For the vast majority of high schoolers, the prospect of joining the Armed Forces barely grazes the mind as a post-high school option. Less than 10 percent of high school graduates take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a test meant to determine if one has the mental aptitude for enlistment. Joining the Armed Forces may intimidate many teenagers, leading them to opt for a 2- or 4-year college in the hopes of entering the workforce. However, despite these discouraging figures, the United States government has found ways to ensure a steady annual enlistment rate. Only twice in the last 30 years has the military failed to meet its recruiting goals (which are determined annually by Congress), and every year at least 180,000 people enlist, with another 20,000 going on to become officers.
The Armed Forces offer a broad variety of options for those wishing to enlist, and many of these options come with benefits that are exclusive to each service. From subsidizing college tuition to preparing young adults for officership, joining the military has amenities far beyond the clichéd promise of “serving your country.” Adolescents considering a career path in leadership have many options in enlistment, from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) to the military academies: United States Military Academy (USMA), United States Naval Academy (USNA), United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) and United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). Careers that incorporate national service are becoming increasingly accessible to adolescents through a diverse range of military branches. The individual branches come with different responsibilities, assignments, lifestyles and benefits, all aimed at making a life of service a viable opportunity.
Many military programs offer paths to officership, but that does not dilute the importance of the position, as it requires exceptional leadership and stark resilience. One way to achieve status as a commissioned officer without directly enlisting out of high school or attending a designated Armed Forces school is to take part in a college-based officer training and scholarship program, such as the ROTC. Students of this program graduate as officers and serve in every branch of the Armed Forces, from the Marine Corps to the Coast Guard. It is most popular for ROTC graduates to join the Army — 38.5 percent of ROTC graduates become newly commissioned U.S. Army officers.
Perhaps the most enticing part of enlisting in an ROTC program is the fact that a student may receive a competitive, merit-based scholarship, covering all or part of their college tuition, in return for their service after graduation.
ROTC programs are offered at more than 1,100 schools across the country. Students in the program attend college and live their collegiate lives just as their fellow students do, but also receive basic military training for their specific service branch through elected classes and drill practices. Trainees organize at ROTC units or nearby their college campuses for drill practice.
The ROTC program offers excellent college scholarships in return for service. Many turn to it as a reliable means to pay for their college educations. Federal law stipulates that graduates of ROTC scholarship programs who accept commission as regular officers are usually obligated to four years of active duty service after graduation and eight years of military service after their active duty period has ceased. However, these obligations vary in time from branch to branch; for example, the Navy’s service obligation is five years whereas the Marine Corps is four.
“I knew I would have to find a way to pay for college and I had always wanted to serve in the military,” Palo Alto High School senior and ROTC enlistee Ashby Parmeter said. “ROTC is a great opportunity for anyone looking for a free education and a way to give back. I actually applied for a few different branches of the military, including the Marines, the Air Force, and the Army.”
Individuals who join the ROTC are able to show their resilience and eagerness to help their country. For Parmeter, she is able to demonstrate her persistance through the program.
“I love challenges because [they give] me a chance to show how hard I am willing to work to achieve something,” Parmeter said. “I rarely give up… my eagerness to try difficult things, willingness to work hard and my ability to face challenges confidently all pushed me toward a military career. Coming from a military family, I have an idea of the discipline and standards that I am expected to live by and the Army’s beliefs are ones that I have lived with to include selfless service, respect for others and moral courage. I am excited to be part of something greater than myself so I can apply these beliefs and values on a daily basis.”
In addition to being able to serve their country, ROTC participants are able to obtain a degree in whichever field they desire and then apply that to their role in the army. This also allows them to get a job in that field after they leave the Armed Forces.
“I would like to serve in the Corps of Engineers,” Parmeter said, referencing the Army command public engineering agency that is a part of the Department of Defense. “I plan to study a type of engineering in college and I am excited to see the doors that open with this program. I find the vast possibilities in science exciting, and engineering is a mix of creativity and problem solving to work out the answers to the universe’s questions.”
The Coast Guard offers summer training courses because it doesn’t have an ROTC program. This summer training consists of officer training, which is more oriented around active duty and hands-on activities than the typical ROTC program. These summer programs are called split-training, in which members train for two summers and serve one weekend a month during the school year.
The Marine Corps does not have an ROTC program, but aspiring Marines can participate in the Navy ROTC. Both the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, although lacking in direct ROTC programs, can be served in by graduating officers of other ROTC programs.
ROTC is the most popular option among those wishing to serve their country while also obtaining a traditional college education.
Another common path taken is standard enlistment. In standard enlistment, a future enlistee signs a contract that binds them to four years of active duty and after that, depending on the program, typically eight years of inactive service.
