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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 – the gateway to the middle class – for thousands of young American men and women. Service is both a way to see the world and learn valuable skills that can be transferred into civilian life – and many enlistees would not 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 non-veterans who do the same. According to Jay Teachman, a sociology professor at Western Washington University, interviewed in The Fiscal Times, “Even if they [veterans] don’t earn more education, they certainly earn more money.”

The opportunity to learn responsibility, focus, and discipline from military service can benefit enlistees for life. People in the military are taught how to make decisions in extreme conditions and function in periods of stress – traits critical in civilian life. However, it is 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 Armed Forces involves.

Military Experience and Success

Political Leaders

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In addition to the financial benefits of military service, the training and experience it provides have enabled many to achieve high positions in politics and business. Since World War II, 10 of the United States’ 12 presidents have served in the country’s military. While the percentage of senators and representatives with military service has steadily declined since the 1970s, veterans continue to represent a significant portion of Congress. According to the Congressional Research Service, 73% in the 92nd Congress (1971 to 1972) had military experience, while 18.7% of the 114th Congress (2015 to 2016) were veterans.

Business Leaders

Executive offices of the country’s largest companies are full of military veterans. These include:

  • Frederick W. Smith: The founder and CEO of FedEx served with the Marines in two tours of duty in Vietnam.
  • Roger Staubach: Staubach, a former Heisman Trophy winner and founder of a national real estate firm, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served two years in Vietnam.
  • Alex Gorsky: The chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and served six years in the U.S. Army.

According to a 2012 report by the Center for New American Security, companies are likely to pay higher starting salaries for employees with military service. The reasons cited for the employers’ preference include:

  • Leadership and Teamwork Skills: Typically, veterans have led colleagues, accepted direction from others, and operated as part of a small team.
  • Character: Veterans are perceived as being trustworthy, dependable, and drug-free, and having a strong work ethic.
    Structure and Discipline: Companies, especially those that emphasize safety, appreciate veterans’ experience following established procedures.
  • Expertise: Companies value veterans’ technical skills, job-specific experiences, and understanding of the military community.

Entrepreneurs

Veterans are responsible for a significant percentage of start-up and small businesses using the experience and education provided during their service. According to Marianne Hudson writing in Forbes, 30% of all American businesses are owned by veterans. As a consequence, the National Veteran-Owned Business Association proudly proclaims, “The lessons learned and lived in military service like leadership, teamwork, competitive spirit, mission-orientation, and ambition are the same attributes needed to succeed in business.”

Military service or a career in the armed services is an attractive alternative to college for many young men and women following high school graduation.

Military Experience Success

The Rising Costs of College

The high costs of a college education have forced many high school graduates to consider alternative paths to college and work careers. According to the College Board, the expenses of an undergraduate degree for an incoming freshman circa 2016 will exceed $100,000 at a public school. While many students pursue merit- and need-based scholarships, the National Center for Education Statistics calculates that grants and scholarships for students attending a four-year college are less than $5,500 annually.

Unfortunately, the majority of college students – even those with scholarships and grants – must depend upon parental assistance and loans to pay for college. With the average family earning a median income of $56,516 in 2015 (according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis), parents find themselves in a predicament, where they are forced to choose between their child’s education, spending their savings, borrowing, or subsisting near poverty level. Families with more than one child are especially burdened.

With little choice, those seeking a college degree either rely upon part-time work, student loans, or a combination of both. A report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that 70% to 80% of college students work full- or part-time jobs. Even so, working full time at minimum wage “isn’t enough to pay tuition at most colleges, much less room and board and other expenses,” according to the report.

Not surprisingly, the average graduate left college in 2016 with more than $37,000 in debt according to figures compiled by financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz for The Wall Street Journal. Sadly, many learn that a college degree does not guarantee either a good job or a bright future. A 2014 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York indicated that those graduating in the lower 25% of their college class earn about the same or less than the typical worker with a high school degree. Fortunately, there are alternatives to a bachelor’s degree for those students who are uncertain about incurring the expense of a four-year school.

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 “only hope to study beyond high school,” according to Alternet. Enlisting in the military is also a way to do the following:

1. Find Yourself

In his book, “Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century,” psychologist Jeffrey Arnett says that those between the ages of 18 and 29 are in a transitional period from adolescence and adulthood. The task of determining one’s identity and where they fit in a complex society is daunting for many. Almost half of students entering college 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 cause is “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. Serve Your Country

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.” Patriotism – love for one’s country – is a powerful incentive to join the military, and veterans are among those most respected by a thankful nation.

For decades, U.S. citizens have ranked the military as the institution in which they have the most confidence. According to a Gallup poll, the military has ranked above the church, the medical system, and banks. The number of those polled were 9 to 12 times more likely to have confidence in the armed services than big business and Congress respectively. A Pew Research Center poll ranked the military’s contribution to society higher than teachers, doctors, scientists or engineers, and Army veteran Jason Nulton noted for Task & Purpose that “troops today are held in high esteem by the public no matter how much the war itself might be hated.”

