The military is a big commitment. At the least, service members in the Army and Navy have to enlist for two years active duty. For the Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines, the minimum is four years.
Many new service members are planning to serve the minimum requirement, before getting out and taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to college or trade school. Some may find that they like the military better than they thought, and will re-enlist for longer terms. And for others, the military is a path they will turn into their career; they will serve 20 years or more.
If you’re considering joining the military, read our article on what to ask a recruiter before you enlist. If you’re already in, and wondering how long you should stay, here are some pros and cons of making the military your career:
Reasons to Stay for 20+ Years
When you’re just starting out, 20 years seems like a long time. But it’s not a jail sentence, and you’re not simply waiting to get out. You will spend those 20 years building your career and reputation, while also living your normal life.
1. Military pension
It’s no secret that those who serve 20 or more years active duty are eligible for a pension after they leave the military. In fact, for most service members, it is the biggest benefit of staying in.
There are two basic kinds of pension in the military: the legacy plan, and the Blended Retirement System (BRS). If you joined before 2006, you will stay on the legacy plan; service members who enlisted between 2006 and 2017 have the choice of the legacy plan or the BRS; and those who joined in 2018 or after are automatically enrolled in the BRS.
The legacy retirement plan is a lifetime monthly annuity. It is based on the number of years served (a higher annuity for every year past 20). They calculate it at 2.5 percent, times your highest 36 months of pay.
The BRS is a mix of lifetime annuity, mid-career retention bonuses and a savings plan similar to a 401k. The savings plan is called the “Thrift Savings Plan” and will provide matching contributions throughout your service. The monthly retirement annuity is calculated at 2 percent, instead of the 2.5 percent of the legacy plan.
Read more about your military retirement here.
2. Regular paycheck
One of the great advantages of the military is a paycheck you can depend on. Of course, the amount of that paycheck varies by your rank and MOS, but you always know that you have money coming in. This makes saving money easier, and takes away the stress of financial anxiety.
In addition to a regular paycheck, the military provides many benefits for its active duty service members and retirees.
You can either live on barracks or get a stipend for off-post housing. This stipend can be higher when you’re married or have children. Either way, you won’t have to worry about a roof over your head.
Healthcare, including medical, dental, vision and pharmacy benefits, are all included in TRICARE Prime, which active members are automatically enrolled in. Healthcare benefits extend to spouses and children, and will always be available to retirees.
The military offers active members access to free counseling, legal representation, fitness centers and more. In addition, many businesses also offer military discounts, and there are plenty of organizations that act as helpful resources for service members and their families.
4. Career advancement
This completely depends on your branch of service, MOS and the military climate. However, if you are a hardworking individual, and especially if you are an officer, you are likely going to advance quickly in the military. For those looking to gain rank and commendations in the workplace, success can be found in a military career.
Everyone enters the military for a different reason. They could be from a legacy family, or have a deep, innate drive to serve and protect their country. They could also be interested in a career in aircraft mechanics or even special operations.
Whatever it is that motivates you, if you find it in the military, it could be a sign you’re meant to stay. Lots of service members make great connections and memories through the military, and work jobs that genuinely satisfy them. The honor and commitment of service is something to take pride in, and for many, that can be fulfilling enough.
Reasons to Leave the Military
Not everyone is suited for a career in the military. It can be a tremendous opportunity to learn skills and go to school, but you aren’t required to stay in for 20 years. Here are some factors that might lead you to leave the military:
1. Family life
The average military family moves every two to three years. If you’re a bachelor or bachelorette, this could mean opportunity for travel, but if you have a family it can get a little trickier.
PCSing around the country or even the world can be an incredible way to see new places and ways of life. However, moving away from family and friends can be stressful, especially for spouses who want careers, and kids who have to switch schools. Trying to get enough time with your spouse or children, as well as make them happy in their lives, can be a difficult task with the unpredictability of military life.
2. More work than play
Many service members work long hours, spend time training or in school, or get sent on deployments during their active duty service. Working nights and weekends isn’t uncommon, and it can leave little time for anything else. For those looking to start families or pursue other interests — even simply having a normal 9 to 5 job — it might be time to think about leaving active duty.
3. Getting stuck in your career field
When you’re a civilian in a bad job, the nice part about it is: you can quit. While some people may have financial concerns or other obligations, the fact is, there’s nothing that contractually binds civilians to their jobs and careers.
Maybe you liked the idea of your military MOS, or the money, or the availability. In any case, if you no longer enjoy it, it could be a sign that you’re ready to get out. Don’t stay stuck in a career field that makes you unhappy.
4. Bad duty stations
Just like how service members don’t choose how frequently they PCS, they can’t always choose their duty station. One bad duty station might not warrant leaving the military, but when you spend years of your life in less-than-desirable conditions, or surrounded by negative colleagues and commanders, it can be tough to stomach more time in the service. The truth is, the only way to have control over these aspects of your life is to give up a military career.
5. The grass is greener on the other side
If you went into the military with sky-high expectations, you might be left feeling bitterly disappointed if you don’t enjoy it. Whether it’s the culture, the people, the restrictions or the job, disliking active service is reason enough to leave it. Don’t get stuck feeling envious or jealous of your civilian friends — at the end of the day, you have the choice to stay in or get out of the military (even if you have to stick it out until your contract is up).
Whatever your reason, make sure you have a plan for life as a veteran. For many, just the transition from military to civilian life is hard. There are lots of resources dedicated to helping veterans transition, find jobs and settle into the civilian world.