Thursday, November 19, 2009

What you should know about the military before you join


“Here you are all equally worthless!” - R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket)

Whether you’re thinking of joining the military or trying to talk someone out of it, the least you can do is get the facts and make an informed decision. I spent 6 years in the Navy, which is 6 years longer than most people serve their country. Some of those days were good, some were bad. Some, I'm going to talk to you about, so listen up; there will be a test.


First things first:
Before I begin, I’d like to thank those of my family who are currently serving, who have served, and who fell in service. If a country isn’t worth serving, if it isn’t worth defending, then it isn’t worth keeping it around. Thank you for your contribution.

I have a list of all those who’ve served (that I am aware of) somewhere around here that I want to post, but at this time, I’m going to hold off on doing so.

I would also like to thank ALL people who have served, especially those who served with distinction or who made the ultimate sacrifice. You are a special breed which we are all proud of.
Second things second:
Throughout history, there have been lots of reasons to join the military, few of them noble. It doesn’t matter what your reasons are; your reasons are your own. I’m going to give you a few things to think about. Some of these things could be seen as benefits to some people and deterrent to others. It all depends on what’s important to you.
Most people get to travel a lot when they’re in the military. Sometimes you have some control over how much you travel, sometimes you have none, but you’re almost certain to have to do some, so you’re going to be away from your family at some point. At the very least, you’re going to be away from your family while you’re at boot camp.

I myself enjoy traveling and seeing new places and meeting new people. Not constantly, but a lot, so I liked this aspect, and took many opportunities to travel more than the average person does. But I also like my family. I’m not a mama’s boy by any stretch of the imagination, but I keep in touch with a lot of my family, and being away from them all wasn’t always easy. I suppose I had the good fortune to not have a wife and kids of my own at that time, which would’ve made it a lot harder to leave them when we went out to sea and deployed overseas.

Our ship, the Bataan, occasionally went out to sea to do exercises and drills and lend aid to other countries and be part of other cities’ celebrations, and all kinds of stuff. We didn’t do it as much as some ships, but we were away from our home port of Norfolk probably about 1/4—1/3 of the year. Even if my family had been in Norfolk with me, that would have been hard on them. Plus, if I had reenlisted, I might have gotten moved somewhere else and had to uproot my family. Some families see this as cool, others don’t.
Medical bills:
Most people will agree that having someone pay all your medical bills is a wonderful thing. If you’ve ever received a $70,000 bill in the mail because the child you just had had a few complications during birth, then you know just how nice it is to have someone like Uncle Sam to take care of that tab. Uncle Sam pays your medical bills, and takes care of your family too. I had to get some dental work done, and I’m glad they took care of it.

On the other hand, there can be some drawbacks. While I don’t think any doctor would intentionally cause harm, they are protected against being sued if they screw up, and this might make them a little less careful. If you expect to have your bills paid, you also have to expect the guy who’s paying them to say who will take care of you.

There’s one other negative aspect: you can be experimented on without your consent. I’m not talking about being a guinea pig for some fresh face who’s never seen the insides of a real patient before, I’m talking about they can order you to take experimental medicines and such. As far as I know, I never had to undergo something like that, but I did almost have to take the Anthrax vaccine. This was before 9/11 and the Anthrax mail scares that followed. Before our 6 month deployment to the Mediterranean, we were supposed to all have to get the Anthrax vaccine, which I’m told is something that you don’t want unless you’re SURE you’re going to be exposed to Anthrax. Kinda like shooting yourself up with Atropine and 2-PAM Chloride because you MIGHT get hit with VX gas. (Let's just say it's a BAD thing.) There was a lot of talk about it on the boat, and many people promising they’d rather be court-martialed than take it. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that; the requirement was withdrawn, but I came really close to having a dishonorable discharge because I would have refused to take the vaccine.
There are a LOT of people who cry that servicemembers don’t get paid enough. In some respects I agree, but in others, I don’t. We get fed (maybe not the best, but it’s food and it's as healthy as most of us ever eat), we get a bed and a roof, we get free medical treatment, and some of us even get to learn useful skills and make useful contacts that can be used in the civilian world. Plus free travel! Plus you can retire and start drawing retirement pay after only 20 years of service. All that, and we get paid too?

Okay, it IS most definitely a job. I had a relatively easy job and learned a few skills that I could take with me when I left. Not everyone gets that. There’s not a whole lot of call for soldiers. Some, but not a lot. (Then again, I hear the security industry is booming.) Those of you who don’t get a useful military job, be sure you get the College Fund when you sign up, and then, when you get out, USE IT!!! Getting the majority of your education paid for is how you make that 3-4 years get you skills you can use in the field of your choice, no matter what you did in the military.

For me, with no kids or wife to take care of, and no need to drink it all away, I was able to save up the majority of my money. (If you can afford to booze away your life, you make too much money.) I spent a lot on my Jeep, on driving all over the East for fun, on an apartment and stuff to fill it, on interesting food, and other stuff I felt like, and I still managed to save the majority of my paycheck. (Maybe it’s just because I grew up poor; take this test to find out if you know the value of a dollar.)

