By Mr. Jamesdenton Wyllie (IMCOM)March 11, 2010
I'm asked it all the time.
Whether I am among friends or strangers, out in public or within the gates of my own apartment building, once knowledge of my career as an Army Civilian employee or my prior service as a Soldier becomes known, the same question invariably comes up: "I (or Family member/friend/significant other) am (is) thinking of joining the military. Do you think that's a good idea'"
It may be surprising to some, but the answer that I give more often than not is "probably not."
You see, when it comes to the pros and cons of military service, I cannot in good faith say that it is the right answer for most people.
Military service is a very paradoxical thing. Like the priesthood in many ways, the military is not just a career, it is a calling. It requires a person to contribute more than most to a greater good while not expecting to receive more in return. Being a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman is to live life defending freedoms and privileges that do not apply to you. It is a life spent in service to the people; whether the people deserve it or not. Furthermore, military service means becoming not just part of a team, but of an ideal. It means, for better or worse, making a commitment to America at the expense of a portion of individuality. Sometimes, that bond can even last until death.
There are those who are not comfortable with such a level of sacrifice; who are loath to give up that much of their individuality. Understandably, yet regrettably, the call to service isn't heard by everyone.
For the person to whom making a lot of money is a primary goal, the military is definitely not the right choice.
Despite news stories detailing the high compensation of retired high-ranking officers, the average servicemember is not living a life of luxury. A first-year private in the Army earns a salary of around $17,282.40 per year before taxes. That's roughly $1,440.20 a month, $720.10 every two weeks and if using a 40-hour work week $9 an hour. By contrast, the federal minimum wage as of July 24, 2009, increased to $7.25. For those without a calculator handy, that's a difference of $1.75.
That's not a lot of money to receive in exchange for putting your life in the line of fire for your country. For some, it may be too much - or in this case, too little - to accept.
When it comes to personal work style, the military is probably not the best option for people who desire a job where they are free to work on their own terms.
As any sergeant-type will be more than glad to tell you, the military is founded on order and discipline - with an extra emphasis on orders. Indeed, being a servicemember means getting used the idea of receiving, accepting and carrying out orders not from a boss, but from a "superior." It means rules and regulations for every situation, manuals and guidelines for every action and an oath, ethos and creed for every facet of existence. It means work always follows you home and 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there is no place where you cannot represent the branch of service to which you belong. It means giving up control; giving up choice.
This is a heavy yoke that chaffs at the neck. Many may find that they are not able to work, much less live, attached to that type of leash.
For workers who value a stable working environment above all else, the armed forces are the wrong choice.
While the life of a servicemember has never been static, operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, along with numerous other exercises, rotations and emergencies, have created a tempo of steady and sometimes deadly change for those in service. A deployment can mean up to 15 months of hiking across mountains in rural Afghanistan, patrolling through towns in urban Iraq or digging under rubble in Haiti. The old adage of the military offering a life of action and adventure carries a completely different meaning. Additionally, military Families are also having to bear the burden of sleepless nights spent not knowing, of picking up and moving yet again and of making new plans out of old plans.
In today's armed forces, fluidity has become a necessary trait - an ability needed to survive. Still, the possibility for breaking remains. The documented stories of mental and physical anguish that a number of wounded warriors face are a daily reminder of the difference between working in an office and working on a battlefield. Being a servicemember also means facing the reality that any mission could be the last one; that the end can come far from home without the chance to say goodbye.
The possibility of death has never been an attractive recruitment tool, and with the end of contingency operations somewhere off in the future, the uncertainty of military life will continue to keep more than a few away.
So with all the ways in which a military career is the wrong answer, when is it the right choice'
Well, it's complicated. I realize that for some, outside motives, such as college money, Family issues or other personal concerns, may play a significant part in their decision to serve. The rightness or wrongness of such a decision can only truly become clear with time. However, at some point in the enlistment process, every man and woman who serves has had to raise their hand and take the oath of service. It is in that moment where I think the answer starts to become clear.
You see, when that time comes, there are only two options. You can either step forward and raise your hand or you can step back. In my opinion, the military is the right answer to a person who, despite realizing that the job comes with sacrifice, low pay, discipline and danger, steps forward and raises his or her hand anyway.
On the day I took my oath, I saw three people change their minds and walk away. I didn't (and still don't) blame them. There was a voice in my mind telling me to leave right along with them. There was a voice telling me that I could do something else - anything else - than this. There was a voice telling me that this might not be the right answer.
However, for some reason that I still can't fully explain, I didn't listen to that voice. I raised my hand and took my oath. I became a Soldier. Looking back, I would like to tell you that immediately after taking the oath I was flooded with a sense of certainty and knew everything would be OK. The truth is that I didn't. I was just as unsure the minute after taking the oath as I was the minute before. I feel no regret, however, because I know now that I made the right choice. My life has proved to me that the Army was the right answer.
I can't tell someone else if the military is the right answer for them. It's a discovery that everyone has to make on his or her own. However, I do have some words of wisdom for a person who finds him-or-herself still standing there after facing down their moment of doubt, with their hand raised and their oath sworn. It's what a sergeant said to me at the time, and I've never, ever forgotten it.
"Congratulations. By the way, basic's going to suck."