When I think back on the last 4 years of my life, I realise just how much I have grown and changed as a man. While I would have changed regardless, I believe I am who I am today because I have spent the last 4 years of my life as a soldier. I am not going to extol to you the reasons you should join, or the virtues of service or anything like that because I believe a lot of it to be misguided at best and downright propaganda at worst. Having said that, I do believe the recent calls we have had in our country for national service or at the very least compulsory boot camp straight out of high school are a very good idea. Below I am going to outline, from my own experience, not why you should necessarily join the military but the benefits one gains and the things I have learned.
1. You realise it is not all about you.
Humans are selfish beings. Gen Y even more so. We are all told to go out and chase our dreams, that we can do whatever we want to, that no one can make us feel bad and so on. It’s enough to fill an Oprah show. Once you sign that dotted line, however, the government practically owns your ass. In itself this is not a good thing. What it does teach you, however, is that you are part of a group and that your wants and desires are less important than the needs of said group. It makes you realise that you aren’t the most important on the planet and that other factors besides your happiness are higher on the priority list. You are not a unique snowflake, you are not a name, you are a number. Clearly this is a thing that 21st century western society needs more of.
2. You get a thicker skin.
Every day on the news I hear something about how you can’t smack your kids, how you shouldn’t be yelled at, that we are all special etc. Guess what, the military doesn’t care. They will yell at you just because they can, they will intimidate you to see how you deal with it. It’s not about treating you like a piece of dirt (although I got that feeling from time to time), it’s about ensuring you have the cojones and mental fortitude to deal with being in a war zone. If you can’t handle being yelled at, how can you handle the sheer noise of a firefight? People go to pieces these days if their boss merely speaks assertively to them when they have made a mistake. While I don’t agree that people need to be yelled at all the time, we do need to harden the hell up a little. Being a soldier teaches you to do that, which brings me to my next point..
3. You learn to harden up.
Ever done a 2km pack march at double time after a shoot in the middle of the night in pouring rain, before setting up camp and trying to sleep and stay warm at midnight? I have. It wasn’t pleasant at all, and despite the fact that we made the best of it and had a few laughs at the time and plenty more later, I wished for nothing more than to be back at the barracks in my hard, single bed. I have plenty of other stories just like that one. Every time you do it, it gets easier. You learn that you can withstand a hell of alot physically and mentally as a person, and eventually you realise the minutae of everyday life that so many people bitch about isn’t so bad. Hardship in life makes us thrive individually and allows us to grow a hell of a lot more than an easy ride through life.
4. You learn to make the best of things
The great thing about the above situation was that my section all did what they were supposed to do and got things set up in the minimal time. After we lied down and actually got warm we started to crack some jokes and had a pretty good night all things considered. After being out bush for 5 days with the temp at 45 degrees C, drinking hot water to stay hydrated, we sat down and savoured a cold can of coke that was brought out to us as though it was sent by God himself. After a crappy day at recruits, there was something soothing about the simplicity of polishing your brass. The point is that you can always make the best of a bad situation. Quit bitching about how bad you have it right now and crack a joke about it instead. Find at least something enjoyable about it. The greatest memories I have from my time so far in the army are the times when things were really shitty but we managed to make it somewhat enjoyable anyway.
5. You learn you can do things you may not have believed.
The military will push you out of your comfort zone, no doubt about it. If it isn’t in the physical sense, it will be in the mental or spiritual sense. Recruits is designed to be hard, to push you to your limits and past them. I have surprised myself several times during my career. One night on a navigation exercise my small group was lost and one of the guys was freaking out. To my surprise I shone my torch in his eyes and told him to get a grip, calm the fuck down and that we would find our way out, and we did. Another time on a training exercise half my platoon was “killed”, including our commander, a lieutenant. I was told by a nearby corporal “if you don’t know who’s in charge, you’re in charge.” I took his advice and cleaned the situation up, and was left with command for the next 2 days (I was a trainee at the time). You never know just what you have deep down and if you are never tested you will never find out. Very few places in life will test you in such a manner.
6. You learn attention to detail
Most people don’t sweat the small stuff. In the military, it’s all about the small stuff. If your bosses can’t trust you to do something as simple as keep a room spotless and to their specifications, how can they expect you to follow orders precisely regardless of the situation? If a soldier can’t maintain personal hygiene, how can their superiors trust them to keep their rifle clean? In addition to this, appearance is important. A soldier with badly ironed clothes and badges etc all over the place lets down the whole unit when they are looked at by the public. When soldiers have everything arranged to the millimetre, clothes are well ironed and starched, boots polished and well groomed, they look sharp and imposing. Transplant this to your own life in the civilian world and people will gain a first impression of a well put together man.
7. Appearance matters
We never get a second chance at a first impression. While we can say the sort of person we are, the quality of the work we do etc is and should be more important, the fact is people weigh up others in the first instance by their appearance and bearing. As a soldier, turn up looking like a bag of crap with your equipment all over the shop and you will instantly have the reputation as a shitfight. Turn up at your new unit with your hair freshly cut, nails clipped and uniform impeccable even if you are a terrible soldier you will still make a good first impression.
8. Your physical fitness is incredibly important
The amount of hideously overweight people in society is one of the biggest problems of the first world. The sooner people realise it’s not about your big bones/thyroid/insert random excuse the better. Want to know what the remedy in the army is if you start getting fat and can’t make your run times? It’s more running. There is no sit down on the couch and talking about feelings, you get your fat ass out there and run it off until you can make your run times. It isn’t rocket science. The other thing that happens when you can’t make your fitness requirements? Your fellow soldiers will look down on you, and for good reason. It shows them that not only do you not care about yourself, you don’t care about them, because how can you trust a guy to drag you out if you get wounded when he can barely pass a fitness test? It also shows a lack of work ethic, because when everyone else is working out, you are slacking off.
9. We take a lot of things for granted
Nothing makes you realise just how free and easy life is than a few months at boot camp. All of a sudden things that you normally did as a matter of course are now privileges. Want a can of soft drink (or soda for you Americans)? You don’t get that until week 8. I once saw a guy get told while he was on his phone outside “you do not walk and talk on your phone at the same time, you do not have that privilege”. As silly as this may sound, our whole notion of “rights” nowadays is completely skewed. People act so entitled to everything in western society. Spend a little time not being entitled to anything except food, shelter and clothing and you gain a new appreciation for everything you have complete freedom to do in life.
10. You stop whining
Why? No one cares. Superiors in the military don’t care what your excuses are, why you don’t like something, and so on. They are short on time (and patience) and just want the job done. If the job can’t be done, what will it take to get it done? They want definitive answers, not a whole lot of beating around the bush and umms or ahhhs. Go to work, do your job, get shit done and go home. Do your bitching there if you have to.
Even if you don’t plan or even think of joining the military, there are plenty of great lessons to learn and apply in your life. It is why employers in the civilian world love military people, because they can follow orders without argument, can take care of themselves and care about the small details. If you want to get ahead in life, or even just gain a greater appreciation of what you have, take heed of the above.
Men’s Domain note: This guest article is from Peter Ross, former soldier and the author of School’s Over…Now What? and Army Jerks. Be sure to check out his website Peter Ross