Which military branch SHOULD you join?
So you're thinking about joining the military. Good for you, you little patriot! Whether it's for the experience or the benefits or maybe just the emptiness inside you that makes you want to be a hero call to serve a higher good, the military has a lot to offer.
But not all military experiences are equal. There's a major difference between being a Marine Scout Sniper and an Air Force Linguist. Both have pros and cons, so let's talk about some of them, starting with the culture and mission of each branch.
Keep in mind that these are broad generalizations. A Special Operations mission in any branch will differ significantly from, say, a Public Affairs perspective, which will also influence the training requirements and deployment tempos for the individual.
As a note, this article was written based on a compilation of Department of Defense publications, interviews with veterans and my own experience. It cannot cover everyone's experience, so it's important to do your own research and talk to veterans (not just the first recruiting officer you meet).
As an additional note, the Boot Camp descriptions here are for enlisted personnel – officers have shorter boot camps because they undergo less academic training during boot camp itself and more during additional officer training. This isn't the only difference between being an officer and an enlisted member; from the mission to the pay to the benefits, the experiences are extremely varied — once you've found a branch you like, make sure you check out our article about commissioning compared to enlisting.
If you want to join the military, it's wise to reflect on why that is and what you want your life and job to look like. This is a good place to start:
U.S. MARINE CORPS
"What you're really made of can only be revealed at the brink of exhaustion. Marine Recruit Training will take you there. Only those who possess the never-quit spirit required of every Marine will find the strength they never knew they had, the willpower they never knew they needed and the commitment to find that second wind even when it hurts to breathe to overcome the Marine boot camp requirements."
Phase One -- Weeks 1-4
Recruits transition from civilian to military life with strenuous physical training and martial arts as well as Marine Corps history and classes. They learn Marine Corps culture and values, including how to wear the uniform and handle weapons.
Phase Two -- Weeks 5-9
The second phase consists of combat skills and marksmanship training. Recruits undergo gas chamber training and the Crucible.
Phase Three -- Weeks 10-13
Recruits undergo specialty training such as combat water survival and defensive driving.
Physical Fitness Test:
- Pull-ups or push-ups (as many as you can; you can only max out on pull-ups — with push-ups you can get a maximum score of 70 points)
- Crunches or plank pose (as many crunches as possible in two minutes or holding plank pose for up to four minutes and twenty seconds)
- Timed run (three mile run in 28 minutes or less for men, 31 minutes or less for women)
Combat Fitness Test:
- Movement to Contact (timed 880-yard sprint)
- Ammunition Lift (lift 30-pound ammo can as many times as possible overhead in set amount of time)
- Maneuver Under Fire (300-yard course that combines battle-related challenges)
Deployments: The Marines remain at a 1:2 deployment-to-dwell ratio (or 1 year deployed with 2 years at home), which Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General Robert Neller referred to as "unsustianable." The goal is to achieve a 1:3 deployment-to-dwell ratio.
Culture: Marines are trained for combat and they are very good at that mission, which they should be proud of.
Unfortunately, the Marine Corps still struggles with health and care of its service members. A 2018 Annual Suicide Report showed the Marine Corps had the highest rate of active duty suicides, with a rate of 31.4 per 100,000 (compared to the Army with 24.8, Navy with 20.7 and Air Force with 18.5).
The Marine Corps also had the highest reporting rate of sexual assault with 5.7 percent, followed by the Army at 5.5 percent, Navy at 4.8 percent and the Air Force at 4.3 percent.
Army Basic Combat Training comes in three phases and lasts about ten weeks depending on your military occupational specialty (MOS) — in other words, your job for the Army.
During the Red Phase, you learn the basics about Army life, such as how to wear the uniform and comport yourself. You also get your ass in line with physical readiness training and formation marching. Also, as a treat, you get your introduction to Chemical Radioactive Biological and Nuclear readiness, including getting gassed proper usage of breathing masks.
During the White Phase, you receive weapons and hand-to-hand combat training. You continue your physical readiness training, including obstacle courses and rappelling from the 50-foot Warrior Tower.
During the Blue Phase, you receive advanced weapons training, including machine guns and live grenades. You embark on a multiple-day land navigation course to test your survival skills. If you pass all of your challenges, you become a fully qualified Army Soldier. Huzzah.
Physical Fitness Test:
- Two minutes of push-ups
- Two minutes of sit-ups
- Timed two mile run
- 3 repetition maximum deadlift
- Standing Power Throw
- Hand release push up arm extension
- Leg Tuck
- Two mile run
In 2017, the Secretary of Defense's standard was a 1 to 2 deploy-dwell ratio — or one year deployed with two years at home, for example — with the "red line" at 1 to 1. At the time, that ratio was at about 1 to 1.2 or 1.3, according to Army Times. It isn't uncommon to expect 12-18 month deployments.Culture: Like the Marine Corps, the U.S. Army has a proven history on the battlefield. Soldiers are trained to operate under a "suck it up" attitude to endure long deployments and combat as well as physical and mental stress. The Army has the second highest reported incidents of suicide and sexual assault, just behind the Marine Corps. Anyone joining the Army can expect to join a branch with a proud lineage, but it's wise to evolve your own sense of self-care and to learn how to protect your health and the health of your battle buddies.
