Before You Sign on That Dotted Line

Young men join the Army for a variety of reasons. Some are seeking adventure, a bastion of masculinity in a feminist ravaged world, or a steady paycheck in a time of economic crisis. Others join out of sense of patriotic duty, remaining true to family tradition, or other reasons altogether. No matter why a young man might join the service, his signing on that enlistment contract comes with many risks and issues he might not think about, especially while very young and fresh out of the halls of high school. We all know the best known and most dangerous risks of military service: death while deployed or training; a traumatic physical injury; traumatic brain injury and psychological casualty. However, precious few are fully aware of the other risks service members may find themselves facing and few recruiters share the full story.

1. Thanks to the FERES doctrine, active duty military members who are killed or injured due to egregious negligence while under the care of the military medical system have no legal recourse for their injuries. The same goes for the surviving family of a service member killed due to botched medical procedures while on active duty. In recent years the death of 29 year old SSGT Carmelo Rodriguez from skin cancer brought this issue to the attention of the media and the federal government but for now not much of this gross injustice has been changed.

2. The amount of active duty time you sign up for on your enlistment contract may not be the amount of time you serve. Anybody who signs an enlistment contract with the US Army is required to serve eight years total. Two or four years might be spent on active and the remainder will be served either in the active Reserves or the Individual Ready Reserves. During this time a service member who is now separated is still eligible to be recalled to active duty dependent on the needs of the Army.

Stop-loss is another risk that has come to the attention of the public during the current conflicts. The term stop-loss has been wildly abused in the media, often being used in reference to an IRR recall as discussed above or in instances when active duty soldiers have had their deployment extended. Neither of these are stop-losses though frustrating realities they may be. A true stop-loss refers to a service member being required to serve past what would have been their separation date from the Army. Stop-loss is not new and is, in fact, a possibility service members agree to when signing their enlistment contract and can be read in section 9c of the enlistment contract all soldiers sign.

3. Recruiter promises mean nothing if they are not in writing. Recruiters, like most sales people, try their hardest to make a sale. They will not necessarily lie but may sugar coat or withhold information to get enlistment contracts signed. This holds true whether this is a MOS choice, duty station preference, or orders to a certain school (Airborne for example). Ask for copies of any papers you sign and consider bringing somebody along to be an extra set of ears if you are planning to enlist in the military. Be aware that even if you have everything in writing, the military still reserves the right to renege on promises to suit their needs at any time.

4. Your MOS may have nothing to do with the job you actually do. Some companies will have slots for a certain MOS but no usage for the job. You can deploy and not perform your MOS for the entire you are overseas. A 88N for example, who is trained in transportation management and coordination, could wind up driving a bus to and from a base in Iraq and coordinating absolutely no transportation beyond getting themselves from point A to point B.

5. The military pay system discriminates based on marital and family status. If you are not married and/or a parent you will make less in BAH (housing allowance) than your married counterparts. BAH is only authorized to single soldiers who are over a certain rank (E6 in the Army) and single soldiers below this rank must reside in barracks. Thankfully barracks are improving at many posts and becoming more “apartment with privacy” than the dormitory style of yesteryear (See Randolph Point at Fort Bragg for one example), but this does not fully solve the unfair financial practices. You will also not be eligible for Family Separation Allowance while separated from your duty station for 30 days or more while your married or single parent peers will be earning this extra money.

6. Housing and other services are assigned in an almost communist fashion. For instance an E5 with a wife and one child at Fort Bragg would only qualify for a two bedroom house in an old housing neighborhood if he opts to live on post. He will pay his entire BAH of roughly $1100 for this home while an E1 with four children might pay hundreds less for a four bedroom home in a much nicer and newer community. For many families they will be able to find a better price per square foot off base, even with transportation costs and utilities factored in, so unlike other military lifestyle issues, this frustration can be easily solved.

7. On-post housing is not always in the best of shape and sometimes even of questionable safety. At Fort Bragg there is an on-going investigation of a junior enlisted housing neighborhood and Picerne, the company that owns the now privatized post housing following the death of three infants who have died over the last two years in the very same housing unit. There is speculation that poor quality drywall may be a factor, however, the Army and Picerne are both denying any link between the three deaths. Sadly a husband and father may enlist to have better opportunity to feed his family and keep a safe roof over their head but may be unable to do so despite his hard work and service to the military.

8. Just because you are “home” does not mean you are ever home. Many young men who are single when they sign up may not factor in the potential issues with being active involved fathers should they have children later on in their military careers. Field exercises are frequent at most large bases and this is especially true in certain large units, including the 101st & 82nd Airborne Divisions, 3rd ID, and other groups who have shouldered much responsibility during the long wars. CQ and Staff duty require a soldier to be awake and working for twenty four hours with a day off to sleep afterward. It’s not uncommon for a junior enlisted soldier to pull duty two or three times a month and he may have to do this even more depending on where he’s stationed.

As a soldier gains rank and becomes an NCO he can expect to really work for his money and miss out on much time at home. If he does not have a wife who is ready and willing to go the extra mile to keep him as a beloved and important figure in his child/ren’s eyes, he may lose them emotionally while working his self into the ground to take care of them the best he can.

9. After you have been in the military for awhile you may no longer fit into the civilian world. There exists a great divide between the 1% involved in the Long Wars and the civilian community. My husband recently came across an article that he said describes his feeling on this matter well. A soldier can become almost a myth and legend who people idolize, unsure of how to act or connect with this warrior who has been off fighting in the war most see only on the television screen. Many will no longer look at him as a human but something bigger than that, perhaps making him feel useless or no longer part of the world the rest of us inhabit.

10. You give up many of your constitutional rights to serve in the military. When you sign a contract you sign away your right to free speech, freedom of assembly and free expression and put yourself under the restrictions of UCMJ for the duration of your service. Military bases are also notoriously pro-gun control, restricting the rights of service members to arm and protect themselves while commuting to and from work, during the workday, and while residing in any form of on-post housing.

11. THE VA WILL NOT TAKE CARE OF YOU! Forgive my e-yelling but this point cannot be stressed enough. Walk around a large military town and you will see the forgotten ghosts of wars past, the men nobody gives a care about, the men often cheated and abused by the Veterans Administration. Service members may have to jump through hoops prove their need for VA service and go through frustrating appeals process when their claims for benefits are denied. Getting approved for medical care can takes months, or even years in some instances. The future may be even bleaker should the VA tighten the belt further in response to the recession. Hours and job positions could potentially be cut resulting in a greater backlog of cases to be reviewed.

12. Under the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act, an ex-spouse can be entitled to up to half of a soldier’s disposable pay and benefits at the discretion of the court granting the divorce. Up to 65% of a soldier’s pay can be awarded when child support or alimony are ordered by the court. If the marriage was ten years or longer during the duration of his active duty service, the ex-wife may also be entitled to a portion of his military retirement benefits, up to 50%.

There are many risks that must be considered before a young man signs an enlistment contract. This list is not comprehensive by any means and everybody must read over an enlistment contract carefully to find other issues and gray areas. If you are considering military service, talk to veterans before you join. Ask questions and find out risks and also benefits of which you need to be aware. Do not rush into your decision, but take whatever amount of time you need to make the best choice for yourself. There is no easy do-over or quick way to quit and turn back once you’ve signed on that dotted line and even in the best of military outcomes, eight years of your life is no small amount of time.

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