Into the Wild Blue Yonder

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 911 or any­thing like that. I was only 10 when 911 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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32 thoughts on “Into the Wild Blue Yonder

  1. Inter­est­ing thought on your two rea­sons for join­ing: #1 was Pas­sion & Pride, #2 was Prac­ti­cal­i­ty. Both great rea­sons, and the expe­ri­ence seems to have served you well, and I appre­ci­ate your ser­vice. Great advice on mak­ing sure you have the right rea­sons before join­ing, and think ahead to post-mil­i­tary Civil­ian life, and make your mil­i­tary time as applic­a­ble as pos­si­ble.

    • Thanks Fritz. I’m so glad I chose the IT job over the bioen­vi­ron­men­tal engi­neer job. Not only because there was a $20k sign­ing bonus, but because there’s a lot more high pay­ing civil­ian IT jobs lol

  2. Thanks Gwen, I’ve always been inter­est­ed to hear about your time in the mil­i­tary. Your last point is well tak­en, and should be on signs leav­ing every base! Not many peo­ple get to expe­ri­ence the mil­i­tary lifestyle today as in the past, but the shared com­mon expe­ri­ence is so impor­tant for our nation. I wish more young ser­vice mem­bers had their finan­cial head on their shoul­ders like you appeared to.

    • I wish I had done two things dif­fer­ent­ly: 1) get my wis­dom teeth out in tech school when they would’ve paid for it, and 2) put all my drill pay into my TSP. It’s so low cost! It would’ve had about $10k in seed mon­ey that could’ve com­pound­ed nice­ly in 20 years. Oh well. I did bet­ter than most!

  3. I have played with the idea of becom­ing a Navy reac­tors engi­neer, even speak­ing to a recruiter as recent­ly as last week. The tech­ni­cal con­tent of the job real­ly inter­ests me, and it would be cool to do a bit of trav­el­ing (I think it would be most­ly in the US, though), but I don’t think I would do well in the mil­i­tary. I like hav­ing com­plete con­trol over my life. I will prob­a­bly keep day­dream­ing about it though.

    Curi­ous — why did you say not to get mar­ried to get out of the bar­racks? Does that mean you get your own quar­ters with your spouse? Do peo­ple actu­al­ly get mar­ried just for that pur­pose?

    • You should talk to Nords (the Mil­i­tary Guide) about being a Navy Reac­tor engi­neer. That’s what he did in his mil­i­tary career. Doing that would mean lots of time on a sub, though. Don’t do it if you’re claus­tro­pho­bic!

      As to the mar­riage thing, yeah. Peo­ple prey on ser­vice mem­bers (male and female) to get the guar­an­teed income and ben­e­fits. Some­times they get mar­ried and divorced quick­ly, and oth­er times stick around for­ev­er. The amount of mon­ey you get for depen­dents (kids and spouse) is crazy com­pared to being sin­gle, so it’s cre­at­ed this per­verse incen­tive to get mar­ried.

  4. Gwen,

    I’ve been fol­low­ing you for a while and I had no idea you were in the Air Force! ME TOO! I am cur­rent­ly in the Air Force and I went to Keesler. My job is Client Sys­tems. We’re basi­cal­ly the same per­son! I am sta­tioned in Den­ver, Col­orado now.

    I joined because after I went to col­lege, I had $40k in stu­dent loans and my job in St. Louis just wasn’t cut­ting it. I now make dou­ble what I made there (thank you Depen­dent BAH — I was mar­ried before join­ing) and join­ing the Air Force was the best deci­sion I could have made. I wish I had done it right out of high school. I have only heard bad things about the Guard, so it’s no won­der you got the heck out. Plus, a lot of peo­ple hate active-duty mil­i­tary, but I think it’s all about per­spec­tive.

    Any­ways, I love it and I am now try­ing to com­mis­sion as a nurse through a nurs­ing com­mis­sion­ing pro­gram they have. If that works out… Bring on the mon­ey!

    Thanks so much for shar­ing! It’s always fun to hear about oth­er people’s expe­ri­ences!

    • ZOMG. I was a 3D1X1 too!! Crazy coin­ci­dence.

      I waf­fle on what I would do if I had a chance to go back and redo things. I had an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence at col­lege and it was total­ly free. But.… on the oth­er hand, I had a ton of active duty friends that had a blast. The grass is always green­er right? Good luck on the nurs­ing thing!!

  5. I come from an army back­ground — my father, his broth­er and my grand­fa­ther all served in the Indi­an Army — my father served for a lit­tle over 20 years and I grew up mov­ing around the coun­try as he was post­ed from place to place. I was nev­er tempt­ed to join though.

