportunities offered by these internships then you’ll be able to help with occupational tasks. Eventually, you’ll be responsible for operating, analyzing, and maintaining equipment worth thousands or even millions of dollars. You’ll also be given opportunities to participate in a team and then lead the team. As you gain experience, you’ll be placed in leadership billets requiring you to manage dozens of other servicemembers and large equipment systems. After a few years you may even be trusted with training (*shudder*) junior officers. You’ll be handling responsibilities in your teens and 20s that many civilians don’t see until their 30s, if they see them at all.
That training can also pay off with college credit. The military participates in the College-Level Examination Program, a nationally certified system run by the College Board. You’ll be given undergraduate credit for the training and occupational skills that you’ve learned and practiced on active duty, as well as your experience in those areas. Your specific CLEP credits may be awarded by your military accomplishments or by completing an exam, and the credits earned during your first enlistment may only amount to a portion of a semester. However, it’s hundreds or even thousands of dollars of savings for skills that you were required to learn anyway.
Your educational support covers a broad range of opportunities which you may have to pursue on your own time (if you’re in the right location). The most popular programs include Tuition Assistance and the GI Bill. The military even participates in a federal program to help pay off government student loans that you may have acquired before joining the service.
Educational support is one of the messier military benefits. You have to sign up for the GI Bill while you’re on active duty, and you can use some of its benefits during active duty. However, it’s worth far more money when you use it after you leave active duty (especially if you have a spouse/family). Other programs (like TA and student loan repayment) are only available while you’re on active duty, and they may be limited by budget or by the number of servicemembers who sign up. Your active-duty educational support may require you to spend money in advance and be reimbursed after you complete the class. The GI Bill uses a similar system which may be delayed by months of processing. These programs will definitely test your patience with the military bureaucracy, and they’ll develop your lifelong skills of research & verification.
I’ll mention a few “benefits” earned on active duty that will carry over to your civilian life, but these don’t come with extra pay or formal certification.
The first one seems a little silly, but it matters in the mainstream corporate environment: professionalism. You’ll be physically fit. You’ll learn how to wear a uniform (whether it’s combat utilities or office attire) and you’ll look good in it. You’ll learn how to stand tall, look people in the eye, and have a firm handshake. You’ll learn communication skills that many civilians need some time to learn: how to carry on a customer conversation, how to explain things to the boss, and public speaking. You may discover social skills that you never knew you had, and you might even enjoy them, but you’ll definitely be proficient at using them. You will not be intimidated. You’ll approach new and strange situations with confidence and a calm appearance, no matter how you may really feel inside.
Another unexpected skill: integrity. While you’re in the service, you’re expected to tell the truth and follow a code of ethics. You’ll learn to figure out the “right thing to do” and then you’ll be counted on to do it. The results may not always meet expectations, but it’s a far higher standard (with much more practice) than you’ll see in parts of the civilian world. When you encounter problems, you’ll know how to tactfully deliver a warning and steer the situation in the right direction.
Another unexpected benefit is persistence in the face of obstacles & failure. You will learn how to continue despite adversity, and you’ll even learn how to wear down resistance by sheer tenacity. You may also have a tendency to keep going far beyond the point where you should have stopped… but at least you’ll also develop the self-awareness to handle this personal issue.
Your training is also designed to teach you to handle chronic fatigue, stress, and life-threatening emergencies. You’ll start with small challenges as part of a team, and eventually, you’ll develop the skills to lead the team. Hours of practice and experience will develop your familiarity and reflexes while helping you manage your (instinctive and very rational) fear. You’ll develop life skills that will place you far ahead of your civilian peers: dealing with difficult people, tolerating hostility and yelling, and defusing tense situations. You’ll handle emergencies like accidents, injuries, natural disasters, and even fires with professional calm and speedy reflexes. You’ll be responding while others appear to be paralyzed by confusion or fear, and you’ll be coaching them through the emergency too.
Another skill you’ll develop, especially in the submarine force, is self-assessment. You will learn to tolerate criticism, you’ll grow to accept it without undue offense, and you may even seek it out. You’ll humiliate yourself many times. You’ll learn to be humble about your accomplishments (even if you’re an aviator) while becoming keenly aware of your ability to fail. Perhaps you’ll avoid hubris and remind yourself to seek feedback, even when you really don’t want to hear it. Most importantly: you’ll learn to design systems and processes and team leadership that will account for human emotions, behavioral psychology, and outright mistakes. You’ll have a practical understanding of what you can expect, both from yourself and from others, and you’ll be all too familiar with Murphy’s Law. Your perpetual confidence and optimism will be tempered by a realistic skepticism.
Hopefully, you’ll be able to both receive and deliver feedback with tact and discretion. I don’t think that we practiced “tact” or “discretion” in the submarine force, and I’m not sure that the Marines are very accustomed to it either, but one of the other services may know more about it.
These intangible benefits won’t be recorded on your service record, and you won’t be able to apply for them on any DoD website. However, they’re the life skills that will truly set you up for success– both professionally and personally.
This is a partial view of military skills that carry over after you’re out of uniform, even if they’re not on a certificate or in your service record. The next post will cover specific program benefits that will be recorded and that will follow you into civilian life. We’ll also talk about the differences in how these benefits are applied with Reserve/National Guard and federal/state civil service.
Joining the military during a drawdown
Guest post on EarlyRetirementExtreme.com: Join the military to retire early?
Join the military to get rich and retire early?: the rest of the story
Should you join the Reserves or National Guard?