The Depot

Things to Consider When Choosing a Military Branch to Join

In the early 1980s I was a troubling-making teen growing up preoccupied with cars, girls and partying. My grades in high school were awful and my motivation for things that required effort was pretty low. I was just out for a good time.

Sometime during my senior year in high school, a good friend told me that he was enlisting in the U.S. Army. Joining the military seemed like a good idea to me, a kid with few options who was ranked almost last in his graduating high school class.

Near my home there was an Armed Forces recruiting center and every branch of service had an office there. I went to the recruiting center and I visited my friend’s Army recruiter first. I didn’t need to be convinced. I needed some type of life after high school and this seemed like a way out for me. I knew I wanted to join the military because my friend had given me the sales pitch about steady money, free meals and healthcare.

Let me be honest. I did not go to the military recruiters because I had always wanted to serve and certainly not because I was a patriot. I wanted to enlist because I had no options that interested me. The one thing I knew was that I needed to leave home and start my life.

recruit getting first haircut

The meeting with the Army recruiter went well, but for some reason, it didn’t hit the right note for me. That night, I asked myself, which branch of the military should I join as I laid in bed? I didn’t really know a lot about the services, so I figured I could check them all out.

Days later, I briefly talked to the Navy and the Marines. I had grown up around the ocean, so there wasn’t anything too alluring about the sea. The Navy recruiter gave me some brochures and I moved onto the Marines.

My meeting with the Marines lasted about four minutes. I didn’t have an appointment, so I just dropped in unannounced as the recruiter was working with another applicant. He shot me a pretty intimidating look and hand knifed me.

“Sit down. Be with you in a minute,” he said. I nodded, sat, and I started looking around the office. There were all sorts of posters covering the walls of men doing what I would categorize at the time as “really cool military things,” but that didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t want to challenge myself, I just wanted a paycheck, a place to sleep, some food and a free ticket to see the world. As I looked around the room, in the back of the office there was a restroom sign. I got up and as I passed the recruiter’s desk, I told him, “I’m going to the restroom.”

After I finished using the restroom, I mistakenly wandered into the Air Force recruiting office. When I opened the door, the only thing that came out of my mouth was “Uh, sorry.” Seated across the room at his desk was a smiling, friendly-looking guy who stood up, extended his hand as he walked toward me.

“Hey, I’m Gerry.”

He had me at hello.

Gerry was the nicest guy in the world. He didn’t knife hand me or give me a sales pitch. Instead, he asked me, what I wanted to do? I had no idea, so he gave me a book of possible career options, with lots of pictures, and he let me look through it.

Although I asked myself which branch of the military should I join, I ended up enlisting in the U.S. Air Force and I traveled the world. Serving in the Air Force taught me a lot of lessons about maturity, responsibility, accountability and selfless service. I knew nothing about these things prior to my enlistment.

recruits standing in a line

I am thankful for my military service. My impulsive actions as an 18-year-old, led to a 25-year military career that took me to multiple countries, afforded me the opportunity to serve in the enlisted and officer ranks, to serve in two branches of the military (I later left the Air Force for the Army), and in three components.

If you are asking which branch of the military should I join, the answer to that question lies within you. If someone you know is asking which branch of the military should I join, the same applies.

Everyone is different and everyone has a different set of values and goals. I can tell you, my values at 18 were far different than the values I have today as an older man. I was extrinsically motivated and I didn’t understand what military service meant.

Likewise, people today who might ask themselves which branch of the military should I join should also reflect and be honest with themselves. Why do you want to serve? People come to the Armed Forces for various reasons. Some, like me, come out of necessity and because they lack options. Despite being an unmotivated, selfish kid, I eventually found purpose in the military.

Ask yourself, not which branch of the military should I join, but instead, why do I want to serve? The military can be a great place to achieve your goals, but it is a good idea to have some sort of a plan so you can get the most out of the experience.

recruit crawling on belly through dirt

If you’re a young person who is only interested in earning a paycheck and your plan is to move on after your first enlistment, consider picking a branch of service and an occupation that gives you a skill you can use when you transition back to civilian life. Transferable skills are crucial in a successful transition.

The key is not to get caught up in the lure of money and promises of glory for joining certain jobs. Those jobs are great and many are held in high regard in the military, but some might not translate directly when it comes to civilian jobs. Do your research.

Travel is another motivator for people to join the military. If you want to travel, every branch of the service has overseas locations and the Navy is probably the most traveled branch of service. Other branches have permanent bases overseas in places like Europe, Japan, and Korea. Most of these tours last one to three years depending on your marital status and they offer the opportunity for a service member to truly immerse themselves in a foreign culture. Just remember, much is dependent on the job you do. A service member who works office hours with weekends off will have a lot more flexibility than someone who works in a demanding profession.

The point is, there are a lot of options for you to consider beyond which branch of the military should I join? The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and even Coast Guard all have reserve forces that offer part-time wages, retirement benefits, and educational and training benefits that can kickstart your life without the commitment of going to the military fulltime. The National Guard in your state is also a viable option with exceptional educational and employment benefits.

As you pursue your military service don’t lose sight of the fact that your goals can complement your military service. Remember, being in the military is not about you. You are serving the country, but you can also get something in return if you serve with purpose and have a plan. What you get in return, depends on you.

The question is not which branch of the military should I join? The question is, why do I want to join? If you can answer that, then the map becomes much clearer.

Steve Alvarez is a retired military officer and the editor of The Depot Blog. An Iraq war veteran, he is also the author of Selling War A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine published by Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.

Comments on this post ( 1 )

  • Nov 26, 2022

    I wish I had joined the Air Force when I graduated from college. I’d be flying today as a commercial Pilot.

    — Bill Underwood

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