Enlisting in the US Army was the biggest decision of my life, and it’s been the one with the most lasting impact. While the decision is tough no matter how you slice it, what made it tougher for me was knowing absolutely no one who had gone through it personally.
Here are seven stages of my progression from civilian to service member that just might demystify the convoluted process for anyone out there thinking of doing the same:
I distinctly remember being 19 years old, sitting in the temporary sublet I got the summer after my first year of college and watching TV, when it struck me. It came in the form of an oversaturated propaganda commercial featuring a young guy crawling over some ropes, fanfare in the distance, American flag waving in the wind and curtains closing. It evoked patriotic feelings from within me.
While some people know they want to enlist long before they reach the military age, I didn’t even think about it until I saw that commercial. It’s not that the Army’s propaganda is so effective that a deep-seated sense of patriotism erupted from my soul and forced me to run right out and sign up.
What it did do was make me think about why I had never thought about it before. I was studying and preparing to enter a field that offered a huge amount of courtesy and respect to any kind of military experience. Beyond that, the benefits proved very attractive to someone who had just spent a year in college and was already looking down the barrel of a sizable amount of student debt.
Discovery can happen in many ways. It could come from friends or family, posters, movies or recruiters. To this day, I’m still a little annoyed that damn commercial worked on me.
After becoming interested in joining the military, I realized I didn’t know sh*t about it. I turned to the ultimate source of obscurity and misinformation, the Internet.
Ever tried learning about an entirely closed culture from scratch? I didn’t even know where to start. I basically Googled, “I think I want to join the Army,” and a slew of information was dumped at my feet.
I looked at recruiting websites, forums, social media, movies, anecdotes, veteran’s benefits sites, history sites, uniform sales and so on. I encourage anyone to give it a shot. I was staring at everything and learning nothing. It was total paralysis by analysis.
I ended up spending quite a bit of time on a forum dedicated to providing information to newcomers, supposedly given by old timers. The problem is, when you know absolutely nothing about something, you believe everything you’re told. There’s an incredible amount of bullsh*t spread on sites like these.
There's so much that there are entire other websites dedicated to weeding out the bullsh*t and even seeking prosecution of those doing the bullsh*tting. My advice to anyone thinking of enlisting is to stay away from forums and sites like these. Instead, talk to friends or family, service members or veterans in person and learn what you can from them.
3. Talking To A Recruiter
Even after all the intricate research I learned via the Internet, I still didn’t know anything when I walked into the recruiter’s office. It’s a nerve-racking experience. Walking into a recruiter’s office is like walking into a used car lot with a few thousand dollars in your hand, hoping to not get ripped off. But instead of taking your money, the currency used is years of your life.
Everyone has a different experience with his or her recruiter. I was mostly interested in the work experience and college benefits that came with the military, so I was already pretty sure the Army Reserve was more my thing. That was all I needed to say.
The thing about recruiting is that it’s based completely on a quota system. The phrase, “The needs of the Army” is thrown around quite often. So at the end of the day, recruiters are more interested in getting you to swear in than they are in finding you the job you want.
My advice to anyone walking into a recruiter’s office is the same for anyone walking into that car lot: Be prepared to walk out. Make them work for you. If they’re not prepared to offer the job that you want, walk away and tell them to call you when it’s available. The recruit has more power than the recruiter, which is important to know when several years of your life is on the table.
4. Telling Your Family
For some people, this stage will come a lot sooner. It’s not uncommon for people to bring their family members to the recruiter’s office. I like to have my ducks in a row before I go to my family with a life-altering decision.
I told my sister first because she’s my closest confidant and smarter than I am. When she agreed it made sense to think about it, I got more confident in my decision. But, bringing it up to the rest of my family was more difficult.
It’s a strange thing to tell people you love that you want to leave them for a long period of time. I wanted to join the Reserve, which meant that after a six-month period of being away, I’d come back to college and continue working part-time with the military.
Still, the prospect of someone you care for doing something dangerous can be difficult to swallow. If you get push back from your family, don’t resent them for it. Chances are, they know even less than what you know about it (nothing), and they don’t want to see their family member dropped into the middle of a scene from "Saving Private Ryan."
5. Telling Your Friends
Telling my friends was an immensely different experience than telling my family. While I did get the support I was hoping for, I was also introduced to some stereotypes that would become very familiar in the coming years.
One of these was the “So you can’t hack it in college?” reaction that I’ve experienced many times since. Because I enlisted after a year of college, my friends assumed that I’d rather volunteer for war than write term papers. Even today, it’s not uncommon for a conversation about my military experience to shift toward a question of “Will you ever go back and get an education?” It’s usually at that point that I mention my master’s degree and ask them to kindly f*ck off.
Telling my closest friends about joining the military proved to be my first lesson in talking about the military to anyone. The stereotypes you will face are countless, so be prepared to brush them off.
6. Shipping Out And Returning Home
The last stage of joining the military is actually a stage that is repeated over and over throughout your entire military career. Shipping out for the first time is difficult, even if you know it’s only for six months.
I didn’t know what to expect, and my family definitely had no clue. Getting on that bus was the ultimate lunge outside of my comfort zone, and it taught me a lot about my own adaptability. Because I have that experience, it’s never been as difficult for me to step into the unknown, whether it’s moving to a new city or starting a new job.
Returning home is difficult in different ways. While I’m always ecstatic to be back, it’s hard not to notice how my friends and family have changed in my absence. People change all the time, but when you’re there changing with them, it’s not noticeable.
The first time I shipped out was during the end of my freshman year of college. Do you remember how much you changed in the first semester of your sophomore year? It was like returning to an entirely new set of friends.
When I deployed overseas, it was the same process. When you leave for a year, your life is put on pause, but everyone you know keeps moving forward. Returning home is a game of catch-up. This difficulty is multiplied by 1,000 if you’re in a romantic relationship. I’ve often found it easier to end the relationship than to even attempt such a trial. Many service members would agree with me, but not all.
7. Deciding To Enlist
Joining the military is a transformative experience. That’s the simplest way I can say it. I’m a different person now than before I enlisted. Seven years on, it’s become a part of my identity that I couldn’t see myself without. It uncovered a respect for public service and a patriotism that I didn’t know I had and has garnered for me more respect from my peers than I deserve.
Military service isn’t for everyone, and that’s great. Today when I walk through the airport in uniform, about to spend a month away for training or returning from deployment, the amount of people who approach me and shake my hand is almost overwhelming.
If you’re considering joining the military, all I can say is good luck. You’ll discover a newfound respect, both from strangers who truly appreciate your sacrifice and from yourself for doing something difficult. Prepare yourself for a challenge, don’t be dissuaded and of course, thanks for your service.