Understanding the U.S. Military
Understanding the U.S. Military
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There are many things to consider before heading to a recruitment office and taking an oath of enlistment that commits you to the military for years. The military lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and when you join, it doesn’t affect just you. Your parents, siblings, (potential) spouse, and children will all have to assimilate into the military lifestyle as you go through bootcamp, changes-of-station, and deployments. It can be dangerous, the hours are long, and it requires mental fortitude and the ability to obey authority figures without question. That said, though the military is high risk, it also is high reward. You will earn a stable income, have the chance to make a significant difference in the lives of anyone you meet on a deployment, and become an excellent role model.

What are the differences between military branches?

The U.S. military consists of five different branches: Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. Generally, each of these branches consists of both active duty service members and Reserve units, consisting of the Reserves and/or the National Guard. Each branch has a different mission and specialty, detailed below. Clicking on the branch name in bold will bring you to the website for that particular branch, so you can begin to get an idea of what is required for each branch before you make the decision to join.

  • Army: The Army is the oldest of the branches, followed closely by the Navy and the Marines. It is also the largest of the branches. The main role of the Army is to conduct land-based military operations, but it also provides manpower for humanitarian missions (e.g., building schools in war-torn regions and responding to Ebola in Africa). The Army uses many armored and weapons-equipped vehicles during their missions, as well as a variety of helicopters.
  • Air Force: The Air Force is the youngest branch of the military; until 1947, it was a part of the Army. The Air Force conducts air-based missions (e.g., using firepower or conducting rescue missions to support ground troops). Members of the Air Force are not all pilots, but also parachuters, air traffic controllers, and experts in reconnaissance. Outer space and cyberspace (for the purposes of intelligence and surveillance) also fall under the jurisdiction of the Air Force.
  • Coast Guard: The Coast Guard is the smallest of the branches. Its job is to conduct water-based missions around U.S. borders to protect people using the waterways, provide search and rescue, prevent illegal immigration and the transport of drugs into the country, and protect the marine environment. In times of war, the Coast Guard falls under the jurisdiction of the Navy.
  • Marines: The Marines work closely with the Navy, and thus are mainly water-based. However, Marines conduct both land- and water-based missions depending on where they are needed. Their main role is to be a quick response force in times of crisis; troops can deploy in a matter of days, if need be. Missions may involve providing humanitarian relief following a natural disaster or evacuating U.S. citizens from volatile areas. Marines also provide on-land support to Naval missions. Each Marine receives training as a rifleman regardless of their specialty to ensure that all troops are capable during a mission.
  • Navy: The Navy conducts mainly water-based missions, but also includes the Navy SEALs, a special operations force within the Navy who perform sea, air, and land missions. With the largest fleet of aircraft carriers in the world and over 250 combat ships and submarines, the Navy has a global presence and works with the Marines to provide quick responses to immediate threats. The Navy also operates fighter jets and logistics aircraft that protect aircraft carriers and provide intelligence.

What are the differences between the Reserves and the National Guard?

Reserves National Guard
Military Branches
  • Army
  • Air Force
  • Coast Guard
  • Marines
  • Navy
  • Army
  • Air Force
Controlling Organization
  • Federal government
  • State government
  • Federal government
Time Commitment
  • Part-time: typically one weekend every month and two weeks every year
  • Full-time
  • Part-time: typically one weekend every month and two weeks every year
Federal Benefits
  • Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve
  • Post 9/11 GI Bill
  • Tuition Assistance
  • Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve
  • Post 9/11 GI Bill
  • Tuition Assistance
  • Additional state benefits

What is an officer?

The U.S. armed forces consist of officers and enlisted service members. The enlisted make up the vast majority of the military (82.9% as of September 2016), while officers comprise a much smaller, but necessary, portion.

Officers are always higher ranking and often more educated than enlisted service members. They must have a bachelor’s degree, and more education becomes necessary as more promotions are achieved. As a result, officers take on a heavier workload and more responsibility. They plan missions and assign soldiers to complete necessary tasks. You can think of an officer as being similar to upper level management in the civilian world. As would be expected, officers tend to be older than enlisted soldiers (active duty officers average 34.6 years old while active duty enlisted average 27.1 years old). Additionally, jobs that require higher degrees or a large amount of specialized training in the civilian world (e.g., doctors, dentists, pilots, and lawyers, among others) are staffed only by officers in the military who have had the appropriate education.

