Military Career

Military CareerThe U.S. Armed Forces are composed of five separate military services: the army, navy, air force, marines, and coast guard. These branches organize, train, and equip the nation’s lands, sea, and air services to support the national and international policies of the government. Together, military workers from these branches are responsible for the safety and protection of U.S. citizens. Those who choose to be members of the armed forces dedicate their lives to protecting their fellow Americans. Over 1.4 million people are active members of the mili­tary services.

Military Worker Career History

The history of the U.S. military dates back to defense forces, known as militias, that were used by the colonial states. These militias began to develop in the first decades of the 17th century, long before the United States existed as a country. More than 100 years later, in 1775, the Con­tinental Army was established to fight the British in the Revolutionary War. The colonists so valued the Army that its commander and most revered general, George Washington, became the first president of the United States.

The oldest continuous seagoing service in the United States, the Coast Guard, was established in 1790 to com­bat smuggling. In contrast, the first American Marine units were attached to the Army at the time of its cre­ation; these units then were made an independent part of the Navy when it was officially established in 1798. The Marine Corps was considered part of the Navy until 1834, when it established itself as both a land and sea defense force, thereby becoming its own military branch.

The air service grew from somewhat unusual begin­nings. The Civil War marked the first use of aircraft in the U.S. military, when a balloon corps was attached to the Army of the Potomac. In 1892, a formal Balloon Corps was created as part of the Army’s Signal Corps. By 1907, a separate Aeronautical Division was created within the Army. Air power proved invaluable a few years later during World War I, bringing about major changes in military strategy. As a result, the United States began to assert itself as an international mili­tary power, and accordingly, the Army Air Service was created as an independent unit in 1918, although it remained under Army direction for a time.

With the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, America was plunged into World War II. At its height, 13 million Americans fought in the different branches of the military services. When the war ended, the United States emerged as the strongest military power in the Western world. A large part of America’s military success was due to the superior­ity of its air forces. Recognition of the strategic importance of air power led to the creation of the now wholly independent branch of service, the U.S. Air Force, in 1947. Two years later, the various branches of military service were unified under the Department of Defense.

In the years following World War II, the United States and its allies devoted their considerable military resources to fighting the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Anticommunist tensions led to U.S. involvement in the Korean War during the 1950s and to participation in the Vietnam War, which ended in the mid-1970s. Antiwar sentiment grew increasingly insistent, and soon, the policies that established an American presence in foreign countries came under new demands for re-evaluation. In 1973, the draft was abolished, and the U.S. military became an all-volunteer force. The armed forces began to put great energy into improving the image of military person­nel and presenting the military as an appealing career option, in order to attract talented recruits.

During the 1980s, the U.S. military increased its efforts to bring about the collapse of Soviet communism and became active in the Middle East, particularly in the Per­sian Gulf, through which flowed much of the world’s oil supply. Later in the decade, many countries under Soviet rule began to press for independence, and, in 1991, the Soviet Union finally collapsed under the weight of its political and economic crisis, effectively ending the Cold War. That same year, the United States engaged in the Persian Gulf War.

From the early 1990s up until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. military took on a new role as a peacekeeping force. It participated in cooperative efforts led by organizations such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, suddenly changed the role of the military from a peace­keeping force to an aggressor in the attempt to destroy the strongholds and training camps of terrorists around the world. President Bush said the war against terrorism would likely be a sustained effort over a long period of time. U.S. troops, warships, and dozens of fighter planes were deployed to south-central Asia and the Middle East and air and ground strikes began. In addition to mili­tary action, the administration planned to use diplomatic, law enforcement, and financial strategies against those believed responsible for the attacks. In March 2003, a coali­tion of nations led by the United States and Great Britain invaded the nation of Iraq, whose leader, Saddam Hussein, was suspected of creating and harboring weapons of mass destruction for potential use in terrorist attacks. Although Hussein was captured in December 2003 and a demo­cratic government was established in Iraq in June 2004, the struggle to bring peace to this nation in transition demanded a continued U.S. military presence.

Military Worker Job Description

The general structure of the military is pyramidal, with the president of the United States acting as the com­mander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. The president’s responsibilities include appointing top military officers and maintaining the nation’s military strength.