Enlisting in this way does not require entering the Armed Forces through ROTC or summer boot-camp, but enlistees instead enter straight into serving the Armed Forces as a private –– the lowest level soldier. Entering the forces has become increasingly challenging as of late; only about one in four people who apply to join the armed troops are accepted.
During active duty, enlistees participate in the armed services, training and studying as a full-time job. In inactive service, soldiers stand on call in case of war when the country may need more soldiers.
An addition to standard enlistment is delayed enlistment. Delayed enlistment is the same process and concept as standard enlistment, but enlistees are allowed to join the troops up to a year after acceptance into the armed forces. Most enlistees currently have chosen to participate in delayed enlistment.
The Armed Forces encourage enlistees to join the delayed enlistment program because it allows them to plan their upcoming year. This way, the military is able to have a better sense of how many people are joining so they can then plan their training activities.
Delayed enlistees do not perform weekend drills, in contrast to active members of the armed forces, nor do they receive any pay. That being said, they can still be called to active duty in the rare event of a national emergency. All enlistees sign contracts guaranteeing their active participation for four years and inactive participation for eight years after.
A good middle ground between standard enlistment and delayed enlistment is the army reserves. There are nearly 202,000 members of the army reserves who are trained, equipped and organized to perform a full range of operations.
Many members of the army reserves partake in other jobs or schooling because the army reserves are only part-time.
Active duty, on the other hand, is what standard and delayed enlistees go into after joining the army. It is a full time job where individuals are trained and prepared for their individual responsibilities within the armed troops. This is what is casually referred to as “being in the military.” These personnel are placed into active status as units or individuals, serving their country to the fullest of their abilities.
One of the many paths to joining the Armed Forces involves attending a military academy. Military academies are traditional schools that teach in military-style education with emphasis on discipline and tradition.
Schools such as USMA at West Point and USNA at Annapolis are prestigious institutions for those seeking an occupation in the military as well as a life of leadership. These academies are as rigorous as they are rewarding.
The application process for these schools is very challenging — often, applicants have to overcome many barriers and jump through many hoops in order to attend these schools. Among these is the Congressional Nomination, a process in which prospective students apply for a personal nomination from U.S. Senator or Representative.
In the case of Paly senior Chuck Stephenson, who is attending West Point as part of the Class of 2020, the application process was long and grueling but ultimately rewarding.
“[Applying] was one of the hardest parts of the process,” Stephenson said after receiving a nomination from U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo. “It was pretty arduous and I applied to three different Congress members to increase the chance that I get a nomination.”
Many individuals choose to participate because of their role models. Stephenson attributes his desire to attend West Point to his grandfather, who was in the Air Force and acted as a major role model. People such as Stephenson are able to see first hand what serving their country looks like and are eager to follow in that path.
Others join an academy because they love helping people. The Armed Forces offer an excellent option for those who want to serve their country and others not just themselves in college and later in life. Naples American High School senior and incoming USCGA student Sarah Kemp is attracted to the Coast Guard because it is a military pathway that focuses more on maritime law enforcement than combat.
“In a few years, I am going to be serving my country, helping everyone around me, and doing what I love to do the most,” Kemp said. “That is easy to forget, but it is thanks to all of the hard work that I put in during my time in high school.”
Experiences from school to school vary greatly. For example, USCGA is a much smaller school than USMA, so the experience from one to the other has a completely different feel.
“The Coast Guard is a much smaller service, so it demands a lot of variety and flexibility from its officers,” Kemp said. “Right out of the [U.S. Coast Guard] Academy, I could be in charge of my own [vessel], attending flight school, directing cleanup at an oil spill, teaching future officers about math or history or a million other things that the Coast Guard assigns to me.”
The average high school senior is eager to take the first steps into their adult life, with those first steps typically being a form of higher education. Although the Armed Forces are not heavily advertised by parents and college counselors, our military offers programs and institutions designed to weave together national service and academic enrichment.
The ROTC allows enlistees to obtain a college degree whilst preparing to serve their country as officers, while military academies allow students to achieve classic education in traditional military style and join the military in officership after graduation and service.
Standard and delayed enlistment allows enlistees to enter the military directly, fulfilling that most American of duties: pledging their career to a life of service.
Joining the military through any of these option requires diligence and zeal, but those that graduate from these programs may enjoy the honor that comes with such a prestigious serviceship.
“While [joining the armed forces] is tough, it is extremely rewarding and offers a chance to receive a free education and do something we love,” Parameter said.
Others didn’t orginally plan on entering the Armed Forces, but now embrace a military career pathway.
“Although attending an academy was never my original plan, the USCGA gives me all of those things and more,” Kemp said. “From the moment I stepped on campus, I knew that the USCGA was where I wanted to be.”