U.S. AIR FORCE
Basic Military Training:
Air Force BMT consists of eight and a half weeks where recruits are introduced to military life through academics and uniform wear as well as physical fitness and weapons training. Academics and certifications, such as learning the Code of Conduct and becoming CPR certified, remain peppered throughout training.
Air Force recruits will complete a Tactical Assault Course and M9 pistol training, but unlike the Army or the Marine Corps, airmen are not required to qualify on the weapon during BMT. Active duty enlisted personnel and officers will qualify on their weapon only as required by their job or deployment status.
Compared to the Marine Corps and Army and even the Navy or Coast Guard, with firefighting and water survival, the Air Force BMT is probably the least strenuous of the branch boot camps.
Physical Fitness Test:
- One minute of push ups
- One minute of sit-ups
- Timed one and a half mile run
Note that this test is less strenuous than the Army/Navy/Marine Corps fitness tests. Soldiers and Marines are more likely to become "boots on the ground" in combat zones.
Deployments: The Air Force maintains an Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) deploy-to-dwell tempo system, depending on career fields: The deployment categories are called tempo bands. Air Force officials have created five tempo bands: A through E. Tempo Band A reflects the original AEF cycle of a 1:4 dwell ration based on 120-day deployments. Bands B through E are based on 179-day deployments. Tempo band B is a 1:4 dwell ratio -- or six months deployed 24 months home. Tempo band C is a 1:3 dwell, band D is a 1:2 dwell and band E, reserved for the most stressed career fields, is a 1:1 dwell, or six months out, six months in.
Culture: Other branches like to tease the "Chair Force" due to its reputation for cleaner housing and higher quality chow halls. The average Air Force mission will be less physically strenuous or dangerous than that of the Marine Corps or Army.
You might say the Air Force operates with the motto of "work smarter not harder," and for better or for worse, this pays off. In recent reports, the Air Force had the lowest number of active duty suicides and sexual assaults. That being said, if you want to join the military to get in the fight and kick down doors in a combat zone, there are few Air Force positions available.
Recruit training or "boot camp" is about seven weeks long for the U.S. Navy. It will include physical fitness and Navy heritage, as well as seamanship and firearms training. The first two weeks are a challenging adjustment period filled with medical screenings and physical training as well as military education, including uniform wear and rank recognition.
The next four weeks include class and hands-on training environments that cover everything from firefighting and shipboard damage control to water survival and weapons training. Navy sailors aboard a ship must know how to respond to ship emergencies including flooding and fires as well as how to survive at sea. Every sailor is a qualified swimmer, able to swim 50 yards and complete a five minute prone float.
The final hurdle for Navy recruits is called Battle Stations, which includes numerous obstacles to test everything learned in the weeks prior.
Physical Readiness Test:
(Note, in 2020, the U.S. Navy will be introducing changes to the PRT)
- 1.5 mile run for time
- Alternate per commander's discretion: 500 yard swim for time
- Alternate per commander's discretion: Stationary cycle calorie burn in 12 minutes
- Alternate per commander's discretion: 1.5 mile treadmill; run/walk for time
- (2020 alternate per commander's discretion: 2 kilometer row machine test)
- Two minutes of curl-ups
- (To be replaced by forearm plank test)
- Two minutes of push ups
Culture: Navy ships especially continue to operate in historical fashions, so change is slow. Segregation of ranks is still strictly enforced (junior enlisted does not mingle with senior enlisted and fraternization with officers is especially prohibited in such close quarters). While women do serve at all ranks, there is still sexism and harassment in alarming numbers (though statistically less than the Marine Corps and the Army).
U.S. COAST GUARD
U.S. Coast Guard boot camp consists of eight weeks that begin with military and physical fitness fundamentals and mature to hands-on application of Coast Guard proficiencies. Recruits learn firefighting and marksmanship as well as seamanship and water survival. Recruits must pass a three part swimming test (swim circuit) that includes a six-foot jump followed by a 100 meter swim and treading water for five minutes.
Physical Fitness Test:
- One minute of push ups
- One minute of sit-ups
- Timed 1.5 mile run
- Swim circuit
The Coast Guard consists of about 40,000 active duty members. As such, it is a very selective branch with missions that involve everything from Search and Rescue to Maritime Protection. Coast Guardsmen "deploy" every day in their duties and units and cutters can be away from port for months at a time. Coast Guard deployments tend to be more frequent, but can be as short as a few days or as long as several months.
Not all Coast Guard assignments are on "the coast" -- there are inland assignments protecting inland waterways and lakes. The Coast Guard will also deploy to combat zones to provide additional support to maritime operations or to augment the Navy throughout the world.
Once you've researched the differences between each branch, there is still one more major consideration that can affect your military experience: whether to enlist or commission. We go into the benefits and downsides of each right here — check them out!
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