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Military Career

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By TMFDj111
October 31, 2002

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What influenced your decision to go into the military?

I joined the Air Force because they paid for my college education. My original plan was to do my four years, and then take my very expensive education and sell it to the highest bidder.

However, my assignments my first three years were challenging and professionally rewarding, and then the Air Force offered to send me to graduate school. Since then, I've worked at various levels from field assignments through staff assignments, and the Air Force has loaned me to the Department of State twice. I still go to work thinking I'm making a difference. (I'm a full-time member of the military and a part-time TMFer.)

Are you happy with your decision?

I claim that if ever the Air Force makes me mad three days in a row, then I'm outta there. Sometimes I think the Air Force is testing me. For example, I'm in the assignment cycle right now, and I'm about ready to grab my assignment officer by the lapels and shake vigorously until I feel better -- a common feeling across the services and ranks by the way. But I also talk to my friends and peers working in the real world about their career choices and opportunities, their level of professional satisfaction, and their work environment. On balance, I still think being a member of the military was the right decision for me.

Would you make the same decision again? Why or why not?

Sometimes I wonder if I chose the right service -- there's seven commissioned services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Public Health Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). I chose the Air Force because it has a reputation as the most technical of the services, and my education is in science and engineering. The Navy was a strong runner up in my mind.

When I was looking at the military, my uncle was a captain in the Navy, and I didn't want to go into the Navy because I was afraid if I achieved success, everyone would accuse me of riding on my uncle's coat tails. In retrospect, that was pretty dumb reasoning. While a captain is a senior leader in the Navy, I seriously doubt my uncle could have that much effect on my career.

The Army tried to recruit me, but the recruiter was 6'6" with a 60" chest and a 28" waist. I had a hard time picturing myself competing successfully with a man like that in an organization with a reputation for valuing intelligence and athletic prowess. Since then I've come to realize most members of the Army tend more towards the center of the normal curve physically. Based on years of field research, I'm pretty sure most of the Army's general officers are five foot nothing when they stand on their tippy toes.

The Marines get all kinds or razzing for being big and dumb, but the Marines cannibalize their young, and after two or three years, the survivors are incredibly able and scary smart. One of my best supervisors was a Marine gunnery sergeant (when I was a lieutenant). I had a platoon of Marine MPs working for me, and the gunnery sergeant was the platoon's leader. I outranked him, but I also knew who to go to for substantive advice. He taught me how to handle junior enlisted members in a way that respected their developing professional skills, yet still got the job done effectively and efficiently.

I toyed with transferring to the Public Health Service for a while. I wanted to become a physician and the PHS was offering scholarships. Somehow I never got around to submitting the paperwork because I was too busy doing my job in the Air Force.

By the way, rejecting the Navy because you can't swim makes little sense. You'd be surprised how many of the Navy's officers and sailers can't swim -- some of them are actively afraid of water. They joined the Navy and achieved success because they like the lifestyle and they love what they do.

And what advice would you give me?

First, dump your excess tonnage. Whether you join the military or stay in the real world, 65 pounds overweight is hazardous to your health. With that excess weight, you're looking at dying from multiple heart attacks, strokes, and progressive, debilitating creeping crud. That prospect is a lot scarier than dying in some remote corner of the world on some senseless mission. Just make up your mind right now to eat less, balance your diet, and exercise more. If you need help, then get help, but do it!

Second, get it into your head that you'll be a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine first, and your technical specialty happens to be optometry. You'll find the people happiest in the military are the ones who have their professional priorities lined up. They study military art, and they use their technical specialties to advance the state of the art. The ones who are unhappiest -- and the ones who make everyone else unhappy -- are people who think they're technical specialties take priority and their technical specialties are something they offer to practice in the military in exchange for financial compensation.

David Jacobs

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