A Brief Lesson on Military Service

January 10, 2020

Branches of the US Military

There are five military branches, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. Every branch has an active and Reserve component.  The Army is the largest branch of the military. Only the Army and Air Force have a National Guard component. Some veterans have served in a combination of these branches or components of the US military.  

Each branch has their own customs and cultures as well as overall functions within the US Armed Forces. There is often a generally friendly rivalry between branches. Troops may serve on active duty, reserve or National Guard status, with Guard and reservists moving between civilian and military life for training, drills, and deployments.  

Most military personnel roles are not combat roles; they run the gamut from logistical, medical, administrative, mechanical, technical support positions as well as legal, communications, language, law enforcement positions. In short, military jobs are extremely diverse.  


  • The largest branch of the military.
  • