Choosing and joining a
Deciding to pursue career training in the
U.S. Armed Forces is the first of many steps to becoming a
soldier, airman, sailor, Marine, or Coast Guardsman. There
is also the decision about which branch to join. The armed
services’ five branches have a lot in common, but each
has its own purpose. You’ll need to learn what
distinguishes each branch and whether it provides the
kinds of opportunities you seek.
Do your research, take a few tests, and
you might be ready to sign on the duty-bound line.
Doing your homework
To learn about the armed services and the
types of jobs they offer, get input from several sources.
Study written material, watch video presentations, and
talk to recruiters, family, and friends. Then, analyze the
facts you’ve gathered to make an informed decision.
A good starting point is to look at each
branch of service separately. Knowing more about what each
does can help you to narrow your occupational focus.
Branches. The Army, Air Force,
Navy, and Marine Corps fall under the U.S. Department of
Defense. They provide the military forces needed to
conduct or deter war and protect the Nation’s security.
The Coast Guard is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland
Security and has a primarily domestic role in enforcing
maritime law and safety.
The Army is the largest of the five
branches, with about 488,000 officers and enlisted
soldiers on active duty. These personnel defend U.S. land
and interests through ground-based operations in dozens of
The Air Force, originally created as a
ground-support corps of the Army, has roughly 347,000
active-duty personnel. They defend the Nation from the air
and from space, operating and controlling aircraft,
satellites, and missiles.
The role of the Navy is to maintain
freedom of the seas. In addition to enabling trade and
travel for the United States and its allies, a strong navy
can use the oceans during times of conflict. About 342,000
active-duty Navy personnel serve on ships, submarines,
aircraft, and bases around the world.
The Marine Corps, part of the Department
of the Navy, is the only branch of the armed services with
air-, land-, and sea-based expeditionary fighting
capabilities. Marines, who number around 178,000 on active
duty, are trained to deploy quickly into situations
ranging from peacekeeping to combat; they also guard U.S.
During peacetime, the Coast Guard focuses
on maritime rescue, safety, law enforcement, and border
control. In times of conflict, the President—the
Commander in Chief—can transfer all or some of the
38,000 active-duty members of the Coast Guard to the
Department of the Navy.
Remember, there is some overlap between
the branches’ functions. The Air Force might seem an
obvious choice for jobs related to airplanes, for example,
but all five branches have aircraft-related occupations.
Thoroughly investigate your options if you want to train
for a particular job.
Research. Military recruitment information
exists in many forms: posters and brochures, Web-based
videos and written materials, and radio and television
spots. But information also comes from talking with other
people, including current and former military personnel
and recruiters for each of the branches.
Some information for making comparisons is
easy to find. For example, each branch provides details
about its education benefits and eligibility requirements.
You can compare those details to help you decide which
branch to join—or not join.
When evaluating the materials you read,
see, or hear, however, keep in mind that their purpose is
to promote the armed services. You might find the
occupational profiles for one branch appealing, but don’t
be too quick to disregard the other branches in the
A major part of your decisionmaking
process should involve talking to others. Current and
former servicemembers can tell you about their active-duty
job, which is especially helpful if it’s the type of
work you’d like to do. But remember that each person’s
military experience, positive or negative, is filtered
through a different prism.
This advice can also come from recruiters,
whose job is to tell you about the military in general and
their branches in particular. Get the facts you need by
asking specific questions about the occupational options
in each branch, especially if you have a certain job in
mind. Recruiters can also provide information about
details such as signing bonuses, length of basic training,
specifics about leave and medical care, conditions of
living quarters, and details of education benefits.
For balance, talk to more than one
recruiter from each branch. Be informed enough to ask
specifically about topics, such as options for joining the
Reserves, that the recruiter might not mention otherwise.
And trust your instincts. Be wary of any recruiter who you
feel avoids directly responding to your questions.
The flipside to asking questions, of
course, is listening to the answers. Consider bringing
along a friend or family member to sit in on the session
with you. Afterward, you can compare notes. Be aware,
though, that the recruiter might ask personal questions.
Make sure you don’t mind that the person accompanying
you will hear your answers to those questions.
So, you’ve settled on the kind of job
you’re most interested in and the branch of service you
want to join. Now all you need to do is to put the two
together and sign a contract, right? Not exactly.
The U.S. Armed Forces first need to
evaluate your readiness to enter the military, your work
interests, and your skills in math, verbal, science, and
technical subjects. Then, they compare that information
with their personnel needs to determine what job you’ll
be trained to do. The type of occupational specialty you
get may depend on the length of your enlistment and the
availability of jobs.
Prequalifying. When you meet with
a recruiter, he or she probably will ask you a few
questions to make sure you qualify for military service.
Prospective servicemembers usually must meet the following
U.S. citizenship or permanent
High school diploma or equivalent;
Good health and drug free;
Between the ages of 17 and 35; and
Committed no felonies.
In addition, each branch may have specific
requirements for job specialties.
Next, your interests and abilities will be
assessed. Many students take the Armed Services Vocational
Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), offered at thousands of high
schools nationwide, during their junior or senior year.
This test is designed to help students identify their
If you haven’t already taken the ASVAB or need to take it again, you’ll take a short
version of it for prequalification purposes. Later, you’ll
take the complete version. Your score will be used to
determine whether you qualify for armed-services
enlistment—and, if so, in what kind of job.
Visiting a MEPS. Meeting the basic
requirements means you’ll visit a Military Entrance
Processing Station (MEPS). The MEPS is a joint-service
organization run by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Military applicants complete the ASVAB (if needed),
medical tests, paperwork, and other procedures before
taking the oath of enlistment.
The ASVAB, as mentioned previously,
measures aptitude in a broad range of career fields. Your
score will largely determine which occupations you qualify
for. Subject areas tested include word knowledge,
arithmetic reasoning, general science, mechanical
comprehension, and electronics information. Each branch of
the military establishes a minimum ASVAB score for
enlistees, and each branch has rules about retaking it.
The medical exam includes height and
weight measurements, hearing and vision tests, muscle
group and joint maneuvers, and other exams. You also will
be asked to complete a medical-history questionnaire.
If you meet the requirements for the
branch of service you’ve selected, you’ll learn about
job opportunities. You might discover that the occupation
you had hoped to train for does not have any available
slots—and that one you have little interest in pursuing
is wide open. What are your options?
Under the Delayed Entry Program, you might
be able to wait until the job you want becomes available.
But delayed entry isn’t a given. If you really want to
join the military, be prepared to train for an occupation
you might never have considered. Incentives, usually in
the form of enlistment bonuses, may be offered to those
willing to accept assignment in hard-to-fill jobs.
Until you sign a service contract, though,
you can still walk away. Once you sign a contract, you’re
obligated for at least 8 years of service—either active
or reserve, but an obligation nonetheless—and you can’t
leave, even if you don’t like it. So be sure you
understand the terms of that commitment before you make
Your final steps in enlisting include an
interview, fingerprinting for a background check, and
taking an oath. Congratulations! You’ve just bought
yourself a ticket to basic training.
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