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Joining the Military After High School – Benefits & Risks

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Military service has long been a path for social and economic mobility for thousands of young American men and women. Service is both a way to see the world and to learn valuable skills that can be transferred into civilian life. Many enlistees wouldn’t have the opportunity to attend college or purchase a house without the benefits associated with military service. Furthermore, veterans who forego college are likely to earn higher pay than nonveterans who do the same.

The responsibility, focus, and discipline military service teaches can benefit you for life. However, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of the risks, as well as the benefits, of military service and what the commitment to a career in the U.S. armed forces entails.

Benefits of Enlisting in the Armed Forces

As the costs of college continue to escalate, many high school graduates are considering enlistment in the military service as their best shot at affording any sort of post-secondary education. They’re also discovering that enlisting in the military helps achieve other goals with lifelong benefits.

1. Finding Purpose

In his book, “Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century,” psychologist Jeffrey Arnett writes the ages of 18 and 29 are a transitional period from adolescence and adulthood. The challenge of determining their identity and where they fit in a complex society is daunting for many. Almost half of college students drop out before getting a degree, and those who get degrees average more than four years of study.

While there are a variety of reasons that affect the dropout rate, Jordan Weissman of The Atlantic claims a significant reason is that “not every student is prepared. Nor do they necessarily want to be at college, or have a clear notion of what they’re doing there.”

Becoming a successful adult requires the right combination of independence and support – and serving in the military provides that combination for many.

2. Serving the Country

According to a Gallup poll, the military has consistently ranked above organized religious institutions, the medical system, and banks as the institution in which Americans have the most confidence. Respondents were roughly 10 times more likely to have confidence in the armed services than in big business and Congress respectively.

But this glory is rarely the reason people join the military. Stanton Coerr, a Marine officer who served in Iraq, wrote in The Federalist, “No one is in the military against his or her will. A veteran’s service in a war is significant not because we are special, but precisely because we aren’t. We volunteered, we went, we did what the nation asked.” In other words: Patriotism is a powerful incentive to join the military.

3. Attending College Without Crushing Debt

The high costs of a college education have forced many high school graduates to consider alternative paths to college and work careers. According to U.S. News, the average annual tuition bill for students at four-year private colleges approached $37,000 in the 2019 to 2020 academic year. That’s about $147,000 over the course of four years, not counting additional expenses like room, board, and electronics. While many students pursue merit- and need-based scholarships, these typically account for a few thousand dollars annually, at most.

Not surprisingly, the average graduate left college in 2018 with more than $35,000 in student loan debt according to figures compiled by Experian. That’s an increase of more than 25% over the preceding five-year period.

Excessive student loan debt has significant lifetime consequences, delaying the purchase of homes, marriage, and children. To pay off their education debt, graduates often accept jobs outside their field of interest, work longer hours, or take second jobs to supplement their income.

Entering the military does not preclude a college degree, but it defers college entry and provides significant financial benefits for students during and after military service. Specifically, all military service members are eligible for tuition assistance while on active duty or in the Reserves. This assistance is not a loan, but is considered part of basic pay and can cover up to $4,500 in tuition and fees each year.

Moreover, under the Post-9/11 GI Bill or the Montgomery GI Bill, service members and veterans can receive up to 36 months (four regular school years) of financial assistance for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and housing. Service members seeking to use the Montgomery Bill must contribute $100 per month for the first 12 months of active duty, but they receive $2,050 (plus an annual increase) per month for 36 months of school.

Attend College Without Crushing Debt

4. Receiving Valuable Training in Different Fields

Each of the five branches of the U.S. military – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard – offers training programs that enhance your career opportunities as a civilian. Career paths include arts and photography, news and media, aviation, engineering, health care, human resources and meteorology, among others.

During their service commitment, enlistees can receive college credits for their experience and training, which are accepted by thousands of colleges and universities. They can also receive professional and technical training to meet licensing and credentials for civilian jobs such as electrical work or software engineering.

In addition to their expertise, employers often value job candidate with military experience for their:

  • Leadership and Teamwork Skills. Veterans have typically led colleagues, accepted direction from others, and operated as part of a small team.
  • Character.┬áVeterans are perceived as being trustworthy, dependable, drug-free, and having a strong work ethic.
  • Structure and Discipline. Companies – especially those that emphasize safety – appreciate veterans’ experience following established procedures.

5. Traveling Across the Country & Overseas

The various branches of the U.S. military maintain more than 800 bases in 70 countries and 44 states. Active-duty service members receive 30 days of paid vacation each year, in addition to two free days per week for most assignments, and they can use their off-duty time to travel to other bases for rest and recreation if desired.

Also, service members and their immediate families can fly free on military aircraft if space is available. Many commercial airlines, Amtrak, car rental companies, hotels, and cruise lines offer military discounts.

Finally, service members are automatically enrolled in the Armed Services Vacation Club, which offers week-long stays in luxury resorts around the world for a low price of $359.

6. Higher Income Potential

According to a 2019 report by Pew Research using data compiled over 40 years, households headed by veterans tend to have higher incomes and living standards, along with lower poverty rates. The difference is especially pronounced in racial and ethnic minority groups and among heads of household with lower levels of educational attainment.

