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Joining the Military: In-Depth Guide & Expert Tips (2021 Edition)

Joining the Military: In-Depth Guide & Expert Tips (2021 Edition)

Introduction

Are you thinking about joining the U.S. military? I once did, and after making the choice to join, it turned out to be the best decision I ever made…but it was also the scariest to make.

As a Marine that has served 14 years so far, I’m here to answer some questions you probably are asking yourself right now, and how to figure out what choices are best for you.

This article will cover a few things that you should think about before you talk to a U.S. military recruiter and officially begin the process.

  1. Reasons to Join the Military
  2. What Branch of the Military Should I Join?
  3. Questions to Ask a Military Recruiter
  4. Requirements to Join the Military
  5. How to Enlist in the Military
  6. Find a Military Recruiter

Joining the Military: In-Depth Guide & Expert Tips Infographic

Click here to download your free PDF copy.

Reasons to Join the Military

First: Think long and hard about why you want to join.

For some, joining the military is simply a smart way to get started in life: paying for college, having health insurance, or learning a trade are only a few reasons.

For many others, joining the military is a calling that they might find hard to describe. Maybe it’s the desire to become the toughest and most capable version of yourself. Maybe it’s a patriotic pull and a need to contribute to something bigger than yourself.

Whatever your reason (or reasons), it is a huge decision, and it is one best made with as much information as possible.

Remember: The U.S. military is voluntary, and no one is twisting your arm to join it. It’s very hard to turn back once you join, and there are serious consequences if you can’t keep your commitment.

With that in mind, think about what is the most important thing that makes you want to join. Is it patriotism? Duty? Honor? Or is it that you need some help with getting on your feet after high school?

All are valid reasons, but only if you are ready to do the work once you start.

Whatever fears you have about joining the military, just remember this nugget of truth that my recruiter told me: “You don’t know anything about this life yet, and there is no way to know if you’ll enjoy it unless you really try”! (Click to Tweet this)

What Branch of the Military Should I Join?

What Branch of the Military Should I Join?

The very first decision you need to make if you’re thinking about joining the military is to decide which branch to join. In case you don’t know, there are six branches:

1. Army
2. Navy
3. Coast Guard
4. Marine Corps
5-6. Air Force and Space Force

Note: The U.S. Space Force is still being established and is mostly being populated through the Air Force. So, going forward, consider all Air Force information as applicable to Space Force too.

All branches have the same insurance, education, and retirement benefits, so when deciding which is right for you, ask yourself what job you’d most like to do.

1. U.S. Army

What is the purpose of the U.S. Army?

The Army is huge. You will meet all sorts of people that are there for all sorts of reasons.

There are hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and thousands of different jobs, ranging from infantry to medic to tanker to pilot to supply…and pretty much anything else you can think of!

Army Special Forces

The Army has the most paths to special operations force units (like U.S. Army Special Forces or U.S. Army Rangers), so, if you’re looking to go that route and get into some seriously big-time stuff, the Army is an excellent pathway into that world.

Army Duty Stations

Army duty stations tend to be all over the nation and sometimes overseas in Italy, Germany, Japan, and more—so, there is a good chance you could live overseas for a while.

Army Culture

The Army’s culture is based on the history and pride of individual units and their historic exploits, such as the Army Rangers that have traditions dating back to before the independence of the United States, or the 82nd Airborne that revels in their gloried history of the battle. (Click to Tweet this)

U.S. Navy

What Is the Purpose of the U.S. Navy?

The U.S. Navy exists to project American power around the globe from the sea, but the Navy is so much more than just a bunch of ships. There are also surface fleets (and all their related jobs) and much more, including exciting careers in intelligence, medicine, naval aviation, nuclear science, radar, and communications.

The Navy is probably the best branch to learn a trade, especially if you want to become a machinist, electrician, refrigeration specialist, air traffic controller, radar technician, doctor, nurse, physician’s assistant, aircraft mechanic or many other things.

Navy Special Forces

The Navy’s special operations services—which include Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant Craft (SWCC)—are small, highly elite, and highly selective.

Navy Duty Stations

Duty stations are generally near the coast (for obvious reasons) both in the U.S. and internationally, but there are postings on other services’ bases, depending on your job.

Navy Culture

The Navy’s culture is very big on tradition and professionalism—and is pretty old-fashioned, especially in the surface fleet.

The relationship between Navy chiefs and officers is unique among the service branches: a lot of what officers learn is picked up through their interactions. This is why your community will make the biggest difference in your Naval career. On the other hand, the lives and worlds of Navy pilots are very different from nuclear submarine sailors, which are very different from destroyer crews.

3. U.S. Coast Guard

What Is the Purpose of the U.S. Coast Guard?

The Coast Guard is actually part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security rather than the U.S. Department of Defense. It exists to protect America’s territorial waters, assist vessels and mariners in distress, and conduct counter piracy and drug trafficking.

Coast Guard Special Forces

Many of the jobs in the Navy also exist in the Coast Guard—but the main difference is that you’ll rarely deploy overseas, which is a big plus.