There are many paths one could take to become an officer: completing an ROTC program, attending a service academy, senior military college, or junior military college, attending a Coast Guard-specific commissioning program, or commissioning with a previously earned degree.

What is an enlisted soldier?

Enlisted soldiers are not required to have college degrees, though some do, and many join the military straight out of high school. Over 50% of enlisted soldiers are 25 years old or younger. Enlisted soldiers tend to have more specialized areas of expertise (e.g., mechanic, weapons expert, driver, or radio operator). Over time and with promotions, they become even more of an expert in their field.

Enlisted soldiers also have the opportunity to become non-commissioned officers. With promotions comes the need to attend educational courses to further leadership and technical skills. Situations can arise in which senior enlisted soldiers have more experience than their immediate supervising officers. They are trusted to advise the officers and lead the lower enlisted soldiers. Furthermore, enlisted soldiers with technical expertise can apply to become warrant officers. Warrant officers are higher in rank than the highest enlisted soldiers but lower than the lowest commissioned officers.

For more information about enlisting, click here.

Can anyone join the military?

No. To join the military, individuals are required to be United States citizens and at least 17 years old (each branch also has a maximum age for new service members). They must also have a high school diploma, receive a passing score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, pass a physical fitness test, and pass a thorough medical examination. There are any number of medical conditions that may prohibit an individual from serving in the military, including cancer, epilepsy, steroid use, blindness, and missing organs. Check with your prospective branch for a complete list of disqualifying conditions.

Women are permitted to join all branches of the military and recently became allowed to serve in combat positions; Former President Obama changed the military's policy regarding women in combat positions in 2016. Women should be prepared to be vastly outnumbered, especially in combat-related career tracks; only 17.2% of all service members are female.

In July 2017, President Trump announced that transgender individuals would be forbidden from serving in the military in any capacity. However, the ban was blocked by 10 federal judges and the military began allowing openly transgender individuals to enlist on January 1, 2018. In March 2019, it was announced that the rules will be changing yet again.

Starting on April 12, 2019, individuals with gender dysphoria (those whose sex at birth doesn’t match the sex they identify as) who are taking hormones and transgender individuals who have undergone a transition will not be allowed to enlist in the U.S. military without a waiver. Those who do enlist are required to serve as and meet standards that match their sex at birth. Currently serving individuals with gender dysphoria who have not transitioned will be barred from taking hormones and will not be allowed to undergo transition. They must adhere to the standards required of their sex at birth. There are multiple pending lawsuits that challenge the new rules.

What are the benefits of joining the military?

  • Educational benefits: The military provides educational benefits not only for soldiers, but also for their spouses and children. Benefits last beyond military service and opportunities for veterans are many. There is a lot of money out there to help you and your family with education and nothing is entirely off the table. If you’re interested in being a pilot, the GI Bill will cover some of the cost of flight school; if you need to take an exam to be certified as a teacher, that is covered too. Learn more here.
  • Medical coverage: As a member of the armed forces you receive insurance through the TRICARE insurance program for as long as you remain in the service. If you visit an approved servicer who accepts TRICARE, you will not have to pay for anything. You will also receive dental and vision coverage, and anytime you need a vaccine, you’ll just get it done while you’re at work. The military also offers life insurance plans at a much lower cost than you might pay in the civilian world. TRICARE medical coverage extends to immediate family members as well.
  • Stable paycheck: When you join the military, you are paid a salary based on your rank and your time in the service, thus you will get raises at predictable intervals. If you elect to live off-post, you will also receive a housing allowance. Barring extreme circumstances of government shutdowns, you will be paid twice a month, every month, for the duration of your time in the military. While the starting salary for enlisted personnel is low, promotions occur at predictable intervals and always come with a pay raise. Officers begin with a higher starting salary than enlisted service members. To learn more about potential salary, contact a recruiter.
  • Job security: The United States will always have a military. While there have been some cutbacks recently, people are rarely fired. Once you are in the service, you will have a stable position unless you do something to warrant being kicked out (e.g., doing something illegal or ceasing to do your job).
  • Vacation time: You earn two and a half days of paid leave for every month you work. You get four-day weekends for all federal holidays. You get free leave time when you or your spouse has a baby (less time for the father, more time for the mother). You are given free leave days to go house hunting and get your affairs in order when you change duty stations. This paid time off is significantly better than at jobs in the civilian world, where the average American takes only 16.8 days a year.
  • Military discounts: Everybody loves getting freebies and discounts. It’s not going to account for much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s nice to get a little bit back from the movie theater or have access to a private airport lounge with couches, TVs, and free food when you’re on a layover. Not only that, but on military posts, shopping is tax-free.
  • Living in new places: You could be stationed almost anywhere in the world: Korea, Japan, Italy, Australia, Germany, or in one of many cities in the United States. U.S. bases are usually within driving distance of a major city, so you can take fun weekend trips. You don’t get much say in where you will be going, but you will likely move frequently enough that even if one place isn’t up your alley, you won’t have to stay for more than a few years. Your next station could be incredible.
  • Valuable work experience: If nothing else, military experience is an incredible résumé booster. You will learn leadership skills, discipline, and a host of other things that will impress the pants off of your next potential employer.
  • Disability pay upon retirement: When you retire honorably from military service, you are subjected to a thorough medical examination. If you were injured or became sick as a result of your service, or if the doctors find any discrepancies in your medical record, you may be eligible for disability pay. The amount of pay depends on the severity of your disability and the number of dependents you are supporting (spouse and children). Once the amount has been calculated, you will receive payment from the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs once a month for the remainder of your life.

