Military Aid: Three Critical Questions

Military Aid: Three Critical Questions

An illustration of a cartoon angry boot camp drill sergeant character

Uncle Sam’s Got Your Back

When researching military benefits you will run into enough acronyms, jargon, overlap, inter-branch disparities and bureaucratic stipulations to make you want to curl up in a corner and suck your thumb. Recruiters can help interpret it all, but also have obtained a reputation for intimidation and pressure that keeps many curious students at bay.

So where does one turn? Let’s explore this together, traveling in a linear fashion and picking up the information we need along the way while letting the rest lie untouched.

Three Important Questions to Ask Yourself

Let’s cut to the chase: if you’re an average student in good physical shape and have a strong work ethic it’s more likely than not that you can cover college via some sort of military program. Thus, before getting all caught up in the terms and details of the various programs, it helps to begin with a different approach. Let’s firstly think about and plan the experience itself before making financial determinations. Answering three important questions will help to clarify your best set of options.

Question 1: Can I Hack It?

With the ample availability of college benefits a foregone conclusion, let’s firstly determine, more generally, whether or not a stint in the military is palatable.  In other words, ask not what the military can do for you but what you might do for the military.

In return for generous benefits, including tuition assistance, pay, housing, medical care and much more the military will expect you to sign on as a full time (AKA active duty) employee for a set period of time. In order to obtain full college benefits, this commitment can range anywhere from three to 10 years of active duty.  Of course, it would be a mistake to equate this military service with a “regular job.” You won’t sign up for an 8-5, Monday through Friday shift after which you punch out and go home to a leisurely evening. You must avail yourself to the orders of your superiors 24 hours a day, follow these orders at threat of severe punishment, and “home” may be a tent or barracks in some far-off hostile desert or a ship surrounded by miles of ocean. The life of a soldier is not his own; in some sense he is owned. You may serve your years during peaceful times or you may return to the civilian life forever traumatized by hellish combat… if in fact, you do come home alive.

You need to make the decision to enter the military prayerfully and with time to think things over (not while in the confines of a recruiter’s office). If you can’t stomach the thought, then move on and seek funding elsewhere. If you do decide the military life is for you, I applaud your decision and thank God for your willingness to protect our turf in a very direct way. You now look forward to the satisfaction of service, personal growth, unmatchable camaraderie and of course, the financial benefits. You now have a couple of other key decisions to make.

Question 2: With Whom?

If you have decided to take a look at military service, I recommend that you next do some basic research in order to decide which branch offers the best overall experience during your time on duty. You have five basic options: The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines and the Coast Guard. Each branch handles different aspects of the nation’s defense and warfare. Each branch will offer very different experiences to its members. Each will offer different roles to fill, some perhaps more palatable than others. Each will have variations on the overall veterans’ benefits theme.

If you have a strong inclination one way or the other, then of course it makes sense to research your funding options through the specific lens of that branch’s offerings (for example, the Army’s ROTC program differs considerably from the Navy’s, while the Coast Guard has none). If not, I suggest you come to some level of loose preference so you don’t base this consequential decision primarily on the relatively insignificant difference in monetary perks.

Question 3: Now or Later?

Given that the military will help pay for college and given that you need to serve some time to merit this benefit, the question then becomes whether you want to do your service before or after you attend college. If it helps, on the one hand enlisting in the military before college has its benefits in terms of less active duty time requirements and the fact that your military career has no bearing on your college experience, save for the fact that you have more age, experience and money than the rest of the student body. On the other hand, doing military time later can impact your college experience and require more time in active duty, though the military experience itself will be better in terms of pay, rank and promotion opportunities.

If you want to get your military commitments behind you prior to starting an undergraduate program, then you can cut through a lot of clutter by seeking out the pre-college programs your branch offers, such as Service Members Opportunity College enrollment and the G.I. Bill. If you want to attend college first, and perhaps alter your experience while there, then you will want to explore post-college programs such as ROTC or loan forgiveness.

Once you gain some clarity regarding what you want your military service to look like in terms of the what, the whom and the when, then it’s time to explore the college side of life and how the military will impact that pursuit. Let’s start by addressing the two primary programs in some detail and then briefly explore a few of the lesser known but potentially desirable college-related benefits the military has to offer.