Coast Guard rescue swimmers are highly trained and respected, and their pilots are among the finest in the world, capable of flying in weather that most pilots wouldn’t even dare!

Coast Guard Duty Stations

Duty stations can be anywhere in the U.S. along any coast, including the Great Lakes.

Coast Guard Culture

The Coast Guard’s culture is one of tradition, pride, and professionalism, while also being comparatively relaxed.

U.S. Marine Corps

4. U.S. Marine Corps

What Is the Purpose of the U.S. Marine Corps?

The Marine Corps is the smallest service in population, partly because it has the highest physical requirements.

The Corps exists as the nation’s shock troops. Its primary capabilities involve landing in a contested area, smashing apart defenses, and holding the area until the Army can arrive to take over.

The Marine Corps is also prepared to deploy aboard Navy ships, which is why it has its own aircraft, troops, logistics and command, and why it can sustain its troops for extended periods of time.

Marine Special Operations

Some members of the other branches will joke that Marines are the unsophisticated jocks of the military world, but that’s largely because they know the Marine Corps has some of the highest entry requirements in the entire U.S. Armed Forces.

In the Corps, job opportunities include infantry, artillery, aviation, pilot, supply, law, logistics, reconnaissance, and Marine Special Operations (MARSOC).

Marine Duty Stations

There are only a few major Marine duty stations: the East Coast’s are in Virginia and North Carolina, and the West Coast’s are in Southern California, Hawaii and Japan. You’ll never be too far from any coast in the Marines (except in Twenty-Nine Palms, California, which is in the high Mojave desert)!

Marine Corps Culture

The Marine Corps’ culture is one of extreme pride and history that revels in the deeds of its forebears and cultivates a culture of aggressiveness and doing more with less.

5-6. U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force

What Is the Purpose of the U.S. Air Force?

The Air Force exists to dominate military air and support operations with both fighters and bombers. The service is well-funded and has some of the most technologically advanced equipment, as well as leading the nation’s space program.

What Is the Purpose of the U.S. Space Force?

The Space Force was recently created to help shoulder some of the Air Force’s responsibilities.

Air Force Special Operations

The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is where you can learn actual rocket science or support operations. Available jobs include: Combat Controller Teams (CCT), Pararescue (PJ) and Tactical Air Control Party (TACP).

Air Force Duty Stations

Duty stations can be at home or abroad, and they tend to be a bit nicer (in terms of quality of life and amenities) when compared to other branches.

Air Force Culture

You’ll endure much less shouting and physical hardship in this branch (AFSOC excluded!) and focus more on technology and skill. The culture is very relaxed compared to the other branches.

uestions to Ask a U.S. Military Recruiter

Questions to Ask a U.S. Military Recruiter

Once you have decided which branch you want to join, your next move is to talk to a recruiter.

Before you talk to a recruiter, remember this, because it’s very important: The first rule with recruiters is to get everything from them in writing.

Don’t think that you can’t trust recruiters, but you do need to understand that being a recruiter is a job…and their job has quotas they must meet. It’s your responsibility if they verbally promise you the moon but end up doing a job you never wanted!

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the questions you need to ask:

  • What are the physical requirements for joining?
  • What are the disqualifying medical or physical issues?
  • How long is my contract actually for? ( Remember almost all contracts are actually eight years with varying lengths of active duty time.)
  • What tests are required for entry, and what scores do I need to qualify for specific jobs?
  • Are there any specialized tests for certain jobs?
  • If I have any disqualifying issues, do I qualify for any waivers?
  • Can I join with a friend and stay together?
  • Can you guarantee me a certain job or duty station?
  • If joining the National Guard or Reserves, will I qualify for the same benefits? Also, will I qualify for the GI Bill?
  • If I am married, what benefits are my family entitled to?
  • If I am interested in Special Operations, can I sign a contract to go straight into their training pipeline or do I have to serve a minimum amount of time first?
  • If I am in college or have a college degree, how do I join as an officer?

Requirements to Join the Military

Requirements to Join the Military

Now that you’ve decided which branch you want to join and have learned some questions to ask a recruiter, you’re ready for the next step: exploring the requirements to join the military…specifically for your preferred branch.

Here is a simple guide that will explain the age, physical and education requirements for each branch.

Age Requirements to Join the Military

So how old can you be to join the military…and how old is too old?

Age Requirements to Join the Military

Army

  • Active Duty: 17–35
  • Reserve: 17–35
  • National Guard: 17–35
  • Service Academies: 17–23

Marine Corps

  • Active Duty: 17-28
  • Reserve: 17–28
  • National Guard: N/A
  • Service Academies: 17–23

Navy

  • Active Duty: 17–39
  • Reserve: 17–39
  • National Guard: N/A
  • Service Academies: 17–23

Air Force

  • Active Duty: 17–39
  • Reserve: 17–39
  • National Guard: 17–39
  • Service Academies: 17–23

Space Force

  • Contact an Air Force Recruiter for age requirements: 1 (800) 423-8723

Coast Guard

  • Active Duty: 17–27
  • Reserve: 17–39
  • National Guard: N/A
  • Service Academies: 17–22

Physical Requirements to Join the Military

Physical Requirements to Join the Military

What are the physical requirements to join the military? All services have general medical requirements that can disqualify you for service. For instance, there are hearing and vision requirements, medical disorders, or diseases like diabetes that can disqualify you from service.