What are the downsides to joining the military?

It is important to remember that the military is a way of life. Before joining the military, you need to be sure that you are able to handle the military lifestyle and all of the moving, work, stress, and danger that comes with the job; you cannot be solely interested in the educational or monetary benefits, as that is a recipe for failure. The following lists, made in consultation with current members of the armed forces, may help you get a better idea of what you’re signing up for and what you can expect.

  • Pulling rank: The military is built on a hierarchy, with commissioned officers on top and enlisted soldiers down below. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter if you are 10 years older than someone. If their rank is higher than yours, you have to do what they say and be polite about it, even if you disagree.
  • Assimilation: The military has strict grooming and dress standards. It dictates what you wear and when you wear it (from your workout clothes to your standard uniform to your dress uniform), how you cut and style your hair, if and when you are allowed to wear makeup, and where you can have tattoos. When it comes to appearance, there is no place in the military for free spirits.
  • Deployments: This has the potential to be a dangerous job. Some people fulfill their service commitment before ever being deployed, but the majority of soldiers deploy at least once. Humanitarian or training deployments are less dangerous and can even be fun, but combat deployments are very serious. They take you away from home for months at a time and potentially put your life in danger. If you are considering joining the military, you need to have the mental toughness, the discipline, and the physical stamina to endure dangerous and poor living conditions for long periods of time.
  • Legal commitment: You cannot leave the military until your time is up. You sign a contract when you join and become legally responsible to fulfill the terms of the contract for the length of your service commitment. The consequences for desertion are severe. Not only that, but you cannot call in sick or skip a day of work if you feel ill. You must go to work all day, every day. If you are truly convinced you are sick, you can go to sick call, and if the nurse says you’re sick enough, you can go home for however long they say. Otherwise you go back to work.
  • Nontraditional work hours: Most civilians work a nine-to-five schedule. It’s not the case for the military. Generally, you get up around 5:00 a.m. to exercise, and then you go work for a full day. Some full days will end around 5:00 p.m., but working late is a realistic possibility for which you should prepare.
  • Military law: It’s different from civilian law. For example, there is a zero-tolerance drug policy, so you’ll get drug tested at random times. You will have to answer to the military if you fall behind on your bills. Marriage is considered sacred; infidelity on the part of a soldier can lead to being dishonorably discharged. Most incidents are cleared up in-house, but you are responsible for upholding both civilian and military law.
  • Distance from family: You may get stationed across the world from your parents and your friends. Even if you’re not abroad, you could still be more than a few hours’ drive away, so weekend trips home are not usually an option. The good news is that you probably have a phone and the internet; now is the time to download WhatsApp and Skype!
  • Paycheck discrepancy: Though the military offers job security and a steady paycheck, you could be making less money through the military than if you were doing the same job in the civilian sector (e.g., air traffic controllers or contractors).
  • Trouble re-assimilating: After leaving the military (though it will do its best to support you), you may find that life isn’t what it used to be. The civilian world is different; people are rude, people don’t care that you were a sergeant, and discipline is practically nonexistent. Veterans have high rates of suicide and homelessness. Making sure that you have a job and a support system when you exit the military is the first step to re-assimilating into the civilian world.

Page last updated: 04/2019