I’m joining the Navy.
Four words my father NEVER expected to hear come out of my mouth. Even more surprising because I was 26 years old when I said them. But come on, I was a proud BRAT, all too happy to follow in the family footsteps.
Once the shock wore off, the conversations began, and I have never been so thankful to come from such a strong military family as I was during the enlistment process. My father served 26 years in the Navy. My grandfather was in for 4. One uncle was in 20 years while another was in for 30! Add in my cousins (1 Navy, 1 Army, 2 Air Force) and I had a wealth of knowledge to pull from as I started my journey into service. But even with all that, nothing could prepare me for what I was going to face as I tried to enlist.
Enlisting Is Not As Easy As It Looks
In every TV show and movie, they show the young, bright-eyed kid going into a recruiter’s office and then walking out the same day with a ship date. For me, it was more like the scene from Sex in the City where Charlotte had to knock on the temple doors three times before the rabbi would talk to her about converting to the Jewish faith.
From the day I decided I wanted to enlist until I shipped off to Chicago for Boot Camp was two years and three days. Yes, you read that right. For two years I fought to enlist. Most people would have given up. Decided that the universe was saying the military was not their path and walked away. But not me. I knew that to achieve the goals I had set for myself and the military was the way to get there.
For someone looking to enlist and leave tomorrow, keep in mind that there is paperwork, and more paperwork, and even more paperwork that must be done. Waiver to sign (especially if you are older and have lived a little). ASVAB to take, jobs to pick, and quotas to be filled at specific times. Make sure that you go in with a realistic expectation of when you may ship out.
Don’t Buy The First Car You Test Drive
I got lucky. Because I am a military BRAT, I knew that the recruiter was essentially a military car salesman. If you’re anything like me you just pictured a guy in a cheap suit with too much cologne on trying to convince you that the neon yellow 1980’s vehicle sitting on the lot is a *classic* and not a lemon. That’s not exactly what I mean when I say that recruiters are salesmen. But it can be close.
The whole job of a recruiter is to hit a goal number of new recruits put into boot camp each month. They have jobs that are easier to fill (an example being an undesignated Sailor) and some that are harder to fill (a Navy nuke for example). They know when there will be lulls in numbers for the year and when high recruiting time is (right before high school graduations is a peek time!) A savvy recruiter is going to word their pitch to entice new recruits to sign up for the window that works for their quotas more than what will work for the recruit because many do not know enough about the process to know how to question what is being said.
If you walk into the recruiting office and things sound too good to be true, use the same line I did, “May I please take this paperwork to read over with my father/uncle? I would like them to help me understand some of the military terminology since they are both in/veterans.” Don’t be afraid to use the resources available to you in a military family to make sure you’re not being worked over. This will let your recruiter know that you’re taking the process seriously, that you have someone to walk you through the grey language they may use, and that you’re not going to be an easy tick on their number sheet.
Do Your Research
Remember when I said it took me 2+ years to leave for boot camp? Well, it was 1 year and 6 months from, “Hi, I want to enlist,” to me picking a job and signing a contract. Then another 6 months until I was able to ship out because the quotas for October were open while the ones for April were not. Part of the long wait for me was that I was not willing to sign a contract that I didn’t agree with. Prior to ever walking into their office I had researched the jobs I would take, the ASVAB scores that it would require to get them, and what jobs would require a 5-year vs 4-year commitment.
My entire goal for enlisting was that I wanted to go back to school to get a degree in education and eventually get my teaching license. I knew that I was a “one and done” Sailor. For me to have the career outside the military that I wanted, I needed a job that was a bit more desk duty that flightline chaos. Growing up in such a military family I was able to grill everyone on which jobs would allow for more personal time and which were 24/7 on-call positions. The fact that I am not at all mechanically-inclined (I blew up a car engine because I didn’t know to change the oil) meant I was not going to be working on planes or helicopters any time soon. And I am not good with blood and guts so medical was not for me. But paperwork, heck yeah! I love the meticulous nature of keeping files and writing awards and all the tasks that would drive a less organized person batty. Add to that my intention to focus on English teaching after the Navy and an administrative position was perfect for me.
