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Ask HN: Joining the Military?
7 points by shire on Nov 29, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 19 comments
Has anyone from the HN community served in the military? if so what are the pros and cons of joining? I'm only 21 and at this stage of my life I feel hopeless and not sure what I want to do with my life. I enjoy programming but sometimes I get distracted and bored easily siting and programming all day I guess I need some kind of adventure or challenge I feel like I want to help others in a way that changes their life.

Give me some pros and cons of joining the Military I'm thinking either Air force or Navy, thanks.

I'm former Navy (Electronics Technician - Radio/Radar), but was in Army JROTC in High School.

First step is to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). There is no obligation to take that test (despite the pressure from the Navy or Air Force recruiter that you need to "lock up" your spot right away). Your score on this test will essentially open or shut doors to the variety of jobs/ratings you can ask for.

Generally, if you score high enough, you can guarantee a slot in a school of your choice, post-boot camp graduation. Like anything, if you fail in boot camp (generally sent home) or fail in the the "A-school" -- you can be put into any classification as the military sees fit.

Ignore all "promises" from recruiters that are not explicitly made in writing. Verbal assurances are meaningless -- no matter how sincere the recruiter appears.

You will be best served, if you feel the military is not going to be a career, to select jobs/classifications that have immediate transferability to civilian applications.

Once in, take advantage of all the training schools or other educational outlets that the military offers (and the GI Bill when you exit).

P.S., Some boot camp tips (applies to Air Force probably)

1. Consider when your boot camp located and join in "good weather" months. Great Lakes is hot & humid in July/Aug and bitter cold in Dec-Feb.

2. Show up being able to at least run a mile with little effort and do 20 "real pushups". They'll train you up from there, but those first 2 weeks will be brutal if you can't do either on day 1.

3. It's all about paying attention to (mostly meaningless) details. This is to prepare you to not being lazy and learn your most innocent mistakes can get someone killed. So it appears "stupid" early, but you'll see it's importance later.

Joining the military will not solve your problems, especially since the Army might decide that it needs another grunt, not another coder.

If you get bored and distracted easily, you might have ADHD or another mild impairment, which for many people is treatable. Consider talking to a psychiatrist.

>If you get bored and distracted easily,

Also, he's 21? His concept of 'bored easily' may be 'after 6 hours coding I need a break', or 'I've got way too much energy for this artificial desk job'.

When I was his age I couldn't hold down a 8-hr day job so I found freelancing suited me, so I could exercise and get out when I needed. I definitely do not have ADHD.

I'm not saying that he does. And I'm not saying that he doesn't. I am not a psychiatrist.

My point is that it is relatively easy to investigate and that trying to solve inattentiveness with stultifying rigidity fortified with lashings of mindless tedium and extremely limited choice of work might not be the right move. Especially if it's genuinely due to an inborn condition that no amount of drill sergeants can yell out of you.

Once you sign up, you can't easily get out without serious penalties. So it's worth exploring other possibilities first.

>trying to solve inattentiveness with stultifying rigidity fortified with lashings of mindless tedium and extremely limited choice of work might not be the right move

Yes on that I completely agree!

I served 4 years in the Army, but back before the current wars. As someone with a good high school education and promising background many people did not understand my choice. To be honest, I wasn't too clear on it myself at the time. But like you I was looking for...something else.

The Army was not at all what I expected. I expected to be told what to do all the time or for it to be like something out of Full Metal Jacket. I expected extremes. It IS different and it can occasionally be extreme, but most days it just felt kind of like a boring job that you can't quit and I'd guess that's the usual experience (again, I'm talking peacetime here), no matter which branch or type of soldier you are (I was Infantry). I was a good soldier, but I spent most of the time looking forward to getting out. As far as helping others...I never felt like I had the opportunity.

However, I have never bonded so closely with a group of people before or since. And it definitely changed me for the better. I came out of it with a focus and drive that most of my peers severely lacked. Life just seemed a bit easier somehow. It also earns me respect wherever I go (deserved or not). Not to mention I was in hella good shape ;)

There's also a bunch of financial benefits: VA medical care for life, low interest home loans, access to better credit unions (USAA) and money for college + bonuses. Overall not a bad deal. It will set you back a few years in terms of career, especially if you want to continue programming. My only regret is that I did 4 years instead of 2. Everything good I got out of the military I had at two years.

I'm not really arguing for or against it here, I'm just giving you my experience. But it's a decision not to be taken lightly. We are at war. You may be involved in combat and you may not. Think on what that means to you before signing anything. There are other ways to help people, if that's your itch.

But if you're feeling hopeless and your itch is to just go do something a little bit rash because you're young and want adventure, might I suggest a backpacking trip through China? Or a road trip to visit every state? Or a job on a cruise-liner? Life is full of crazy shit to do. And you might just figure out what to do next along the way.

that was sad to watch

Yes, but it's relevant. This is war: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Lai_Massacre ... as is this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contest_to_kill_100_people_usin...

Also, read this: http://www.amazon.com/Nothing-Less-than-Victory-Decisive/dp/...

There are some just, moral wars. Most aren't.