    I enjoyed your sto­ry, and chuck­led over the image of you as a con­sci­en­tious lit­tle shoe-align­er : )
    Mrs. BITA recent­ly post­ed…What might the AHCA mean for Ear­ly Retire­ment?My Profile

    • Boots, spare boots, dress shoes, run­ning shoes. All in a straight line and almost but not quite touch­ing each oth­er. I loved being a shoe align­er. The expec­ta­tions were so much low­er and the shoes didn’t talk back to me 🙂

  6. I … the hug thing is weird. That’s weird.

    Also, does that mean you did basic at Lack­land? I’m in SA so that’s neat. 🙂

    My fam­i­ly also has a his­to­ry of serv­ing, but for us it’s the Army. My dad hilar­i­ous­ly want­ed me to go to West Point–a propo­si­tion that I just laughed at. I ful­ly admit I’m not men­tal­ly or phys­i­cal­ly tough enough to make it through basic. My dad was a drill sergeant and told me all the horrible/hilarious things they would do to the Pri­vates. Not for me, haha­ha.

    But since my fam­i­ly was real­ly poor, the Army served as a way to get a steady pay­check, hous­ing, food, and edu­ca­tion. If you real­ly need direc­tion in your life, the mil­i­tary is an excel­lent option.

    • Indeed! June through August at Lack­land, or Lack­lus­ter as we called it lol.

      The mil­i­tary has helped out mil­lions of peo­ple. It is def­i­nite­ly a great option for many peo­ple, but you have to go in with your eyes open and know what you’re get­ting into.

    • Hon­est­ly, basic wasn’t much dif­fer­ent than liv­ing with my par­ents. Just a bit more strict. It was eas­i­er for me to adapt than oth­ers in my flight!

  7. I’m a lit­tle con­fused. You said your par­ents sat you down at the begin­ning of sopho­more year of col­lege and told you they weren’t pay­ing for it, which moti­vat­ed you to join the military…but you signed up with the mil­i­tary right before you grad­u­at­ed high school?

    • Yes, I start­ed doing research and think­ing about join­ing, but I had to wait until I was 18. I turned 18 in Octo­ber, and start­ed the process a few months lat­er. Tried to join in the spring, but failed my phys­i­cal. Get­ting a waiv­er took until end of July and I signed up in August before I left for school.

  8. Thank you for shar­ing this! It’s always fas­ci­nat­ing to read about an expe­ri­ence in life that’s very dif­fer­ent from my own (per­haps it’s voyeurism? ah well!).

    It sounds like your rela­tion­ship with your par­ents was strained — that stinks. But I do wish some­one had sat me down in my sopho­more year of high school and explained the real­i­ties of pay­ing for col­lege. Then again, debt was very much accept­ed and embraced by the peo­ple in my life, so up through col­lege I thought that every­one had stu­dent loans, because that was my expe­ri­ence. They just seemed like a real­i­ty of life, so I real­ly didn’t think any­thing of hav­ing them myself. Like it was a rite of pas­sage — a part of becom­ing an adult. I won­der what my choic­es would have been if some­one had gone through oth­er options with me!
    Stephonee recent­ly post­ed…Read­er Ques­tion: Should I Refi­nance My Stu­dent Loans?My Profile

    • Yes, we had a rough patch towards the end of high school and the begin­ning of col­lege. They kicked me out and I was briefly home­less, float­ing from friend to friend’s house, until a men­tor took me in for the rest of the sum­mer before I left for school.

      I am grate­ful that they did instill sol­id finan­cial lessons in me before I grew up. Oth­er­wise, I wouldn’t have sur­vived, much less thrived. My aver­sion to debt served me well!

  9. Gwen, I’ve got to say, you don’t look all too pleased in that mil­i­tary head shot at the top of the post! 😉

    Based on your mil­i­tary expe­ri­ence, what have you learned about indi­vid­u­al­i­ty vs. con­for­mi­ty, and has it shaped your approach to blaz­ing your own trail toward FI? I’m curi­ous to get your rather unique take…

    • We weren’t allowed to smile 🙁

      The mil­i­tary is such a unique cul­ture. You kind of have to have that group­think and uni­for­mi­ty in place to sur­vive in tough envi­ron­ments. You’ve all been through the same expe­ri­ence and can depend on your broth­er or sis­ter.

      The FI com­mu­ni­ty doesn’t need to be so depen­dent on each oth­er. I notice a cer­tain lev­el of fanati­cism from some parts of the com­mu­ni­ty that pro­mote the group think, but most peo­ple are very under­stand­ing of the need to have dif­fer­ent views and approach­es to FIRE. If any­thing, the com­mu­ni­ty has taught me it’s ok to be dif­fer­ent and to find the path that works best for me.

  10. Thank you for your ser­vice and for telling your sto­ry!

    I for­get if you’ve men­tioned the AF specif­i­cal­ly, or if I was just assum­ing it in my head. I took a Mil­i­tary 101 course at work (we do a fair bit of work with the DoD) that was run by a few dif­fer­ent instruc­tors from dif­fer­ent branch­es. One of the first things we learned was the stereotypes/names the branch­es call each oth­er, so I learned that the AF was the nerdi­est branch. 😉

    Half of my cousins are in the mil­i­tary, as was my uncle. I’ve got a younger broth­er kin­da strug­gling right now with find­ing a job and part of me thinks the struc­ture and dis­ci­pline would be real­ly good for him.