Of course, my recruiter and the Sailors at MEPS doing my paperwork didn’t see it that way. They saw my ASVAB scores and my prior college experience as a way to earn their version of bonus points. They wanted me to enlist in as a nuke. Their pitch included telling me that I would earn enlistment bonuses since it was such a selective process to get the job, that A-School was in my favorite city of Charleston, SC and I would have time to explore while I was there for a year, and that I would have my pick of bases on both coasts and Japan.
Sounds great right? I mean, what smart person would turn down that offer?
One that has done their research!
I knew that as great as a year in Charleston sounded, nuke school had a nearly 90% fail rate. Meaning, if I did not pass, I would enter the fleet as an undesignated Sailor with no official job and be at the mercy of the military where I ended up. And even if I did do well in school, with only a 10% pass rate I was going to have to spend most of my time studying, not enjoying shrimp and grits at Poogan’s Porch. Oh, and that pick of bases? They didn’t mean ALL Navy bases. They meant ones with the right ships for the stand I picked up. And once on said ship, I would have to wear a pretty device that would alert me if I was picking up too much radiation and might start to glow in the dark.
Take your time and DO THE RESEARCH! Come in with documents to let your recruiter know you’ve look into the options, you understand why that branch of the military is the best fit for you, and you know what you want to get out of your time in service, whether it is 4 years or 30. And it allows you to really understand what it means to be committing to your enlistment. It is much easier to make the best out of a strange new situation (which it is no matter how much military you have in your family) when you have prepared yourself before getting to boot camp. Oh, and don’t let your pride get in the way when doing your research either. If the job you want requires a high ASVAB score, study, study, study! Hire a tutor. Bust your butt to do well because as much as I hate saying that a test can decide your military fate, it has a big role in what opportunities are available to you. Knowing what score you need on a test is just as important as knowing how many pull-ups you will be required to do in a fitness test when it comes to background research.
Tackle The Tough Stuff Before Leaving
To enlist, I faced some challenged. The biggest one was my weight. I have never been a skinny girl and I certainly wasn’t when I walked into the recruiter’s office. I knew I was going to have to lose weight and get into better shape before Boot Camp, but I didn’t expect that recruiters wouldn’t even speak to me because they didn’t think I had the ability to do that. A personal trainer, new cooking skills, and a half-marathon to keep me motivated had the weight off before they knew what hit them. But it was an eye opener from that point as to just how much physical standards were going to rule my life while I was enlisted. I was able to get a crash course in nutrition and fitness before shipping out when I had always assumed that boot camp would be where I was whipped into shape. The stamina I had to complete every task, and the pallet to deal with boot camp food, were built in the months before I left and it made those challenges something I didn’t have to face and be ridiculed for while I was being turned into a Sailor.
And I’ll admit, I had a very weird fear about boot camp. I’m pretty modest. I lied. I’m very modest. And no matter who I asked, everyone told me that showering with others was just part of the deal. No way around it, I was going to have to get over my modesty and wash up just like everyone else. So, what did I do? Well, not what most people may do but it certainly helped me! I found a local art class that needed figure models. Yup. I bared all for about 10 art students to tackle my debilitating fear of having to do the same in front of a bunch of strangers on my first day at boot camp. While it didn’t make me want to strut my stuff in front of 40 women I’d never met before, it certainly made it less awkward. Then again, by the time I got a shower for the first time in boot camp it had been almost 48 hour since my last one, I was exhausted, fighting a migraine from lack of sleep and would have been ok if the male recruits hopped in with me as long as I was allowed to get clean finally!
I know everyone has a different fear, different challenge they are facing, prior to heading out to boot camp. I do get that. However, I will say boot camp is not the place to face it. Do everything you can prior to leaving the comfort of your home to prepare you for what is to come. Boot camp is new for everyone. No matter how much the military is a family tradition, your boot camp experience will take you out of your comfort zone, put you with people you never would have met otherwise and test you in ways you never imagined, physically and mentally.
So, go in ready and willing to learn, leave your hang-ups at home, and keep your eyes on the end of the situation, not the tough day you are in at the moment. Before you know it all the preparation, the researching, will pay off and you will be able to proudly wear the uniform you worked so hard to earn. There is no feeling like graduation day when you realize you are now part of an elite group of people that are willing to put their lives on the line to protect their country.