The Secretary of Defense is an appointed position usually awarded to a civilian. He or she is a member of the president’s cabinet, presiding over the Department of Defense and directing the operations of all military branches. The Joint Chiefs of Staff—the senior command­ers of the different services—work with the Secretary of Defense to advise the president on military matters.

Together under the auspices of the Department of Defense, the individual services (the army, navy, air force, marines, and coast guard) make up the armed forces. The army is the senior service. It is traditionally known as the branch that fights on land. The navy, more than any of the other services, has a special way of life. Its officers and enlisted people work and live together at sea for long periods, which is a lifestyle that demands close attention to duties and teamwork. The air force, the new­est of all the services, is highly technical and appeals to those interested in aviation and mechanical trades. The marines operate on land and sea, and they usually form the advance troops in military operations. The corps is closely associated with the navy, and like the navy, prides itself on meeting the highest possible standards in train­ing, military bearing, and discipline. Apart from more military duties, marines provide security on navy prop­erty and guard U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The coast guard is the smallest of the military services, and, as such, offers unique opportunities. It is responsible largely for the enforcement of maritime law, but is perhaps most well known for its involvement in search and rescue efforts, aiding those in distress at sea. Although opportunities exist for overseas assignments, most duties in the coast guard are related to the waters and shores of the United States.

Military workers fall under two broad occupational categories: enlisted personnel and officers. Enlisted per­sonnel execute the daily operations of the military and are considered noncommissioned officers. Officers func­tion as managers of the military, overseeing the work of the enlisted personnel.

Both the army and navy maintain a third classification of skilled experts called warrant officers. Enlisted soldiers or civilians who demonstrate technical and tactical abil­ity in any one of several dozen occupational specialties may qualify as a warrant officer. Warrant officers have highly specialized training and gain additional exper­tise by operating, maintaining, and managing the ser­vices’ equipment, support activities, or technical systems throughout their careers. Specialties include, but are not limited to, missile systems, military intelligence, telecom­munications, legal administration, and personnel.

Most members of the armed forces live and work at military bases located around the world. Much of the work done on a base is similar to that done in communi­ties anywhere. There are jobs for clerks, cooks, mechan­ics, electronics experts, technicians, doctors, dentists, scientists, computer specialists, and others. The military branches also employ their own police forces and intel­ligence and communications experts. More unusual jobs are also available. For example, the Marine Corps offers a special program for applicants with musical talent to train to play in corps bands.

In general, an enlistee, or someone just entering the military, is assigned a job based on his or her educa­tion, test results on the Armed Services Vocational Apti­tude Battery, the needs of the service, and the person’s wishes.

The armed forces require strict discipline from all per­sonnel. Special military laws must be followed, and mili­tary workers must wear uniforms while on duty. Those who choose to work in the armed forces can expect to move many times and also live apart from their families during their careers. Life in the military is demanding, but it does have many rewards.

Military Worker Career Requirements

High School

Military CareerYour educational preparation will depend to an extent on your career goals. At a minimum you will need a high school degree or its equivalent to join a branch of the armed forces as enlisted personnel. If you want to become an officer, however, you will also need a college education. In either case, you should take high school classes in mathematics, including advanced classes such as algebra and geometry, and science. Take computer science classes since many positions will require you to have technical skills. History classes, government classes, and classes covering geography will also be helpful. English classes will help you develop the skills to fol­low directions as well as to communicate clearly and precisely. Also, consider taking a foreign language, which may expand your job opportunities. Remember to take physical education classes throughout your high school years. You will be required to pass physical and medical tests when you apply to the service, so you will need to be in good physical condition.

Postsecondary Training

Your postsecondary training will depend on your career goals. If you wish to enter the military right after high school, you will take the path of enlisted personnel. You will agree to an enlistment contract, pledging time to the service—usually eight years. Depending on the branch you join you may spend between two and six years on active duty and the remaining amount of the eight years in reserves. You must pass medical and physical tests as well as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam. Basic training comes next and will last between six and 12 weeks. During this time you will have class­room study, physical training, and training in military skills and protocol. After basic training, and depending on your skills and performance, you may be assigned to a job that calls for on-the-job training or be assigned to a job that requires further technical training. This training may last from 10 weeks up to a year, depend­ing on the position. Many people combine this training with courses they take when off duty to work toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. In fact, over 37 percent of enlisted personnel have at least some college-level educa­tion. A select few enlistees are chosen for officer training after completing basic training. They receive additional military training.

