5 worst practices for someone new to the military

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new to the military marine
Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Aaron Hostutler.

We often hear of hacks, insider tips or best practices for achieving success in various endeavors. It’s a good idea to research something ahead of time to gain advantage and perspective before undertaking new challenges. This is highly recommended for someone considering joining the military. Do your homework. You will find a treasure trove of advice to prepare yourself, however something often overlooked is what not to do.

Listed below are 5 of the worst practices for someone new to the military.


In an effort to stand out amongst your peers, to go above and beyond and to break out from the pack, you will be tempted to volunteer. Until you get the lay of the land, don’t do it. Volunteering will result in extra duty of the undesirable variety. You may think it will help you get ahead but your leaders generally won’t make a correlation between you raising your hand to scrub toilets and considering you for the next meritorious promotion. Initiative is a good thing but too much of it too early will be to your detriment. You will find yourself away from the unit with a handful of other individuals missing out on the main event. There are exceptions and potential opportunities to skate, but the risk is too great, especially as you orient the first year of your enlistment.

Telling your leaders, “Well I thought…”

As a junior enlisted service member, it will be a tremendous benefit to your mental and emotional health to accept the fact that no one cares what you think. It’s not personal, but simply that you are primarily identified by your single stripe. You have not yet gained the occupational experience, the credibility, or the perspective necessary to make an impact. You may actually possess intellect greater than your small unit leaders, but you need to know when to keep your mouth shut and fill sandbags. When you inevitably land in the verbal impact area of an irate NCO it’s best to accept the tongue lashing and rapidly execute the corrective action. Don’t give into the temptation to explain yourself. “Well Sergeant, I just thought…” No one cares what you think (for now). Soon enough you will be able to navigate the social order of the military and influence your environment. For now, keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut.

marines on a hike
Marines attending Marine Combat Training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton conduct an early morning five kilometer hike.

Do it later

Most people enter the military as young adults, technically still teenagers. Having your head shaved and getting yelled at doesn’t intrinsically change all your behaviors. Procrastination is common. Whether you need to pack for the field, prepare a uniform for inspection, or master a skill within your MOS…don’t put it off! In the military, particularly so in the first few years, you are not in charge of your own schedule. Even when you think you will have the evening or weekend off, you can be snatched up and placed on duty or a work detail at any moment. The sooner you replace procrastination with preparedness in your vocabulary, the better off you will be personally and professionally. This is the kind of initiative that will set you apart from the masses. You will be noticed as one who is alert, productive and accomplishes the mission. This is better than volunteering. Besides, you have to do these things anyway. Getting them done early prevents further stress in your life.

Expect the best outcome

Optimism is generally a good trait in life but unless tempered with realism it can lead to bitter disappointment. Expect the worst but hope for the best? Sure, but hope is not a COA (course of action). The key thing is to expect the worst. The Meteorological Specialists (aka Weather Guessers) call for clear skies? Yeah, it’s gonna rain day one of a ten-day field op. Prepare for it. There’s a reason why veterans always talk about Murphy’s Law (If something can go wrong, it will go wrong). Resist cynicism which is poisonous and infectious in the ranks. Instead cultivate a robust, albeit sometimes dark, humor to the inevitable adversity you will face. Laughing at your crappy circumstances will build resiliency in yourself and camaraderie in your unit.

Show up to PT without a shave

No one likes scraping your face at 0430 when you first wake up. Human nature inclines us to take the path of least resistance. Common sense reasoning may lead you to think (a) it’s dark outside and no one will notice and (b) sweating on a freshly shaved mug stings, so I’ll just shave and shower after PT. You should be reminded that common sense is not a common virtue, discipline reigns supreme. Go against your instinct, stay off the skyline and shave before you fall out for PT formation. This small simple task will keep you out of the NCO’s sector of verbal fire. Again, no one cares what you think. Your success in uniform as a junior enlisted member hinges on obedience to orders.

Amongst the plethora of information out there from veterans relating to successful navigation of enlisted service, the caution against these 5 worst practices will go a long way in keeping you off the radar.

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