I never went into combat. I never had to face that many life-and-death situations. I did go into “combat zones”, but was rarely in any real danger. (Our ship was scouted out by the people who attacked the USS Cole, but they felt we were too alert for them to succeed.) But because I went to those places, I got combat pay. Combat pay isn’t much, and for what I did, I’m not complaining, but there are guys who really do have to face death, and that combat pay doesn’t really help their families sleep any better at night. Sure, they’ll get a free funeral, and a small insurance payment, but that doesn’t really cover the loss of a family member. (On the other hand, if you do your reenlistment while in a combat zone, you get your bonus pay tax-free!)

Why do people with families still go into harm’s way, despite the poor compensation? Because they know that freedom isn’t free. I know that for myself, I was glad to have the chance to be sure my family didn’t have to go through the things I had to go through, or worse, have their cities get blown up. With a wife and kids, I’d’ve been even more enthusiastic about being sure the roaches stayed out of the light, and I probably would have stayed in.

I didn’t exactly get rich, and if you have family to support, you definitely won’t get rich, but when you add everything up, it’s quite often a better deal than you’d get anywhere else.
It all depends on what job you get when you join as to whether you’ll get any good skills out of it. At the very least, make a lot of friends and then maintain those friendships when you get out and use those contacts to your benefit. The world runs on favors, you know.

Some military jobs get you good skills. I joined to learn how to fix computers. I didn’t actually get to do that job until my last year, and though I crammed a lot of learning into that last year, I still didn’t learn a whole lot of skills useful on the outside. I’m sorry to say I didn’t make good use of what I did learn, either, but hopefully none of you will make that mistake. (Hint: no matter what, make sure you have a job waiting for you when you get out!)

When you sign up, you automatically get the GI Bill, which is basically good for a discount on your college when you get out. You then have a choice of a bunch of cash, or the College Fund, which basically provides a bigger discount to your future education. Unfortunately, there aren’t many schools that take the GI Bill and which also don’t charge more than what it pays, so there’s going to be some money coming out of your pocket to go to school. If you can get a job to pay for that shortfall, or you’ve saved up enough money, then by all means, do it that way.

While you’re in the military, you will generally have the chance to learn lots of skills. There is generally a lot of training available to take advantage of, and it usually doesn’t cost you anything but your time. Take advantage of these programs! Another mistake I made was not trying hard enough to get into these programs. They’re not going to force you to learn, you have to want to, and you have to put forth a lot of effort to show that you want to. I had other things on my mind. (I’m not like that any more, but don’t nobody tell my girlfriends I ever was!)
Guaranteed paychecks:
Call it what you will, as long as you are willing to work, and not be a total screw-off, the military will be willing to put you to work and pay you for it. Out in the corporate world, sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you work, you still get shafted. Piss off the wrong person, and you’re fired. Maybe even black-listed. Or maybe they run out of money because the CEO ran off with it all and you don't get paid for your last month of work, plus your retirement fund gets raided.

I pissed off a lot of people in the Navy, and I still got paid. (A LOT of people!) Yes, there are still office politics, and yes, you can be stuck working with people you don’t like, and yes you can be forced to do things you don't want to do, but at least they can’t send you to the unemployment line, and you’re rarely ever stuck with any single person for more than 2 years. Maybe you’ll have to do jobs you don’t like, but you’ll eat and so will your family. Just don’t do anything illegal, and you’ll be fine.
Getting killed:
This is the big one. But think about it: there are a considerable number of jobs in the civilian world that are just as capable of getting you killed or maimed as being in the military, and they're LESS likely to compensate you in any way. One of my cousins worked in an auto plant, got RSD, and they canned him and wouldn’t pay his medical bills. Hard to get a job when you can’t use your hands! I have an aunt who was a nurse for 30-some years, and she threw her back out from having to lift patients every day. They canned her and wouldn’t pay for her medical bills either. Not easy to get a job when you can hardly stand. And let’s not even get into the mining industry, or the truck-driving industry (I have a cousin who came within inches of death because of a sudden traffic jam, and I had a close call with a patch of ice, but don’t tell my mom), or the agricultural industry; those are some dangerous jobs, and people are maimed or killed all the time. Getting shot or blown up is almost a mercy in comparison!

I was lucky in that I served during a time of relative peace. My biggest close call (that I know of) was when terrorists decided not to attack my ship, and instead attacked the USS Cole, but some of you might get sent to the front lines. I’ve already had a few cousins get sent up there. Iraq isn’t the most pleasant place on Earth, and you might have to go... Or you might GET to go. My brother’s National Guard unit has been sent overseas a few times to help out, because they volunteered to go do their part.
In closing:
I haven’t been nearly to the point of exhaustive in this article. I’ll probably expound on this article a little more in the future, tell you some of the things you should consider doing to make sure you get the best deal, and also tell you more about what you can expect to have happen to you. (Frex, when the Navy recruiter comes to your high school and tells you that he’s never even seen a ship, and leads you to believe you’ve got a good chance of doing the same, you’ll know he’s lying.) I’ll probably also reminisce about some of my boot camp experiences, so you know what to expect on that score too. But for now, I’ve given you plenty to think about.

If you’ve got questions or comments about this article, feel free to comment and I’ll see what I can do to help you out.

Until then, it doesn’t matter if you’re someone with the intense desire to serve your country or someone who feels he has no other option than to join, doing anything blindly is usually a recipe for disaster. I hope something I’ve said here has helped you to make an informed decision.

- DS2 Jaycee “TheDS” Adams


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