The Pros and Cons of Military Service

From patriotism to pragmatism--why Americans enlist.

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Military recruiting stations are often humble affairs. The modest-looking storefront Army recruiting station in Hagerstown, Md., is no exception: a few cubicles, some posters, an American flag, and the seven Army values listed on the wall. The simple fact is that the people who join up with Uncle Sam usually don't need to be wowed by flashy videos, though the Army does churn them out by the bushel. Most recruits have a good idea of what they're signing up for and why they're doing so.

Brittany Gloss, sitting inside, certainly does. "I know what it'll be like. I've got a brother in the Air Force and a fiancé in Korea with the Army," says Gloss, who aims to be an Army nurse. Now, she's working at a grocery store bakery, waiting for her enlistment paperwork to clear. "It's time to get my life started, serve my country, and get some money for college," she says. That's a familiar refrain from enlistees, says Sgt. 1st Class Henry Oyler, one of the recruiters in the Hagers­town office. "The Army offers a way for people to help others, help their country, and change their own lives as well—it's an appealing offer," he says.

Patriotism is always one of the top three reasons people give for joining the military, according to national recruitment statistics. One of the Army values painted on the off-white walls in the Hagerstown center is "Selfless Service." "Sure, I'm hard-core patriotic," says Gloss. "I've even got a red, white, and blue tattoo." Of course, the stagnant economy is also an important factor, but not one that alone can explain why the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines have all exceeded their recruitment targets this year, even with two wars in progress.

Military work is perhaps the country's oldest and most dangerous form of public service. Historically, that service has often been a requirement rather than a choice, and the wars those conscripts were sent to fight were far bloodier than the current conflicts. Nowadays, the U.S. military is proudly an all-volunteer force of 2.2 million men and women that offers members a host of incentives in addition to the knowledge that they are serving their fellow countrymen. In his inaugural address, President Obama said that those in uniform "embody the spirit of service—a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves."

The military's most public work is in war zones, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly 2 million Americans have served in uniform in those conflicts. Yet war constitutes only a fraction of the military's daily activities, which range from humanitarian missions in places such as Haiti, Guatemala, and Pakistan to staffing bases from Germany to South Korea to thwarting pirate attacks in the world's sea lanes.

In fact, the modern military has a "tooth-to-tail" ratio of 1-to-10 or more. Those are the estimated numbers of frontline troops compared to logistics and other support personnel. What it means for the majority of Americans in uniform is that they probably won't find themselves conducting raids against Taliban targets in the mountains of Afghanistan. Rather, they'll be in supply, logistics, training, and support roles far from the battlefield. No less vital to the mission, to be sure, but a far cry from the popular image of soldiers serving on the dusty and deadly front lines.

Regardless of the assignment, military service carries with it the potential for great rewards, both in terms of the skills that members acquire and the potential for advancement afterward. The military has trained thousands of doctors, lawyers, mechanics, and other professionals—an enticement that is not lost on the recruits who pass through the Hagerstown storefront center. They're also looking at the educational funding benefits, which can include tuition assistance, full or partial repayment of existing college loans, and educational aid for dependents. And, for the ambitious, there's the prospect of continued public service after the military, whether in the civil service (the federal government and some states give veterans preference when hiring) or elective office.