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Should you join the military?

The pay for serving and protecting your country isn't great at first, but military service comes with some decent retirement and education perks -- and substantial risks.

By MSN Money Partner May 24, 2013 12:11PM

This post comes from Myscha Theriault at partner site Money Talks News. 

moneytalksnew logoFor many young adults, the military provides a tempting career alternative, especially when education funds are tight or jobs are hard to come by.

The rewards can be significant: job training, the GI Bill, health care and a chance for early retirement. The risks are abundantly clear as soldiers return from war zones, and as those who gave their lives are remembered on Memorial Day. As the wife of a military retiree, I'll share the perks and pitfalls I consider to be most significant, based on my years of experience.


Pension. Join right out of high school and stay in for 20 years, and you can be drawing a pension before your 40th birthday. The higher the rank you achieve, the greater your pension will be.

Note: Adding stripes can be tough even if you're extremely good at your job. Why? Certain career fields have a faster advancement rate than others, and the available slots for advancement vary between job types as well.

How much will you get? There's no simple answer. However, this page at   explains the options of those who joined after August 1986. Generally speaking, you get 50% of basic pay after 20 years, and up to 100% if you give the military a full 40 years. This calculator may also help.

Health insurance. Tricare Prime is available to active-duty members and their families at no cost, and to retirees and their families for an enrollment fee. Tricare Extra and Tricare Standard are available to family members of active-duty military and retirees/families, and include more costs, like co-pays and deductibles, but provide access to a wider range of care providers, says

Housing support. Whether you are a single soldier living in the barracks, a young couple residing in base housing or a small family choosing to live off base, some form of housing support is part of your employment package. The off-base support comes in the form of Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH.

How much can you expect to receive for your off-base living stipend? The amount varies depending on where you are, your rank and your family situation.

For example, assuming you are relocating with a family and have the starting enlisted rank of E-1, your monthly BAH for living in Fairbanks, Alaska, is $1,626. Transfer to Pine Bluff, Ark., and the number drops to $810.

Education assistance. Joining the military comes with access to major education benefits.

  • The tuition assistance program generally covers up to 100 percent of tuition and fees, not to exceed $250 per semester credit hour or $4,500 per fiscal year, for active-duty military.
  • The Montgomery GI Bill helps pay for education during active duty and afterward.
  • The Post 9/11 GI Bill generally helps cover college costs after a person has been honorably discharged.

Military Man © Stockbyte/SuperStocPitfalls

A military career is no cake walk. If you're signing up for reasons of patriotism, fantastic. The benefits mentioned above will be financial gravy for you. However, if you're leaning toward this choice simply for monetary reasons, there's more to consider.

Starting pay. This military pay chart (.pdf file)  spells out what you can typically expect to receive for basic compensation. Those entering as officers will earn almost $2,900 a month. The starting pay for enlisted personnel is about $1,400.

Your base pay will increase along with your rank and time spent in service, but it won't happen overnight.

Other compensation. It may seem strange to include additional compensation as a pitfall. However, walk a mile in a military family's shoes and you'll see what I mean. The extra pay for hostile fire and imminent danger is only $7.50 per day, according to the Department of Defense. The other types of Special and Incentive pay are similarly insulting.

Risk factors. The risk factors that come with being a professional soldier are far from insignificant. Traumatic brain injury, amputations, paralysis and loss of life are all on the table when you take on this type of work, particularly for those who choose combat specialties over administrative ones. Any serious injuries you suffer will drastically impact your civilian earning potential after separation.

Spousal income loss. You may get paid for the transition time that occurs with every change of station, but your civilian spouse does not. And while Uncle Sam's recruiter will give you the spouse hiring preference pep talk in order to get you to sign, there might not be any jobs available for your spouse at your new base. Your spouse may earn significantly less money than he or she did prior to the move.

Stop loss. Stop loss, which paid an extra $500 a month, has been called a "back-door draft" because it allowed the military to extend the service of members who were scheduled to leave during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The practice ended in 2011.

While a lifelong career in the military is certainly a noble choice, it's also one that requires you to earn your early retirement through risks and requirements those in the civilian world typically don't have. Clearly you must balance the risks and rewards before you make your choice.