  11. Fun­ny, my dad was in the mil­i­tary yet nev­er told us we should join. He also nev­er told us we shouldn’t join. I decid­ed not to, despite hav­ing a love for my Coun­try that’s hard to describe.

    I am glad I didn’t though, as I would have like­ly been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, giv­en that I am now 40 today. I saw 9/11, and just looked on like every­one else around me. Plus my fam­i­ly was low income, so I got a slew of free mon­ey from Pell Grants, SEOG grants, and even state grants to go to col­lege. need­less to say, I worked as lit­tle as I could while attend­ing col­lege.

    • I could’ve def­i­nite­ly worked hard­er in col­lege, but I was hap­py to just do the Guard thing. Most sum­mers I had a job to help pad the cush­ion for the school year.

  12. I’ve thought of join­ing the mil­i­tary before, but I nev­er real­ly got around to it as oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties start­ed pop­ping up left and right. Also, my par­ents were pret­ty scared of every­thing that was going on at the time (Iraq?), so that may have also affect­ed my deci­sion a lit­tle.

    Thank you for your ser­vice, Gwen, and I’m glad that you enjoy it!
    Smart Pro­vi­sions recent­ly post­ed…Net Worth Report: Feb­ru­ary 2017 Edi­tionMy Profile

    • It’s def­i­nite­ly not the “right” path or “only” path. The mil­i­tary can be a great start to a career, an entire career, or a great way to kill a career. It all depends on what you put into it. If you had oth­er, bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties, I wouldn’t feel guilty for not join­ing.

  13. Gwen, I’m lis­ten­ing to your pod­cast on rad­i­cal per­son­al finance while I com­ment here. What a great post, you are so gift­ed at explain­ing a com­plex life deci­sion, some­thing most of us strug­gle with. You have a great radio voice too. I knew they aren’t gen­er­al­ly very prof­itable but you could do a suc­cess­ful pod­cast with your abil­i­ty to flow con­ver­sa­tion nat­u­ral­ly and with a pro­fes­sion­al qual­i­ty voice. That just my opin­ion but as a retired guy I lis­ten to dozens of pod­casts and pri­or with tal­ent just stand out. Any­way, good luck and thanks for how you are edu­cat­ing and enter­tain­ing peo­ple.

  14. HI Gwen! I have real­ly been able to relate to your sto­ry for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. I too am in the Air Nation­al Guard and will be com­ing up on 5 years in May. That means I have to decide if I will reen­list or not in about a year. I love the guard, but def­i­nite­ly not the 12 hour work weeks you men­tioned. I am an elec­tri­cian on C-130’s and have found it pret­ty dif­fi­cult to stay pro­fi­cient at my job just doing it one week­end a month. As far as FI goes, I invest 100% of my drill pay each month which almost allows me to max out my IRA. I do not how­ev­er have a job out­side of the guard that allows me to invest as much more right now. How­ev­er, I will get there:) I look for­ward to con­tin­u­ing to fol­low you in your jour­ney towards FI!

    • Oooh that’s a tough deci­sion. I got a lot of back­lash for get­ting out after my first com­mit­ment was up. Lots of accu­sa­tions of using the Guard to get ahead and then ditch them. Thank good­ness I had school paid for by oth­er means or it would’ve been even worse. Just a heads up that might hap­pen. My deci­sion was pret­ty easy to make, but I had a sol­id civil­ian job wait­ing for me. Yours is a bit trick­i­er! Good luck!

  15. Hi Gwen! Thank you for your ser­vice! My hus­band is old­er than I am (well, by about 8 years) and he served in the Navy dur­ing the first Gulf War (he was in the Navy from 1990 to 1994). He was direc­tion­less and head­ed down a bad path when he was young, and the Navy gave him a way out. He had some great times and trav­eled the world AND was sta­tioned in San Diego and Long Beach (nice!), and was even invit­ed to Camp David, but in the end, decid­ed that being a “lif­er” wasn’t for him. I know he is proud of his ser­vice, though, and has no regrets. Also, he found his career through the Navy…one of the jobs he was assigned to (in addi­tion to his main jobs on the ship) was cut­ting the guys’ hair. Many told him that he was great at it…and so when he got out, the mil­i­tary paid for cos­me­tol­ogy school. He still cuts hair to this day, although he’s look­ing into being a real estate agent.

  16. So fun learn­ing a lil per­son­al his­to­ry about you! Besides the train­ing and free edu­ca­tion, I bet the mil­i­tary instilled some dis­ci­pline that has helped you on your path to FI. No won­der you are amaz­ing at stick­ing to a plan and mak­ing things hap­pen!

    • Hap­py to help! I’m big on being an open book on here lol. I have a few real life friends read my blog and reach out to me occa­sion­al­ly who go “Hey I read this thing and I had no idea! Let’s talk about it!” and then I have great con­vos in real life too 🙂

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