It is generally true that those things that change us the most are the ones that are the most uncomfortable at the time. That is, the problems that go against the grain are the ones that shape who we are. Military service is perhaps the best example of this. Some people serve a short time. Some people serve their whole lives. For both, however, service is life changing.

Most people join the military as teenagers straight out of high school. The reasons they do are as varied as the people themselves. What they have in common is a lack of experience. Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training are thus formative experiences for them as they become physically fit, learn a military trade, spend time outdoors, and adapt to a high level of stress. Before I joined the military, I had been an underachieving peacenik – soft, undisciplined, and not very motivated about anything. Basic Training not only made me physically stronger; it also gave me a sense of purpose and the discipline needed to better myself. I was basically a C student before I went to Basic and an A or B student afterwards. Most people who join the military get similar results. They afterwards know where they are going and why. They establish goals for themselves and develop the discipline necessary to achieve them. They are toughened by their training to be able to withstand stress, distraction, and pain, which helps them become more successful.

For those who stay in the miliary for a long time, their experiences often expose them to more of real life than their peers, which gives them a broader perspective. For many, the military forces them to interact with people that they have nothing common, whether rich or poor, different races, or people of foreign descent. This not only builds skills in how to relate and get along with others; it also provides a broader perspective about life, religion, and politics. The first time I visited a country outside the U.S. was with the military. It was also the first time I visited a third-world country. While I was often restricted from visiting dangerous places, I did not merely go to the tourist traps and usual travel destinations. I spoke with locals about their experiences, saw the poverty of towns, and had to learn enough of their language to find my way. Many service members have similar experiences. They learn, not just to find safe spaces away from things that challenge them, but to embrace those who are different. They have seen the world, and they have seen both the best and worst of humanity. Nothing takes them by surprise.

Finally, the military usually makes people more altruistic and self-sacrificing than the average citizen. This is only natural given that most military members join out of a sense of service and patriotism. Living in close quarters with people under great pressure, trials, and even threat of bodily harm makes you feel closer to your comrades than brothers, and you are often willing to do more for them than even for your family back home. You not only train and fight together; you also protect and help people – it’s part of your mission. In addition to protecting the entire nation by fighting enemies overseas, service members are often called to help refugees, provide disaster relief, support police and firemen, and give aid and comfort to civilians. Especially with the National Guard, who only deploy overseas occasionally, “Defense Support to Civil Authorities” and state missions are their normal duties. Most who live in this environment learn to serve thinking mainly of others. Even off-duty, they find ways of helping others, and they are often willing to sacrifice themselves for the safety of children or other innocents. In short, they’ve learned what sacrifice and selfless service mean.

Of course, not all people join the military because they are patriotic or want to help others. Most join for college money or for a job. Many see enough by the time their first hitch is up that they have no desire to stay in. Even these, however, walk away bettered from the experience. Yet some re-up because they have learned the real meaning of sacrifice. This was the case with me. I joined for college money and stayed in for a career because I felt like I was making a difference after 9-11. Whether you walk away or stay in, your military experience has made you stronger, more world-wise, and service-oriented. Military service changes members for the better.

© 2022 J.D. Manders