More on Money Talks News:

May 24, 2013 2:40PM
Anyone who has served knows that some people are meant to serve and some are not.  I applaud anyone who serves any amount of time.  It is a thankless job.  It has always been a thankless job.  We did not join to set the world on fire. 
May 24, 2013 5:31PM
Men and women alike make a choice to put their lives on the line so we can set back and make these useless posts. I am sorry but I believe instead of sending billions of dollars to foreign aid to countries that despise us. We should make sure every vet ( war or peace ) has a home, food, and medical care. Or am I just screwed in the head?
No, it's a thankless job by both the US government and some of the citizens they give their lives for.  Any US citizen that disgraces a soldier should be forced to the front lines during the next war.
May 24, 2013 5:20PM

I retired after 26 years, and If I were a young man, I'd do it all over again, even though I can hardly stand our elected civilian leadership at this moment.


I always told people the military was the opportunity for many to lift themselves out of the lot they drew in life.  It provides a job, a steady income, decent heath care, and a retirement if you can survive it.  You get to see and do stuff that most others can only wonder about.  You can BE ALL YOU WANT TO BE, you just have to be willing to WORK HARD for it.  I got to do cool stuff, and meet and remain friends with people whom I could trust my wife, my child and my bank accounts with, and most people NEVER have that kind of trust.  It's not for everyone (less than 10% of our population can actually meet the physical standard) but there are a lot worse things people could do with their lives.  Those that serve understand at a level that most civilians never will.

May 24, 2013 3:08PM
Would be ok if we had a Commander in Chief who was worth a shlt.
May 24, 2013 3:59PM
Way back, my Drill Instructor asked each of us why we joined.
After semi-patiently listening to answers like, "to see the world", "the GI Bill", "I need a job"...
he blew his stack.

Not even ONE person gave the right answer:  "To Serve My Country"
May 24, 2013 1:25PM

This article is lie. They don't cover that the military often treats it's service members as human guinea pigs and then denies health coverage or service disability pay. I am sick US Navy veteran from Desert Storm. Have head injury, I was exposed to chemical leak on my ship that could duplicate chemical weapons, had destroyed and over shot scuds landing in the water 4 nmi and 7 NMI from where my ship served, had people report anthrax vaccine reactions with same blood enzyme condition as me, which btw also is vulnerable to sarin exposure or even phosgene gas. I multiple chornic health problems consistent with Gulf War Illness.  Everything from a ruined hand , ruled RSD (aka chornic pain syndrome), to skin rash, skin swelling, skin blisters, constant pain, memory issues, vertigo, stomach issues varying in issue. Pain when I try to do anything of physical nature.

300,000 service connected my conditions can be proved. I am denied jury trial and told there  is nothing I can do about that. People see my records and evidence and stare in disbelief. The fact is the US government will not admit certain veterans got sick in Desert storm no matter what. They are forced to do without service connection.

Think about that being 1 out 10,000 to 15,000 troops out 300,000 the government decides to cheat you and there is nothing you can do with ruined health. Even they admit if I ever got jury trial , which supreme court has said veterans haven't earned the right to jury trial, that they would lose their case. Instead I get to go before a judge who when my case finally get there  will rule against me and dismiss the case ,without even giving a me chance to present my evidence.

Quit playing up the government keeping it promises ask any desert storm veterans sick or agent orange, project shad, atomic testing veterans about that. Ask the USS Liberty veterans about the government keeping its word and being above board on incident exposures and the truth.

May 24, 2013 3:49PM

No the military is not peaches and cream. The convoluted truths the recruiters tell to suck some sap into service are appalling, you need a lawyer to sort the facts. Yes, there are and can be a lot of downsides to serving as others have written about in their posts to this article. The treatment of injured and disabled soldiers is an abomination. This is however the fault of politicians and the general public who allow these soldiers to be left behind. It does cost billions to care for our war wounded but we need to find the money somewhere. I think politicians salaries and foreign aid would be a great place to start. 


On the other hand the draft should have never ended. We have in this country tens of thousands of young American men either walking the streets with no skills, social or otherwise and many incarcerated because they do not know what path to follow. The military at least pays them for work done and has a way of growing up young men at a critical stage of their lives. Yes the military has gone high tech and is looking for higher caliber people, but as in the civilian world we still laymen, not all people can be the boss. The cost to pay and insure the large influx of young people the draft would create could come from the savings in crime, incarceration and the overwhelming burden put on our social safety nets young people are learning to exploit, as a means of survival (thanks to lawyers) such as Social Security Disability.


