I've mentioned my experience in the military here and there, but I haven't really gone into any detail about it. I've gotten several requests to talk about various aspects of being in the military and I'm happy to oblige!
I don't really like to bring up being in the military in my every day to day life. I've found it evokes a very strong reaction from people and I'm not necessarily a big fan of that. At least now I don't get random strangers coming up to me asking if they can give me a hug! <– true story from my town pass in San Antonio. She smelled nice.
“So, Gwen…… why did you join the military?”
I joined the military for two reasons.
One, my family has a proud history in the military. My Grandma, Grandpa, two uncles, stepdad, and cousin were all in service in a time frame spanning from World War II to the Gulf War. My sisters had no wish to join, but I always thought it was kind of cool. Ironically, my Grandma had a conniption about me joining and expressively forbid me to join. I didn't listen to her and have no regrets.
Then, the second reason happened. Not anything like getting inspired to join after 9/11 or anything like that. I was only 10 when 9/11 happened, and I'm not nearly that altruistic.
No, I had a far more selfish reason to join. I wanted the military to pay for my schooling. My parents sat me down shortly after the beginning of my sophomore year of college and told me they would only cover 2 years at the local community college. I wanted to go to a 4 year university, and not be surrounded by the same people I'd known the last 11 years. But I didn't know how I would pay for it. The thought of getting student loans freaked me out. I couldn't even handle having a $2k loan for my car. There was no way I would willingly get myself into tens of thousands of dollars of debt for my education.
So I starting talking to a recruiter. After keeping in touch on and off, I finally signed up in the spring of 2009, right before I graduated high school.
It was only after my name was signed on that line did I get the call about the full-ride scholarship with my name on it. I had the chance to back out of joining when my physical was rejected, but I decided to apply for a waiver. I had already told everyone I was joining, after all. The waiver was accepted, I raised my right hand, and was officially in the Air National Guard.
Then, I promptly left for my freshman year of college and barely had anything to do with them until my freshman year was complete. All I had to do that year was show up to drill once a month and practice saying things like my reporting statement, memorizing the Air Force song, and learning the basics of marching and saluting.
Since this is a personal finance blog, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the financial impact. The Air Force was my only source of income for much of my freshman year of college. I was BROKE. The aforementioned car loan was $150 a month, and I only got $200 a month in pay. I wasn't talking to my parents either, so I had no parental support.
Living off $50 a month was doable since all my major expenses were covered thanks to the scholarship. It definitely wasn't easy, and I grew to appreciate all the free activities my university offered. To pick up some spare cash, I went back to the toy store of doom. I ended up saving almost every single penny from that, which got me through the spring to Basic.
Ah yes…. Basic Training. The best worst time of my life.
Looking back, I actually had a really great time. I think it's just because I've repressed how freaking miserable I was though. For kicks and giggles, watch the video below. This is what the first night of Basic used to look like. Fun fact, my MTI (Air Force drill sergeant) actually appears in the video towards the end.
Basic was miserable. We were sleep deprived, forced to march everywhere in the blistering summer Texas heat, constantly harassed by everyone we met, and had very little time to eat and shower. I'm talking barely enough time to sit down, slam 4 glasses of water, lick a biscuit, and get the F out of the mess hall.
The first two weeks of Basic actually wasn't that bad…… until I was promoted to Dorm Chief. At the tender age of 19, I was put in charge of all 59 women in my flight whenever our MTI wasn't around. I lasted two weeks. In that time span, I learned I was really bad at being in charge of people. I commanded no respect. Of course, it's not like I actually got lessons in leadership or anything helpful like that. That experience as Dorm Chief was instrumental in my overall career path, though, as I learned I was really good with computers and not really great with people. I spent the remaining time at Basic as a shoe aligner (every morning I went around and made sure everyone's shoes were in a straight line, with their shoelaces done correctly and tucked in the shoe).
But I survived and came out a stronger, better person. I learned a lot of valuable lessons about myself and about how other people operated. Being exposed to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and lifestyles was very eye-opening to my sheltered self.
I then spent 4 months in Biloxi, Mississippi at tech school. If Basic's purpose is to teach you how to be in the military, then tech school's purpose is to teach you how to do your job to the Air Force's standard. My job in the Air Force was working on computers, radios, and telephones. It was 4 months of computer classes that gave me the confidence to switch my major when I went back to school.
After tech school, I did 6 weeks of On The Job (OJT) training with my squadron at home. This experience taught me what I was going to do for our squadron. Funnily enough, there wasn't much overlap with what the Air Force said we were going to do.
My training period, from Basic to OJT, lasted about 8 months. I got paid about $1,500 a month. Simple math says Uncle Sam paid me roughly $12,000 that year, a princely sum for someone used to living on only $50 a month. I paid off my car and bought some new clothes (some of which I'm still wearing today), new movies, and a new cell phone. In other words, I went crazy lol.
After I finished OJT, I got the first half of my $20,000 signing bonus and went back to school. Life at school with money in my pocket wasn't much different from when I was broke, except I went out a bit more and wasn't afraid my car would run out of gas. Having money also meant I could afford to replace my car when I totaled the first one by running into a deer.
A year later, I got the chance to go support a mission and jumped at the opportunity. I spent two weeks in Guam with a bunch of people from the Utah Air National Guard and had an absolute blast! The work was light for tech support and easy to handle when something did break. It was basically a paid vacation.
So, if you had so much fun, why did you get out?
Truthfully, I was bored out of my mind. All we ever did was have drill once a month, and annual training for two weeks in the summer. Endless amounts of useless paperwork was filled out, training classes attended, and things set up and torn down for no reason.
Not to mention, I started my career in the middle of my time in the Air Force, and doing 12 day work weeks every month was starting to wear me out. I have no idea how guys with families do it for 20 years. I was getting paid so much at work, and so little from the military that I felt I was just wasting my time. There was no room for advancement either. So, I got out.
I've been out of the military for almost two years now. I miss the people at my base, but I don't miss putting up with all the crap. I am enjoying my freedom though! I can travel whenever I want, I can move wherever I want, wear my hair how I want, and just generally live my life without Uncle Sam in my back pocket.
If you want to join the military, I would think long and hard about it first. Make sure you're going in for a good reason. Find a career that's applicable in the civilian world, milk the military for every ounce of training you can, and have a plan on what you want to achieve while in the military. And of course, live as cheaply as you can and save as much pay as possible. The military covers so many basic expenses (food, housing, training), that your expenses should be super low.
And whatever you do, DON'T get married just to get out of the barracks.
Have you thought about joining the military? Were you in at one point? Let's hear your stories!
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