MG and Military Service, Part 2: Enlisted vs. Officer

Welcome back, troops.  Stand at parade rest, please, as I have more information to pass along to you fine men.

In my last article, I covered my story about why I enlisted in the military. Also, what are some preliminary things to consider if you want to enlist.  I want to stress that you should always be playing the long game, and play it based on your current term of enlistment.  That is, if you’re planning on only doing one four- or six-year tour of duty, for example, where do you want to be when you get out?  If you like being on active duty by that time, then reenlist and the plan out your life for the next tour of duty.  If just one tour is enough (and this is quite common), then you should be planning to be on as firm a footing as you possibly can because returning to the civilian world is often a major challenge, particularly for the unprepared.  Strive not to be one the hordes of former military who can’t get a job because they have no experience, they have no proper credentials, and they’ve put themselves into a position that severely handicaps them.  Or, one that irreparably fucks up their life: e.g., a sexual assault charge, knocking some chick up, or getting a bad conduct discharge.

This likely won’t change anytime soon.  You can’t change groups; you can only change yourself.  Keep this in mind.

Second, related to the above, and which I didn’t cover last time, is that, especially for the short-termer, you must make the military work for you, as much as you possibly can.  Keep in mind that, at bottom, the military exists to fight wars and do force projection for the United States.  The draft was abolished in 1973, shortly before Vietnam ended, and so the military has been voluntary and not compulsory.  As a partial consequence, the military has provided some definite perks for those active duty, Reserve, and National Guard personnel to get them to enlist and to stay in.  While in, use these perks to your benefit, because your tax dollars are going to support them.  Nothing that you get from the military hasn’t been paid for by your tax dollars.

Yes, the military can provide some kick-ass training, and the military is one of the very few organizations in the US that provides initial, and continuing training, regardless of one’s educational or professional background.  But, remember that the training the military provides is specific to the military.  There are few analogues, or paths, back into the civilian world.  That’s why you find former infantry who are stuck either being cops or used car salesmen.  If that’s your bag, then more power to you.  If you aspire to something other than shit jobs, then be very careful about which job you choose going into the military.  In many cases, you might not have a choice, because most service branches are based on “needs of.”  The Army, from what I understand, is the only service branch that legally guarantees which job you have at the time you enlist.  That’s not 100% guaranteed, but the chances of you doing it are higher than normal.

Regardless, if you do decide to enlist, then make sure to choose at least three jobs that you’d like to do, and which are have some kind of civilian equivalent.  That’s the best way you can prepare when it comes time for you to hang up the uniform.  My recommendations are IT/STEM, medical, the trades, or intelligence.

With that out of the way, let me know cover which path you might want to consider.

ENLISTED VS. OFFICER

I speak from my experience in the Army here, so your mileage may vary concerning the other services.  Also, do not take what I say here, or in my subsequent posts, as gospel.  Remember that I was on active duty with the Army from early 2004-2010 — some years before.  At the time I enlisted, Afghanistan had been under way since 2001, and the eventual misadventure in Iraq wasn’t even two years old.  Demand for new recruits was high and, therefore, the Army had less of an incentive to turn people away for minor things, whereas they would have done so in the early to mid-90s, when the Cold War ended and there was no need to have such a large force.  Not surprising, then, that you had soldiers with criminal records, and the like.

Quickly, about enlisted vs. officers, are there are benefits and perks to both.  Over the long term, it’s better to be an officer because of the rank, the relative prestige, and the nature of the work.  For the short term, enlisted is fine.  You want to get in, get the training, get the certifications, and some hands-on work experience.  But, you also are the first to be called upon to do the shitwork.

The decision is yours.  Now, let me break down the two in more detail.

Enlisted (E). Enlisted make up the bulk of the active, Reserve, and National Guard forces.  To use a factory metaphor here, enlisted are the line workers who get shit done, but who also bear the brunt of problems to a much greater degree than others.  Scratch a vet today, and you’re very likely to meet someone who was enlisted, especially for those that did just one or two tours of duty, either voluntarily (since 1973) or through conscription (WW II, Korea, and Vietnam).