If you wish to attend college after high school, you have a number of options available. You may want to attend one of the four service academies: the U.S. Mili­tary Academy (for the army), the U.S. Naval Academy (for the navy and the marines), the U.S. Air Force Acad­emy (for the air force), or the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (for the coast guard). Competition to enter these schools is intense; you will need to have an excellent academic background, involvement in community activities, and show leadership qualities, among other requirements. Most applicants also need a nomination from an autho­rized source, which is usually a member of the U.S. Con­gress. You will graduate from one of these academies with a bachelor of science degree, and you are then required to spend a minimum of five years on active duty, beginning as a junior officer.

Another option is to attend a college or university that has a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) pro­gram. In an ROTC program, you take courses in military instruction in addition to your regular college course work. After graduation you may serve as an officer on active duty for a required amount of time. Some grad­uates are allowed to serve in the Reserves or National Guard.

A third option for college graduates is to attend Offi­cer Candidate School or Officer Training School. Upon completion of one of these programs, graduates enter their military branch as officers and must serve for a required period of time.

It is most important to make an informed choice when deciding on which postsecondary route you wish to take. Therefore, do as much research as you can. Talk to several recruiters, find out what jobs are available and what position you can realistically expect to be assigned to. After all, not everyone can become a member of the Blue Angels, the precision aircraft flight team that repre­sents the navy and the marines.

Certification or Licensing

The need for certification or licensing will depend on the job you have. Pharmacists in the military, for example, must hold a license, the same as civilian pharmacists. However, it is important to note that the military does not offer certification or licensing for many jobs that require these credentials in the civilian sector. If you are interested in receiving training in the military for a cer­tain job and plan to transfer your skills to an equiva­lent job in the civilian sector, you will need to do a little research to determine what, if any, additional training and/or certification or licensing you will need in the civil­ian workforce.

Other Requirements

To join any branch of the military you need to be a U.S. citizen or have permanent residency status (that is, hold a Green Card). To enter the army, navy, and air force, you must be between the ages of 17 and 35. Enlisted person­nel that enter the Marine Corps must be no older than 29, while those entering active duty in the coast guard must do so before their 28th birthday. You also cannot have a criminal record. There are height and weight standards that you should ask your recruiter about since they may vary among the services. Some jobs have special require­ments, such as certain vision standards, which you will also need to find out from your recruiter.

In addition to these qualifications, anyone entering the military should be prepared for a regimented lifestyle. Those who are successful are able to follow orders, work as part of a team, and adapt well to unexpected or sudden changes. You will be required to relocate, probably several times, during your military career. To advance through the ranks you must be willing to learn new skills as well as take on a variety of assignments. Although military life can be very rigorous, many find it both challenging and highly rewarding.

Exploring Military Worker Career

Military CareerYou will need to do a fair amount of exploring to deter­mine what job you would like to have as well as what branch of the military suits you. Consider any family members or family friends who have served in the mili­tary a valuable resource. Ask them about their experi­ences, what they liked best about the military life and what they liked least. Talk to recruiters from several branches to learn about what each has to offer you. Attend events that are open to the public, such as air shows, where you may also have the opportunity to talk to those in the service, and visit the Web sites of each branch. Think about what job you would like to have in the civilian workplace and find out the requirements for that position. Then determine if a similar job exists in the military and ask recruiters about the probability of getting such work. After all, if you want to be an aircraft mechanic but you end up working in food service, you may be very dissatisfied for a number of years. Research­ing before you join is one of the primary ingredients to success in this field.


The U.S. government employs the military. Today there are 1.4 million men and women on active duty and another 1.2 million volunteers serving in the Guard and Reserve. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 487,000 individuals serve in the army, 350,000 in the navy, 356,000 in the air force, 185,000 in the marines, and 33,000 in the coast guard (which is now part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security).

