Considering the number of veterans in the U.S., I’m always stunned by how many simple things civilians don’t understand about military life. Whether it’s family, war, or post-service careers, there are a lot of misconceptions out there. Here are five things people get wrong about military life.
“When you want to tell your superior something unpleasant, you just say ‘Permission to speak freely.’”
Is this the biggest myth in military history? It’s certainly my favorite. Has any soldier ever actually said the words “permission to speak freely” and lived to tell the tale? I never once heard this uttered in the real world, and I shudder to think what happened to the young private who saw it in a movie, and tried it with his or her First Sergeant. I’m not even sure how it would work in real life.
Private: “Sergeant Major, permission to speak freely.”
[Sergeant Major says nothing, kills private with stern look.]
(If you have a “permission to speak freely” story, you are hereby required to share it in the comments.)
“In the military, get used to the way drill sergeants talk, because that’s how everyone talks all the time.”
No, they don’t. This is one of the more pernicious myths about military life. That it’s all shouting, all the time. And I’m sure there are some military occupations where that is more common—I can’t claim otherwise—but overall, in my experience in both the Air Force and then the Army, the military is a fairly respectful and professional environment. Nothing makes a specialist more eager to do a good job than to be treated with the respect of a future sergeant. And young privates are industrious when empowered to get a job done.
But your mileage may vary. There are jerks in every unit. Thinking back, however, I’m not sure I was yelled at outside of a training situation once, really. There were dressing downs and spot corrections, but it was usually quieter and somehow more embarrassing. In basic training, the instructors shout because they need eighty new recruits to hear the lesson being taught. Also because sometimes they’re sadists. I’m talking to you, Sergeant Harvey.
“Want a family? Forget it.”
This one is a matter of perspective. Family life can be hard in the military, and military spouses are amazing and sometimes saintly. There are missed holidays and depending on your unit and MOS, preposterous op-tempos. But enlisting doesn’t mean you won’t be able to call mom from your permanent duty station at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to call home while in a combat zone. On that score, the soldiers I saw with marital problems in Afghanistan were the same ones who had marital problems while at home. Long, repeated deployments can turn cracks into canyons, though. Put one spouse in a war—even (and sometimes especially) in the rear—and the other in real life, paying bills and meeting people and doing things, and one year later, they’re going to be different people. That’s tough to overcome. It’s hard to watch one of your soldiers begging his wife not to go out tonight. The only advice I could give was: “They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. You can’t control someone from the other side of the planet. You can make it worse, though.”
Still, military divorce rates are (shockingly) similar to those of the broader U.S. civilian population (though differences in states, military personnel stationed overseas, and wildly different percentages of married service members in the first place make statistical analysis difficult and firm conclusions elusive).
As for the consequences of starting a family, the Defense Department has worked hard to improve maternity leave and to expand paternity leave. The Army has twelve weeks of flexible maternity leave for mothers who have just given birth, with six of those weeks available to be taken whenever the mother wants during the first year after birth. Paternity leave has been expanded to just shy of two months (a giant leap from the originally allowed ten days).
“You were in the war? God the things you must have seen…”
For the vast majority of service members, the closest thing they will see to combat is if someone gets an Xbox and Call of Duty for Christmas. Though the seemingly endless wars overseas have changed dramatically since the mid-2000s when I was there, look, there’s always been a rear, and that’s always where most military members have served. Bob Hope wasn’t doing those stand-up routines within sniper range during Desert Storm and Vietnam and Korea and however many conflicts going back to the Peloponnesian Wars.
The war machine has F-35 fighter jets, and also Burger Kings. At the height of Afghanistan, it seemed like Toby Keith was there so often that you’d swear that most soldiers were just country music fans who enlisted for the free tickets. The whole thing was embarrassing and I hope the Pentagon gets a grip before the next big war.
But the point is that most of the soldiers you meet aren’t ticking PTSD time-bombs or door-kicking Mogadishu-mile commandos whose hands have to be registered with the federal government because they are considered lethal weapons. They’re finance people and admin and supply guys. (And for the record, the infantry aren’t ticking PTSD time-bombs, either. That’s another terrible myth that should be put away.)
“Yeah, good luck getting a job when your enlistment is up.”
A green beret sold me my last car. He still served in the National Guard, and he was thrilled about his civilian job, was a total go-getter, was making a fortune in commissions, and had big plans for his career. It’s true that not all skills learned in the military apply in civilian life, but business is oftentimes more governed by principles than job-specific skills. It’s why when Apple wanted to find a new CEO, Steve Jobs didn’t look around Silicon Valley; he hired the CEO of Pepsi. Because organization and leadership skills apply equally to any job. It’s why a type-A long-tabber was able to sell a lot of cars. Still, some jobs do apply perfectly to the civilian world, as pilots, mechanics, cooks, and truck drivers can attest.
Several agencies in the federal government offer hiring preference for veterans. (ClearanceJobs has described that here.) The same is true for the private sector, where such companies as Home Depot, UPS, Amazon, and Starbucks are famous for their preference for veteran employees.
If you are reading a site called ClearanceJobs, you are probably aware that the security clearance you were granted in the military is incredibly valuable to a post-military life. And if you found this page from a search engine, welcome to ClearanceJobs! Check out our database of tens of thousands of jobs for cleared workers.