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Surviving the Military

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

My step-brother Luke is getting ready to leave for Marine Corps. boot camp. I am struggling to give him advice, because lets be honest, it has been a hot minute since I went through One Station Unit Training at Ft. Sill.

Even still, I have come up with a list of points that are timeless. Please share them with anyone you know who is new to military life.

1 – You are not funny. If you think you’re funny, you’re not. Anyone who thinks you’re funny doesn’t matter. The only opinions that matter, especially in training, are those of your NCOs. They won’t find your comments funny, and in fact, they will make it their personal mission to make you too tired to be funny. Every NCO will know who you are, and that is the last thing you want. Form relationships with your peers, but do it in a healthy way.

2 – You are dumb. It doesn’t matter where you graduated, what degree you hold, what you got on your entrance exams, you are dumb. One of the goals of initial entry training is to prove to you that everything you thought you know is irrelevant, and all that matters is the doctrine of the particular branch you joined. There will be a time much later in your career when you have enough experience that your input is considered valuable, but that is years away. Through training (any training) and the first days at your unit (any unit), your job is to learn and conform. Don’t ask questions, execute. If someone asks you to go find keys to the impact zone, or to ask another Platoon Sergeant for a blank adapter for the mortar tube, just do it. These things are rights of passage and do teach you valuable life lessons.

3 – Putting out is all that matters. In the military, especially early, putting out physically is all that matters. Don’t cheat your body, don’t conserve energy, don’t try to hide, and don’t try to find a shortcut on a run. Just put out. Do pushups until you fall on your face, run until you puke, don’t make whiney noises, and just do the work. You will harden your mind, you will harden your body, and you will be recognized for the right things (for the wrong things, refer back to “you are not funny.”

4 – Know the difference between hurt and hurting. There is a difference between hurting and being hurt. Chances are that you have no idea what it means to be hurt. Chances are that you think hurting is being hurt. It is not. Here’s a secret: everyone around you is hurting. How well you put the hurt out of the brain is what separates those who thrive from those who merely survive.

However, knowing when you’re hurt (or sick) is something to be aware of. You don’t want to be a malingerer (the person who is always going to sick-call or on profile) but you do need to take care of yourself. Here are the rules that I found useful: if you can see bone, say something; if it won’t stop bleeding, say something; if it smells rotten, say something; if it’s swollen to the size of a fruit, say something; if the pain is sharp and debilitating, say something; if you got knocked out, say something; if you can’t keep food or water down, say something; everything else, work through.

Note: this is what worked for me, and is not necessarily right for you. Know yourself, know your body: you’re responsible for yourself.

5 – Don’t question direction, volunteer for everything. Remember point 2: you’re dumb. There are things you are going to be asked to do that may seem ridiculous, do them and don’t ask questions. Your job is to learn and that is best done with your mouth shut. Reflect, consider, but do not ask questions.

Additionally, you may have been given the advice “don’t volunteer for anything”, and that is lazy bullshit guidance. Volunteer for everything. Do the unpleasant things so that the person next to you doesn’t have to. Do the unpleasant things because there is something to learn from it. Do the unpleasant things because that’s what leaders do. Be the first to volunteer, always.

6 – Mistakes in the military can destroy the rest of your life. If you get an underage drinking citation in college there is a very good chance that nothing will come of it. If you get an underage drinking citation (or in a fight, or most anything) in the military there is a very good chance (especially if it occurred off post) that you will be court martialed, dishonorably discharged, and have fewer rights than a convicted felon. Do not succumb to peer pressure. Do not be dumb. Do not destroy your life.

7 – Lead by example: the little things matter. How you wear your uniform, how you speak, how you perform tasks, and how you treat others matter possibly more than the big things. Figure out what “right” is for you, and live to that standard unapologetically each day. There will be peers who try to sway you, there will be people who outright try to sabotage you. Decide to be stronger. Know who you want to be and execute. Your career will reflect this decision.

8 – Read everything. Read absolutely everything. Everything you sign, everything you are assigned, and when all of that is done find other things to read. Reading is the most important thing a person can do, and that is amplified in the military. Understand the history of your unit, your division, your specialty, and your branch of service. Understand historical moments in the history of each. Understand the victories and the failures. When you’re done with that, read the history of the military of other countries. When you’re done with that, study philosophy. Don’t worry about who calls you a nerd. Read

9 – Save your money, and maximize your TSP contribution. Just outside of every gate at every military installation are countless people who are trying to take your money. Cars, bars, rent-to-own electronics stores, strip clubs, food, and a bunch of other bullshit that you don’t need. Don’t get me wrong it’s fun to indulge in some of these things some of the time, but be smart. You don’t need a new/used/expensive car, you don’t need a motorcycle, you don’t even have space for all of those electronics, and you are probably not going to meet your spouse in a strip club. Have fun, but don’t fall into a debt trap. Maximize your investment in the thrift savings program, put money in savings, and then pay yourself with what’s left. It can be easy to fall victim to impulse when the threat of death is lingering overhead but exercise self-control. Chances are that you’re going to be just fine, and future-you will appreciate the discipline you exercised early to help make your transition away from the military much smoother.

10 – Don’t get married. Time for some tough talk. You don’t know who you are. You literally have no idea. The person you will be after training, after deployment, after you leave the service, is a person you can’t even imagine today. Because of that, you have no idea what you need or want in a spouse.

What you don’t need is the standard issue military divorce and alimony. You do not need that drama. Wait. Getting out of the barracks, BAH, and BAS are really not that important.

If you intend to make the military a career, at least wait until have been promoted enough times to live off-post so that you can date like a normal human. The person who is willing to marry you after a few weeks so that you can both get a house and BAH is likely not the person who is going to help you be the best version of yourself.

Please, for the love of everything, wait. Invest in your physical strength, invest in your education, invest in your career. Family can wait until after you’ve left the service, or at least until you are well-established in your career.

11 – Its all a game. The whole point of basic training in any branch of the military is to break you down, break you of all your previous life’s bad habits, and build you back up with habits that will enable you to be successful in the military. It’s a process by design, so just “play the game”. It’s not personal, it’s the process. It’s nothing more, nothing less. Recognizing and understanding that went a long way toward helping me just put my head down, “embrace the suck”, and just do what I needed to do to get through without incident.

GOOD LUCK! Footnote: #11 Contributed by Jason Shank – thanks, brother!

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2 comentários

John Francis
John Francis
10 de mai.

I think this is solid advice. I heard the podcast 'A Mission to Improve Work' on the SAFe Business Agility Podcast. Adam mentioned passing his time in the military and experience with a toxic leader. I did a search to learn more and found this blog entry. I think back to my time in the military, and this is good advice for any young person considering going in. John in D.C.

Adam Mattis
Adam Mattis
10 de mai.
Respondendo a

Thanks for the comment John!

I think you may appreciate this one as well:

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