Depends what your goals are. I haven't been in the military, but I know that it's nothing like the commercials. And I know that most soldiers are bored to tears and the most exiting part of their day is if they get something in the mail.

traveling, exercising and mostly computer related stuff.

Several of my friends spent years overseas doing just that. They obtained working visas (or the equivalent) in the countries they visited, and traveled the world doing IT work interspersed with hiking, hitchhiking, camping, and whatever else took their fancy.

If you have a knack for writing, you could run a travel blog, write for a publisher like Lonely Planet, etc.

There are many, many ways to achieve those goals that don't involve joining the military.

If you are going to join...

Do something reserve. Personally, I would go Army National Guard as my first choice but Army Reserves would be okay as a second choice.

The part timers (reservists/guard) go through the same basic and AIT training as the regular military. The difference is that you get to go back home while everyone else gets shipped off to their new unit at the end of training. I'm not completely sure about this, but I believe that it's easy for you to move from part timer to full timer (regular military) but not so easy the other way around. Your one weekend a month and two weeks per year is usually laid back and easy but it can also be an interesting break from your normal work. So, when all your training is over, you can reflect and think about your options. If you really enjoy the military, you can turn full timer. If you hate it or if you are content with part time, then you can continue that track.

Now that you have decided to go the part time route, consider that you will be limited in job by the area that you decide to live in. If you are willing / able to live anywhere, then you may want to relocate to the area where you can get the best job. For example, I served with an Army Reserve Chinook unit out of Ft. Lewis in Washington. The unit was amazing. We could hop on Chinook flights which were assisting the state in the national parks. The unit was active, had great funding and there were several full time opportunities for me right at that unit (full time reservist.) Another aviation unit (National Guard) I served in was a Blackhawk unit which was poorly funded. Many of the Blackhawks were grounded and we got few opportunities to fly on them.

I would research the different jobs in the military, compile a list of the jobs I might want to take and then do research to find out where those jobs might be available. Some of those jobs are limited to certain units (aviation). Other jobs are available at any unit (supply). I would also consider where I would like to live. I believe that National Guard units can be just about anywhere because they are state while reserve units tend to be on the same bases as the regular military. If at all possible, I would try to contact people in these different units to find out what sort of help they really need and what the unit is like. The openings you will get presented with when doing your job selection don't always match the most critical needs. Also, the unit might have full time work available for you if you choose a certain job. Finally, I would try to visit some of the locations on my list.

An additional benefit of being a part timer is that you can get a lot of help with school through various tuition assistance programs such as the GI Bill. You could be nicely setup between part time work, your one weekend a month, tuition assistance and full time school. Your unit might even be able to set you up with cheap housing on base.Of course, you would need to make sure to select a unit with a location close to the school you would want to attend.

For school, I believe that National Guard provides even better benefits. I believe that on top of the GI Bill, you can get your tuition fully paid at a state school. Just make sure that if you go the National Guard route, that your unit is decent and gets decent funding.

I ended up moving around and making a bunch of stupid mistakes. If I could redo my time in the Military, I would have stuck with the Chinook unit out of Ft Lewis. The unit was awesome, in a beautiful location and next to a great school (University of Washington) I could have had my choice of a few different full time job openings for decent money. With tuition assistance, a free place to live on base, meals served and a cushy job I could have done really well. The problem was that I had no idea what I was doing or how the system worked. The recruiters were worthless in that regard. They only want to get you signed up. Be very careful with the recruiters and don't let them sign you up for anything until you have fully figured everything out on your own. I would still talk to them to see what help they might be able to provide in contacting units though.

I don't know much about reserve units in the other branches, but I imagine they are a lot more limited in choice compared to the Army. Of all the branches, I believe the Airforce generally has the best facilities. The branch is a bit more recent and they get great funding. You can go through the same process with these other branches though.

Make sure that you get a good ASVAB score before looking to join. A good ASVAB score will determine what job you can get. I was able to get pretty much anything and aviation requires a relatively high ASVAB. People who do terrible on that test get stuck in shit jobs.

Personally, I would stay away from anything infantry and other "boots on the ground" jobs. Stay away from truck driving and crap jobs like chef. I did some motorpool duty and found it to be horribly boring. Pick an interesting job which won't put you in the middle of combat. That said, a lot of the Chinook jobs actually are considered combat because if you have to ride with the Chinook, then you might be going into some hot areas.

thank you for this I live in Washington so the University of Washington is close by and what you went through would be relevant for me and close by I'll look into this.

Why not try to get in one of the IT squads in the Army? This way you have both... serving in the miltary and coding.

There are very few assignments in the Army that involve coding on a regular basis. In fact, most people who spend 20 years in the Army as IT specialists end up leaving without ever learning anything at all about programming that they didn't teach themselves in their spare time. Many of them don't know much at all about computers either.

One of my IT instructors thought that anything involving a command line was part of a programming language called Unix. Before he became an instructor, he claimed to have held a full-time job as a software engineer, which involved nothing but generating reports from a SQL database.

The majority of the IT work in the military is Help Desk and low-level system admin and network admin stuff. There are exceptions, and there are some interesting assignments, but they are rare and getting one is often a matter of luck.

