Updated: May 27
In the coming weeks, about 3.5 million teenagers nationwide will complete their high school education and some of those young men and women will consider the military as a career option. I enlisted immediately after high school. I never planned to make the military a career, but 24 years later, I retired from it. Naturally I have some opinions on the subject.
If you are thinking about enlisting in the military, here are five things you must do when you see a military recruiter.
1. Develop a plan. If you do not have a plan when you speak to the recruiter, they will make one for you and I can assure you it will almost certainly include a job that you will not enjoy. A lot of teenagers innocently walk into a recruiter’s office and months later find themselves in a profession that they really had no intention of doing all because they lacked a plan. “There is nothing like jumping out of a plane,” or “Anyone can go to college, but not everyone gets to drive an M-1 tank.” These are things Army recruiters told me when I was a teenager.
Keep in mind, recruiters are trained to sell. Army recruiters attend a six-week course that trains them how to get you to sign up for jobs that they need filled. They have goals that they must meet and there are certain military occupations that require a lot of bodies, like infantry. If you walk into a recruiting office undecided a recruiter will place you in a specialty that needs bodies. Recruiters are not your high school guidance counselor. They have a job to do.
I should note, recruiters do not have bad intentions. I don’t want to paint a picture that they are only interested in reaching their monthly goals. In recent years, military recruiting has drastically changed because military candidates have changed, but recruiters are still professionals and their job is to close the deal. So, figure out what you want to be when you grow up before you think about seeing a military recruiter and determine if you really need to join the military to enter the field that you’re interested in. In my case, I knew in middle school that I wanted to be a writer, but I failed to tell my recruiter and I ended up becoming a military working dog handler. That’s a unique job, and I enjoyed it, but it prepared me for a career in law enforcement not writing.
Just remember, have a plan. There are almost 1,000 jobs in the military and many of them have civilian equivalents. Some do not have exact equivalents, like airborne infantry, armor or artillery, but those fields do offer skill development in leadership and management that can be used in all professions on the outside if paired up with other training and education. Some employers recognize that, others don’t.
2. Have goals. You can have a plan, but without goals or objectives, plans are just words on paper. What are your goals in life? What does success look like for you? Ensure your plan includes steps to get you to your destination (goals) otherwise pack your bags, you are going on a long trip on a slow boat to nowhere.
The military is a wonderful place, but it can also be an immensely distracting environment. Write down your goal, for example, “I want to earn a college degree in business.” Then outline a plan to get to that goal. “I will join the Army as a clerk and go to college in the evenings until I complete my degree.” Give yourself a timeline so you stay on track. Remember, the military will have lots of opportunities for distractions. Stay true to your goals. This strategy also applies if you want to make the military a career. Set goals and have a plan on how you will get to milestones.
3. Be honest with yourself. While I did not tell my recruiter that I wanted to be a writer, I knew that I did not have a desire to do anything overly gung-ho. When the Army recruiter started talking to me about airborne training, not only had I never considered parachuting before, I knew personally that being airborne did not have a place in my life’s goals. It was easy for me to move on from the Army’s sales pitch. I was just looking for food, shelter and a paycheck.
When I met with the Air Force recruiter, he introduced himself as “Gerry,” and I liked that right away. He told me about the travel, benefits and pay (back then it was about $550 per month). He asked me what I liked to do. Like an idiot, I told him, “I dunno.” He then started throwing out career options. Truth was, I knew, I just didn’t realize that a place like the military had journalists (public affairs specialists).
Remember, do your research. The military has thousands of jobs. Odds are great, they have what you want to do. Tell your recruiter what you’re interested in doing professionally. Assert yourself. You do not owe them anything and if they don’t seem accommodating, go to another recruiter in another part of town. And if one particular branch of service is being uncooperative, then explore another branch of service. Being honest with yourself means you will be honest with the recruiter.
4. Study for the ASVAB. The key to getting the military job you want lies in your ability to obtain high scores on your Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). The ASVAB is broken up into 10 parts, but it mostly measures your word knowledge, paragraph comprehension, arithmetic reasoning and mathematics knowledge. The scores you get on these four sections comprise the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT).
The AFQT is the most important score because it determines which branch of service you can join. While many people state that anyone with a pulse can pass the ASVAB, remember that getting a low score can prevent you from getting the job that you desire and it can also keep you out of a particular service.
To enlist in the U.S. Army, you must achieve at least a 31 AFQT on the ASVAB. Enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps requires candidates to earn an AFQT of 32. In order to join the Navy, you will need an AFQT of 35. To enlist in the U.S. Air Force, a candidate must achieve a 31 AFQT. Lastly, if you’re interested in joining the military’s newest branch, U.S. Space Force, reach out to an Air Force recruiter for more information. And although the U.S. Coast Guard is not in the U.S. Department of Defense (unless it is mobilized to support the U.S. Navy), their candidates also take the ASVAB and must earn a 40 AFQT.
Remember, these are just the required AFQT scores to join a particular branch of service. Joining fields like special operations, cyber warfare and other technical fields require higher scores within the ASVAB’s subtests.
Many people will tell you that the test is easy and it doesn’t require preparation. My advice is, prepare for it. It is not a hard test by any stretch, but preparing can only improve your scores and familiarize you with the format of the test. There are study guides everywhere and some of them are free.
5. Get everything in writing. If it isn’t in writing, it isn’t true. Read that again. Do not let the recruiters promise you something verbally. If the recruiter has told you that you will receive a bonus for signing up, get it written in your contract and get the details of how money will be disbursed.
Recruiters are generally good people and most will try to connect you with a profession that you want, but they are the brokers in a business transaction between you and the U.S. government. You don’t have to be adversarial about it, but understand that it is a transactional relationship and you should treat the professional aspects of that relationship as a business deal. Ensure you look out for your own interests. You can still be cordial, but be smart.
One of the biggest questions potential candidates ask right now is if they will go to war. Recruiters are not career field managers. They cannot tell you, even though they might try, whether or not you will deploy. Some jobs and some units deploy more than others, and while the odds are greater if you are in the Army or Marines, just about every career field and service deploys these days. In fact, two of the first Purple Hearts awarded by the command I worked for in Iraq were presented to enlisted Air Force IT professionals whose truck got blown up in Baghdad. The battlefield has changed. If you’re not ready for that, consider another employer.
One more thing. Remember, the military isn’t like any other job. You can’t just quit and walk away when you become unhappy with it. If you enlist, you are contractually obligated to serve. Mission comes first. You are taking an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies. That oath does not include verbiage about your personal goals, dreams and aspirations. If you cannot deal with that, don’t join. The military services and its leaders do their best to care for our men and women in uniform, but the needs of the services and the mission come first.
The U.S. military has about 18,000 recruiters nationwide to help you find a good fit in the ranks. Most of them are pretty good, helpful people, but following these recommendations will help prepare you for a better experience working with them. If after reading this, you still have questions, or need help, leave a comment on this blog and I will write you back. I’m happy to help.