You can argue this fact but at fifty-six years of age, retired now for more than a year with a large retirement fund and health insurance I am a living testament to the benefits of serving, even if only for the required minimum as I did. I was definitely headed down a path to self destruction at seventeen and the Army changed, quickly my whole outlook on life. They did not give me any career skills but gave me backbone and a social skill set you can learn nowhere else in short order. When I left the Army, I found most employers were ready to hire me over others who had not served, this alone makes a huge statement. Granted there are some potential employers who are anti-military who wound rather jail you than hire you as a former service member, these individuals should be jailed themselves.

May 24, 2013 3:26PM

Some of it sucks some doesn't, One of the first things you learn in Boot Camp is some days it sucks to be you. Civilians think they are special so nothing bad should happen to them. But when they sit in the retirement home, vets do not reminisce about civilian life.

May 24, 2013 2:35PM
23 1/2 years in the "chair force" loving my retirement check every month! Retired in 07 and yes the military (as well as the rest of the world) has changed drastically from when I signed up. Plain and simple just as every aspect of your life it is what you make of it!......... 7 more days till me next check :)
May 24, 2013 6:35PM

Illegal immigrants should have to serve 3 years as a condition of acquiring citizenship. This way they could get training and be productive and not be on the Obama welfare/ food stamp culture.

May 24, 2013 5:59PM

I did 43 years from 17 to 60 and got 68.00 a month when I started and saved 50.00.  I was fortunate in being able to spend about 10 years total in combat areas. I would have liked to have spent 43 years in combat but the Cold War years limited those opportunities. When I went through basic training recruits were physically and mentally harassed in order to weed out the  people who would break down in combat. I would have served for almost nothing and considered the GI Bill and retirement as extras.   Anyone who enlists because of the pay and benefits probably shouldn't be there in the first place because  these are the kind of people who will apply for PTSD disability at the first chance.  We need to bring back tough basic training including mild physical abuse and psychological terror in order to keep the weaklings from enlisting or break the weaklings before they get out in a combat zone and kill themselves or others.


May 24, 2013 10:11PM
There are no Army recruiters in wealthy neighborhoods.
May 24, 2013 10:05PM
I served until the end of my contract and left injured.  My injury got worse and I was denied further compensation when I tried to reopen the claim.   

I wish they took care of the vets and not use the money for pork projects and waste.   
May 24, 2013 6:22PM
Free room and board, free medical, paid time off (usually 30 days at a time), and weekends off unless you have guard duty................not too bad. If I knew then what I know now I would have stayed in for 20 years and retired with pension in 1988.
May 24, 2013 5:40PM

QUOTE:  "Join right out of high school and stay in for 20 years, and you can be drawing a pension before your 40th birthday. The higher the rank you achieve, the greater your pension will be."


I don't believe that we should be raising an army of mercenaries -- even those seeking no more than the proverbial "three squares and a flop" -- when the Nation really needs dedicated individuals to protect her.


People who join up in order to qualify for a pension are not always those who will stand and fight -- perhaps die -- when faced with the enemy in pitched battle.

May 24, 2013 6:32PM
I do not know of any retired military personnel reaping the benefits of a military career. I know of people that have insufficient medical benefits that have to work other jobs just to have medical coverage so this rainbow of benefits this article speaks of is all just shades of grey. My Dad served in WWII and he would not let me join the military and I would have out of respect for him having served. Many good men and women serve our country and when it comes time for our country to serve them they are cast awash in a sea of bureaucracy. My father in law served twenty years in the Air Force and would not have had vision or dental coverage had he not taken on other jobs after having retired. What the men and women of our military do they do thanklessly from the people on Capitol Hill and in the White House. They come on the television and spew their rhetoric, however, behind closed doors they could not care less about the people in the Armed Forces. The chasm between reality and perception is at an all time high in America and it will not change until we laud the people that deserve lauding and castigate those who don't. It's time to wake up people.
May 24, 2013 6:20PM
eat **** ****es, those who spoke of ptsd and called them lazy and welfare cases were individuals who sat on their **** in the rear or never went. being in durning time of war and being there are two diferent issues.  Yea join the military if you think its you and dont if you think its not you. only you know. dont listen to the jackasses who speak false words of wisdom, you decide its your world too..................
May 24, 2013 2:00PM
No but hell no The military is nothing but a lie They like to scam young people into thinking the military is a idea life style for them,  /when you get hurt you are forgotten
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