Mid-level and senior enlisted are called non-commissioned officers (NCO), and are called “officers” because of their leadership capacity.  These are your sergeants (Army, Air Force, and Marines) and petty officers (Navy and Coast Guard).  The NCO ranks start at E-5 (e.g., Army sergeants), though there are some E-4s (Army corporals) who might have limited leadership capacity.  These are your factory foreman, overseeing how things are going with the line workers, and carrying out the orders of the commissioned officers.  E-5s can lead small teams of soldiers or Marines.

Despite being the ones who bust their asses the most, who get stuck with shitwork, and who might face the most danger, there are two major benefits to being enlisted.  First, you’re assigned a job from the day you enlist for the first time, or when you reenlist and reclass into another job field.  If the job is high-demand (e.g., IT or medical), chances are high that you’ll be doing your job, at your unit while in garrison or while deployed, for the duration of your enlistment.  If the job isn’t high-demand, then you run the risk of either being idle a good deal of the time or repurposed to do something else (e.g., artillery reclassed to be military police, or working in the arms room at your unit while in garrison).  One important saying in the Army and the Marines is “infantryman first.”  Meaning, you’re trained to be combat arms, and everyone is expected to fall back on their infantry training if needed.  In my view, the further you are from that infantry training, in a high-demand job, the less likely that you’ll get stuck doing a job you don’t want to do.  But, also remember that, particularly with the Army and Marines, your non-combat role is to support the combat folks.

The second benefit to being enlisted is that you can stay in the military for a long time, provided that you don’t royally fuck up, don’t sustain serious injuries that permanently hobble you and that end up in a medical discharge, or are kicked out for other reasons (e.g., a sexual assault charge).  Unlike officers, who generally must work to make it to the next rank the higher up they go in rank (see more below), enlisted can coast if they choose and then reenlist when the time comes.  There are downsides to this of course, such as being stuck at a particular rank for a long time because your job is overstrength and there are few slots for you to move into, even if you’re qualified because of time in service and time in rank.  That comes with the territory, so you want to make sure that you get the best job you can get, and then take each enlistment as it comes.

As I’ve stated before, when it comes time for you to reenlist, you want to do so on your terms.  Have enough money in the bank, for starters, where you don’t need the military.  Or, have enough money in the bank so that, if you do choose to reenlist because it’s, overall, a better option, you can protect yourself against problems as they arise.  If you do stay in and do your 20 years, you can retire with a pension and whatever money you have saved in the bank.  But, that’s not guaranteed, so that’s a long, long term goal.

How does one become enlisted?  Just to a recruiter, tell him or her that you want to join up and be enlisted, and then go through the tests and the processing rigmarole.  If you make it, then you have your basic training start date, and you must periodically check in with your recruiter before you ship out.

Officer (O).  To continue with the factory analogy, officers are mid- and senior-managers, discussing plans and strategies, and issuing orders for the NCOs to carry out.  They’re also generalists who are trained to work in leadership, and in paperwork.  On the face of it, there are benefits to being an officer that enlisted don’t have.  You don’t do shitwork involving heavy lifting, because you’re at headquarters working on your computer, writing reports.  On the other hand, you could be the bitch boy (sorry, admirative assistant) to the general or admiral.  Ultimately, all officers answer to both the commander and the executive officer (XO).  If either one of them is a dick, then you have to put up with that.  Enlisted rarely interact with senior officers, unless they’re at an HQ level.

Two downsides to being an officer come to mind.  First, especially in the Army, officers don’t have a choice with their branch, unless they’re direct commission as in the case of a doctor, nurse, or chaplain.  Especially for males, one of the branches you must select is combat arms, which would include infantry, artillery, air defense artillery, and armor.  If you don’t luck out with a good branch and instead get assigned infantry, then you’re stuck with that branch until your tour is over.