3. Attend College Without Crushing Debt

In an article for TIME, Mark Kantrowitz claims that excessive debt has significant lifetime consequences, delaying the purchase of homes, marriage, and children. To pay off the 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 defers college entry.

Attend College Without Crushing Debt

4. Receive Valuable Training in Different Fields

Each of the five branches of the military – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard – offer training programs that enhance your career opportunities as a civilian. Career paths include arts and photography, news and media, aviation, engineering, healthcare, human resources and meteorology, as well as other fields.

During their service commitment, enlistees can receive college credits for their experience and training which are accepted by more than 2,300 colleges and universities. Soldiers can receive professional and technical training to meet licensing and credentials for civilian jobs such as electrical work or software engineering.

5. Travel Across the Country and Overseas

According to Politico, the various branches of the U.S. military maintain bases in 44 of the 50 states, and have more than 800 bases in 70 countries. Active-duty service members receive 30 days of paid vacation each year, in addition to two free days per week for most assignments, and 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, as 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 that offers week-long stays in luxury resorts around the world for a low price of $349.

An Armed Services Commitment

Military service is not for everyone – some people aren’t interested, and others do not qualify. In 1973, the United States abandoned the military draft and instituted an all-volunteer military. The days where social delinquents faced jail or enlistment are long past.

Today’s military enlistee is an 18-year-old (or older) man or woman in good physical shape who possesses a high school diploma or a GED. Also, each soldier has passed the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test with elements of arithmetic reasoning, word knowledge, paragraph comprehension, and mathematics knowledge.

Legal immigrants living in the U.S. can enlist, but must obtain their citizenship before reenlisting. About 8,000 non-citizens enter the military each year and receive the same benefits as citizen enlistees. Immigrants in the service are eligible for an expedited process of citizenship. Non-citizen recruits are more likely to remain in service as a career and are increasingly valuable as the military’s global agenda expands.

Service Commitment

All enlistees, regardless of service branch, commit to a minimum of eight years of service including active-duty and inactive reserves. Most enlistees should expect four years in each category, recognizing that an inactive reservist can be recalled to active duty at any time due to a national emergency.

Each military branch offers special programs that may require a higher proportion of active service, such as the Navy’s Nuclear Field. Recruits entering that program will spend five years on active service and three years in the inactive reserves. While Congress has directed each service branch to offer shorter active duty options, opportunities for shorter terms are extremely limited.

Armed Services Commitment

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 up to $40,000 (depending upon branch and job) to those who complete their training and are permanently assigned to those jobs. The bonus is typically paid annually, and is prorated over the years of active service. The bonus is in addition to other standard benefits offered to all service members.

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 G.I. Bill.
  • Advanced Enlistment Rank. Enlistees with college credits or participation in ROTC programs may be eligible for advance 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 where 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.

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 $1,566.90. The typical recruit advances to the E-4 level within three years of service earning $2.267.10 monthly according to the basic pay rates effective January 1, 2016. Rates are automatically increased each year by a cost-of-living adjustment.
  • Special Pay. Military members receive special and incentive pays 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 the 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 that can be used for on-base meals in a base dining hall, as well as off-base. Finally, all recruits are given a complete set of uniforms during initial training. Thereafter, they receive a clothing allowance to replace items as they wear out.
  • Free Healthcare and Dental Care. Active-duty members receive free care through a program called Tricare Prime, usually provided through an assigned primary care provider or the base hospital. Also, veterans with more than two years of active service who have a service-related disability can qualify for lifetime Veteran Administration benefits.
  • Low-Cost Life Insurance. Service members can purchase up to $400,000 in coverage for a monthly cost of $29 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 by the Veterans Administration.
  • Educational Benefits. All military service members are eligible for tuition assistance while on active duty or in the Reserves. The 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. 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 will receive $1,857 (plus an annual increase) for 36 months of school.
  • Home Financing. Current members and veterans of the armed services are eligible for Federal Government-guaranteed housing loans under the Veterans Administration. The program provides for 100% financing of homes up to $417,000 or more under certain conditions. There is no limit to the number of times a veteran can use the VA benefit, although the maximum amount 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.

Dangers of the Armed Services

One should never overlook nor 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. This burden falls on the shoulders of less than 1% of the population – more U.S. students attend foreign schools each year than enlist in the military.

Since only a small percentage of Americans serve in the military, the public’s perceptions of the dangers faced by the typical service man or woman 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 2010 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, about 31% 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/administration, logistics, and life support. Stanton Coerr claims that “most of us who have gone overseas, even into a combat zone, have never heard a short fired in anger. We volunteered, we went, we did our jobs, we came back. And that is pretty much it.”

Only 25% of military personnel were in a combat role in Iraq in January 2005, though supplemented by nonmilitary contractors, according to John J. McGrath’s analysis “The Other End of the Spear: The Tooth-to-Tail Ratio (T3R) in Modern Military Operations.” 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 study by the Veteran Administration, male veterans were 18% more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts, while female veterans were 2.4 times more likely than a civilian woman. Almost two-thirds of veteran suicides were aged 50 and older.

Armed Services Dangers

Final Word

In an era where 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 one’s self, gain valuable maturity, and see the world. Even with its potential dangers, a career in 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?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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