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 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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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!
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    • 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!
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    • 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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