7. Enlistment Bonuses

To attract recruits for jobs that are hard to fill, require higher qualifications, or require specialized training with high dropout rates, each of the five services can offer an enlistment bonus of up to $40,000 to those who complete their training and are permanently assigned to those jobs. This bonus is typically paid annually and prorated over the years of active service. The bonus is in addition to other standard benefits offered to all service members (more on those below).

Recruits who enlist to fill those hard-to-fill jobs may also be entitled to the following:

  • Extra College Funds. This money is in addition to the funds available through the GI Bill.
  • Advanced Enlistment Rank. Enlistees with college credits or participation in ROTC programs may be eligible for advanced rank immediately or accelerated promotion with higher pay. For example, a typical recruit has an E-1 ranking, while a Navy recruit with college credits might have as high as an E-3 ranking.
  • College Loan Repayment Program. All of the services repay all or a part of a publicly funded college loan in exchange for enlistment.
  • Buddy Program. All of the branches offer a “buddy enlistment” program: Two people of the same sex can enlist together and be guaranteed to go through basic training together. If they have the same job, they may also go through job training and be assigned to the same duty base together.

8. Basic Armed Service Benefits

All members of the armed services are entitled to specific benefits during and after service, including:

  • Basic Pay. Enlistees typically enter the service at the E-1 service grade with monthly pay of $1,680.90. The typical recruit advances to the E-4 level within three years of service and earns $2,194.50 monthly according to the basic military pay rates effective January 1, 2020. Rates are automatically increased each year by a cost-of-living adjustment.
  • Special Pay. Military members receive special and incentive pay based upon their assignment, location, or skills. This pay can include hazardous duty, the ability to speak foreign languages, or special-duty assignments. In some cases, such as serving in a combat zone, basic pay and special payments are tax-exempt.
  • Free Room, Board, and Uniforms. Enlisted members who are unmarried without children live on-base in barracks. When recruits share a single room, they receive extra pay, and soldiers who live off-base receive a tax-free housing allowance. Also, all active-duty members receive a tax-free monthly food allowance they can use for on-base meals in a base dining hall, as well as off-base. Finally, all recruits receive a complete set of uniforms during initial training. Thereafter, they receive a clothing allowance to replace items as they wear out.
  • Free Health and Dental Care. Active-duty members receive free health and dental care through a program called Tricare Prime, usually provided through an assigned primary care provider or the base hospital. Veterans with more than two years of active service who have a service-related disability can qualify for lifetime Veteran Administration (VA) health care benefits.
  • Low-Cost Life Insurance. Service members can purchase up to $400,000 in military life insurance coverage for a monthly cost of $24 through Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI). The policy automatically includes up to $100,000 for traumatic injury, independent from any disability benefits due. When soldiers leave the service, they can convert to coverage under Veteran Group Life Insurance.
  • Disability Benefits. Service members with a service disability can qualify for benefits in excess of $3,300 per month from the VA.
  • Home Financing. Current members and veterans of the armed services are eligible for federal government-guaranteed housing loans under the VA. The program provides for 100% financing of homes that meet conforming loan limits. There is no limit to the number of times a veteran can use the VA benefit, although the maximum amount of that can be outstanding at any time is limited. In addition, many states provide housing and land purchase financing at below-market rates to veterans.

Risks of Enlisting in the Armed Forces

Never overlook or underestimate the commitment and courage of the thousands of young men and women who willingly volunteer to go into harm’s way to defend their country. The military not only fights America’s wars, but assists in times of catastrophic emergencies such as earthquakes, floods, and outbreaks of disease.

Only a small portion (about 0.4%) of Americans were active-duty members of the military in 2015. Because military service isn’t compulsory or widespread within the broader population, the public’s perceptions of the dangers faced by the typical service member may be grossly exaggerated.

According to figures compiled by the Congressional Research Organization (CRO), less than 1% of those on active duty between 1980 and 2019 have died while in service, and most of the deaths were accidental. The U.S. Army has accounted for the greatest number of fatalities and wounded in every war, followed by the Marines.

According to the CRO report, roughly one-third of active service members served “in theater” – the land, sea, and air area directly involved in war operations – during the Persian Gulf War (Desert Shield and Desert Storm). However, the majority of the military personnel in-theater serve in noncombat roles in HQ and administration, logistics, and life support.

That said, though the risks of death or injury are often exaggerated in the public’s mind, they are nevertheless real. And such risks can extend beyond the enlistment period. According to a 2016 study by the VA, male veterans were 18% more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts, while female veterans were 2.4 times more likely than civilian women. Almost two-thirds of veteran suicides were age 50 and older.


Final Word

In an era when corporations maximize income by eliminating employee benefits and transferring jobs overseas, the security of pensions has disappeared, and continued education is a prerequisite to job security, the advantages of military enlistment can be significant.

For many, the military is the only path to a college degree and professional status. For others, a stint in the armed services is a chance to test themselves, gain valuable maturity, and see the world. Even with its potential dangers, a career in the military provides the life and security some people seek for themselves and their families.

Do you believe the benefits of military service are worth the commitment and risk?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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