A second downside is one I’ve mentioned above, which is that, once you get past the O-3 rank (captain for Army, Air Force, and Marines; lieutenant for Navy and Coast Guard), then you must continually work to make the next rank within a certain time period, and by a few chances.  If you fail, then you must resign your commission and get out.  This might happen before you complete your 20 years, if you decided to go that route.  Also, somewhat related, the higher up you go in rank, the more of a politician (“leader”) you become, and that takes you further away from the hands-on that you might have started out with.  Not that there’s much hands-on to begin with for officers anyway (except maybe infantry).  Officers are generalists, managers, and “leaders.”

One potential upside, in my view, is that, instead of a garden-variety commissioned officer, one chooses to go the warrant officer route.  Though they’re commissioned officers, warrant officers are less generalists/”leaders” and more technical experts in their respective branches.  They run shops, sections, etc. and aren’t engaged that much in overall strategy.  They tend to be left alone to run their shops, but can step in to take command where needed, and where a regular commissioned officer is absent.  One difficult is that promotions take much longer than commissioned officers, because warrant officers must first be prior enlisted and attain the proper rank before applying for training, and because there are fewer warrant officer slots.

There are four ways that one becomes an officer:

  1. Attend one of the service academies: e.g., West Point in New York State and the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Usually, you have to be a star student, star athlete or equivalent, and get the recommendation from one of your Congresspeople.  Nice work if you can get it, but don’t be worried if this is out of reach.  Because, you can . . .
  2. Go to college and join the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). This is where, in addition to doing the coursework for your major, you attend “military science” courses, wear a uniform, and do military things while on campus for the duration of your time there.  After you graduate, you then commit to a certain time being a commissioned officer in whatever service you did for ROTC.  For all intents and purposes, doing ROTC is training wheels for being an officer in the military.  It’s a popular option for the college crowd and has been for years.  One downside is that you get “the college crowd” mindset when you encounter someone who was in ROTC — but not as bad as someone from the service academies.
  3. Officer Candidate School (OCS). This is the term the Army uses, so check to see what the other services call it.  OCS is for those who already have a college degree or for prior enlisted that have a degree.  (Any degree is sufficient, in the military’s mind, but could bite you in the ass out in the civilian world, so watch it.)  In my view, though officers can be full of themselves because of their position, OCS graduates (especially those who are prior enlisted), tend to make the best officers because they know what it’s like to be the enlisted soldier, sailor, etc., doing the shitwork.  There’s a humbling process that takes place.  Contrast that with the early 20-somethng ROTC graduate at his (or her) first command, thinks their shit doesn’t stink, and then winds up leaning on their senior enlisted anyway.
  4. Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS).  Again, I’m going to speak from the standpoint of the Army here, so do your research for the other branches that have warrant officers.  First, you must serve for a time as enlisted.  When you attain at least the E-5 rank, you can apply to be a warrant officer either in the branch in which you’ve been serving (e.g., armor), or go into aviation, which doesn’t depend on your branch.  In either case, all warrant officers go for their initial training at the same place, and then to the respective base for technical training.

MY IMPRESSIONS

In general, most of the problems you get from current and former military come from the enlisted.  The vast majority are under 25, tend to come from middle to lower to underclass background, are immature, have physical and mental problems (but nothing so severe that it bars them from enlistment), have bad habits (e.g., drinking and smoking) and are in need of someone breaking them down and building them back up.  Such is life dealing with other enlisted.  Though, a good deal of the time, your peers are those that have your back and make the days of shitwork, when it happens, go by fast.

For the most part, I never had problems with any officers, or warrant officers, except for three – one of which was the XO for my basic training battalion, and who had to play the part of the big swinging dick.  I found officers professional, somewhat approachable, and thankful that I was there to handle their communications problems.  A few of them, on the younger side, were also easier to deal with than senior NCOs because they hadn’t spent much time being enlisted and picking up bad habits or manners of speaking.

On the other hand, remember that officers are people, too, and have the same sorts of personal problems that enlisted have – some of which can cross professional-personal boundaries.  Infidelity, domestic abuse, alcoholism, gambling problems, etc. can plague officers, and affect their performance.

That’s all for now, troops.  Ten hut!  Dismissed.

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