Starting Out

A military recruiter is the person to contact for those wanting to enter the armed forces. To start out in any branch, you will need to pass physical and medical tests, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam, and basic training. Visit the Web sites listed at the end of this article to locate a recruiting office near you.


Each military branch has nine enlisted grades (E-1 through E-9) and 10 officers’ grades (O-1 through O-10). The higher the number is, the more advanced a person’s rank. The various branches of the military have somewhat different criteria for promoting individuals; in general, however, promotions depend on factors such as length of time served, demonstrated abilities, recom­mendations, and scores on written exams. Promotions become more and more competitive as people advance in rank. On average, a diligent enlisted person can expect to earn one of the middle noncommissioned or petty officer rankings (E-4 through E-6); some officers can expect to reach lieutenant colonel or commander (O-5). Outstanding individuals may be able to advance beyond these levels.


The U.S. Congress sets the pay scales for the military after hearing recommendations from the president. The pay for equivalent grades is the same in all services (that is, anyone with a grade of E-4, for example, will have the same basic pay whether in the army, navy, marines, air force, or coast guard). In addition to basic pay, person­nel who frequently and regularly participate in combat may earn hazardous duty pay. Other special allowances include special duty pay and foreign duty pay. Earnings start relatively low but increase on a fairly regular basis as individuals advance in rank. When reviewing earnings, it is important to keep in mind that members of the mili­tary receive free housing, food, and health care—items that civilians typically pay for themselves.

According to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the basic monthly pay for an enlisted member just starting out at a grade of E-1 was $1,142 in 2005. This would make for a yearly salary of approximately $13,712. An enlisted member with an E-5 grade and more than four years’ experience earned monthly basic pay of $2,060, or approximately $24,728 yearly. At the top grade of E-9, a person with more than 12 years’ experi­ence made $3,989 per month, or approximately $47,876 per year.

Pay for officers is much higher than for enlistees. According to the Defense Finance and Accounting Ser­vice, officers starting out at a grade of O-1 received basic monthly pay of $2,343 in 2005. This would make for an annual salary of approximately $28,123. An officer with the grade O-5 and more than four years of experience earned $5,021 per month, or approximately $60,256 per year. And an officer with the top grade of O-10 and more than 20 years of experience had monthly basic earnings of $12,963, or approximately $155,556 annually.

Additional benefits for military personnel include uniform allowances, 30 days’ paid vacation time per year, and the opportunity to retire after 20 years of service. Generally, those retiring will receive 40 percent of the average of the highest three years of their base pay. This amount rises incrementally, reaching 75 percent of the average of the highest three years of base pay after 30 years of service. All retirement provisions are subject to change, however, and you should verify them as well as current salary information before you enlist. Those who retire after 20 years of service are usually in their 40s and thus have plenty of time, as well as an accumulation of skills, with which to start a second career.

Work Environment

The work environment for military personnel depends a great deal on what branch of service they are in and what their specific job is. For example, someone serving on a submarine will spend months living in extremely close quarters at sea; someone else working at a military hos­pital will experience the hustle and bustle of a health care facility; and an individual assigned to an international peacekeeping force may work in the tense atmosphere of a fragile truce between two bitter enemies. No matter what the job, however, strict discipline and adherence to regulations are required in all branches of the military.

Military Worker Career Outlook

Career opportunities in the military services are wide­spread. Today each service branch is aiming to function on a “steady state.” This means every year each branch needs enough recruits to replace those leaving the service. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately 170,000 new enlistees and officers must join annually to fill vacated spots. In recent years some branches, such as the navy, have fallen short of meeting their recruitment goals, and opportunities in these branches are even more plentiful than the average. While political and economic conditions will have an influence on the military’s duties and employment outlook, it is a fact that the country will always need the armed forces, both for defense and to pro­tect its interests and citizens around the world.

In the coming years, the primary barrier to obtaining a position in the services will not be a lack of available jobs but rather the increasingly high education standards that new recruits must meet. As jobs become more com­plex and integrated with new technologies, those with solid educational backgrounds, including at least some college training, will have the best chances for entering the services.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the terrorist attacks of 2001 have heightened the need for military overseas. As part of the Homeland Security mission, the coast guard immediately mobilized more than 2,000 Reserv­ists in the largest homeland defense and port security operation since World War II.

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