Military service can be rewarding, and its a good way to fund an education, but its definitely not for everyone.

this actually sounds like a great idea is this only in the Army branch? can you give me some more examples I'm very interested.

I'm not US-based, but the best bet is to talk to your local Army recruitment office.

Background/humblebrag: my brother was an officer in Soviet Strategic Missile Forces, a branch of the VVS (no, he didn't ride ICBMs like Dr. Strangelove, he programmed Forth instead). My father was in the Soviet equivalent of ROTC and was commissioned as reserve tank officer, my grandfather fought as a captain in the artillery unit during World War II -- from the very early battle all the way until the storm of Berlin -- and retired as a colonel afterwards. In short, while my family had been on the wrong side of the iron curtain, I think I'm qualified to give some advice -- from many stories my family has told -- as fundamentally, military forces are military forces.

There are many good reasons to join the military, but yours isn't one of them. To be sure, it may be beneficial for you, but exactly for the reasons you don't expect: there will most likely be no adventure for you, there will be a great deal of incredible boredom, and forced discipline.

The question is, how well do you learn/change your behaviour in a strict, highly structured, and top-down (but pretty much close to meritocratic) environment? Have you enjoyed working traditional (non-technical) jobs? How do you respond to bullying (while infamously and atypically pervasive in Soviet Union, it is something nearly all military forces have to a certain extent -- it is (wrongly, IMHO) justified as a way of maintaining "esprit de corps")? I personally would collapse in that kind of an environment -- and the big reason my family moved to the US is because they knew I wouldn't survive compulsory military service (even if I entered as an officer via the ROTC equivalent as a university student -- which was from time to time cancelled then reinstated).

Other people strive and advance: again, military is the closest thing we have to a meritocracy (look at the percentage of top military brass that come from ethnic minorities; compare that to the percentage of top business executive from traditionally disadvantage groups), you'll interact with a cross-cut of your country's population you'd otherwise never see, you'll probably see the world, you'll develop genuine relationships. If you manage to enter the right branch, you'll also possibly build technical skills you can use elsewhere. My brother who entered via the Mozhaev Military Institute -- Russian equivalent of Westpoint/Air Force Academy -- was able to advance his technical skills tremendously (both as a student and during his service). Needless to say, the description my grandfather has given of liberating French resistance prisoners from a concentration camp was one of the most powerful stories told.

This has a great deal to do with your personality: if you're a quiet and independent introvert, I'm slightly skeptical that the military will be a good place for you (but you'll be hardly the only one -- again, it represents a wide cross cut of society and can be an advantage for certain roles). If you're sociable, see obedience and patriotism as virtues (as opposed to morally neutral qualities -- useful only when they serve a greater cause like justice, kindness, liberty, or benevolence) you'll like it; if you've read Heinlein and were surprised when others found him objectionable, you'll enjoy it as well.

However, since you enjoy programming it likely means you've an aptitude for it: rather than start the endless search for "the right occupation/vocation", learn how to apply your skills in the right way.

Here's my advise: learn to overcome being distracted and bored easily while sitting, if you're boredom with the kind of programming you do now, explore different branches. By writing software you can help others an immense amount, especially those in the military. There's still time for you to join the military, especially if you're fine with joining, e.g., cost guard, air national guard, reserve, etc...

Save money, if your state lacks a good commuinity college system (which is probably true for any state other than New York or California) and you don't have the money to attend a state university, move to a state that does. In terms of California, sublease a bedroom in Cupertino, San Jose, or Santa Clara (you can't afford SF), work full-time until you've established residency (you might not be able to get a job as a programmer, but you should be able to find a position in IT, NOC, or tech support -- which can be a stepping stone to software engineering or production-facing operations), then start attending De Anza or Foothill College (you can even do this while working full time, but it's difficult -- however, part time work is actually easier to find in entry-level technical positions); afterwards transfer to a four year university (any will do -- Berkeley/UCLA/UCSD are best, but Davis, Santa Cruz, Riverside, Irvine, Cal Poly, Santa Clara, etc... still send many graduates to top-tier software companies). If you're still interested in the military, do ROTC. Study a technical major as it's much easier to, e.g., go to law school or medical school with a CS degree than it is to be a programmer with a psychology degree (though it is not impossible either).

For what it's worth, the cold truth is that United States is moving towards a society rigidly stratified by education and occupation -- if you're not doing knowledge work, you can at best hope to live paycheck to paycheck. It may not be just or fair, but I don't see any other scenario playing out in the long term. Whatever steps you take, you will have to choose between a decent middle class lifestyle and starting at a computer screen all day (even if you're not programming) OR doing something else and just getting by. If you spend time in the military, unless you plan to make the military your career (becoming a career officer) or perhaps entering the foreign service -- all of which require a college education anyway -- you will only delay that choice. A smart move could be to enter a military vocation that helps you along (e.g., becoming a network engineer in the military, then using G.I. bill and an IT job to pay for college/grad school).

Good luck, but make this choice based on reality of the military rather than some romantic view -- otherwise, you may quickly discover that Navy stands for "never again volunteer yourself".

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