There are also height and weight standards you must meet. Excessive body fat (or insufficient body mass) will disqualify you. You must also be able to pass a drug screening.

Each service also has unique physical fitness tests. Recruits must have a minimum passing score to ship to boot camp. Those joining as officers should already be in good enough shape to pass the physical fitness test with a high score, before even starting training.

Below are the basic physical fitness test requirements for each service. (Special units—like SEALs or U.S. Army Special Forces—have their own unique tests.)

Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT)

  • Max pushups: Two minutes
  • Situps: Two minutes
  • Two-mile timed run

Scores are based on gender and age, and can be found here.

Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT)

  • Three-rep max deadlift (MDL)
  • Standing power throw
  • Hand release pushups (HRP)
  • Sprint/Drag/Carry (SDC)
  • Leg tuck (LTK)
  • Two-mile timed run

Full details of each event and scoring can be found here.

Navy Physical Readiness Test (PRT)

  • Pushups: Two minutes
  • Forearm plank
  • 1.5-mile timed run or 2000-meter row

Scoring tables and directions can be found here.

Air Force Basic Military Training Fitness Test

  • Pushups: 1 minute
  • Situps: 1 minute
  • 1.5-mile timed run

Standards, scores, and additional information can be found here.

Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (PFT)

  • Three-mile timed run
  • Max dead-hang pullups without dropping off the bar
  • Crunches in a two-minute time limit

Each event is worth 100 points, for a total of 300 possible points.

Marines can substitute pull ups for push ups, and crunches for a plank, though it will lower their maximum possible score.

Scores are based on age and gender and the tables and regulations can be found here.

Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test (CFT)

  • Movement to contact: 880-yard sprint in boots and utility trousers
  • Ammo-can lifts: Max in two minutes
  • Maneuver under fire: Timed course of various tasks

Scores are based on age and gender and the tables and regulations can be found here.

Coast Guard Physical Fitness Assessment

  • Pushups: 1 minute
  • Sit-ups: 1 minute
  • 1.5-mile timed run
  • Sit and reach (flexibility test)
  • Five-minute water tread
  • Jump off a five-foot platform into a pool and swim 100 meters

Details can be found here.

So you think that you are military fit? Take these military fitness tests to find out!

So you think that you are military fit? Take these military fitness tests to find out!

What Are the Educational Requirements to Join the Military?

To enlist in the U.S. military, one must possess a high school education through either a high school diploma or a GED. To join as an officer, one must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution.

You must also take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test. The minimum scores to join each service are:

  • Army: 31
  • Navy: 35
  • Air Force: 36 (with a high school diploma) or 65 (with a GED)
  • Marine Corps: 32
  • Coast Guard: 40 (Armed Forces Qualification Test) or 50 (if you have a GED)

How to Enlist in the Military

How to Enlist in the Military

Enlisting in the military involves a few key steps. The first is with basic eligibility, which requires you to be:

  • A U.S. citizen or resident alien
  • At least 18 years of age (or 17 with signed permission from your parent or legal guardian)

Assuming you are eligible, your next step is to call your local branch recruiter and start asking questions to ensure you are qualified. Or, if you are interested in joining as an officer, call or visit your local officer recruiter or Officer Selection Office (OSO), or call a local recruiter and ask to be directed to an officer recruiter.

When you establish contact with a recruiter, you’ll be given a full questionnaire to ensure you qualify. This is also the time you should use our questions to ask a recruiter.

After you are qualified, you will then sign a contract for a term of service. This will usually be an eight-year agreement, with all or part of requiring you to be on active duty, unless you are joining the Reserves or Guard.

After your contract is signed, you will be directed to a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) where you will receive a full physical examination, drug screening and aptitude testing.

After you are cleared by MEPS, you will await shipping to your basic training!

Find a Military Recruiter

Remember there are different recruiters for regular enlistment and officers. Each service has websites, toll-free phone numbers and local offices where you can get more information.

Conclusion

Joining the military and military enlistment is a big step that can be scary. It’s hard. But it’s supposed to be.

Because we are an all-volunteer military, you want the people you serve with to want to be there. You want to be with the best.

There are hundreds—if not thousands—of paths you can take in the military, but all of them will make you a better version of yourself. Whatever path you choose and whatever job you do, you are still doing something great by giving back to your country, and you should be proud of yourself.

We’ve said it a few times already, but we’ll say it again: Ask your recruiter as many questions as you need to ask! And don’t stop there: Ask your friends and family questions, too! Basically, learn all you can.

If you do decide to join: Best of luck, congratulations, and enjoy the adventures that await!

 

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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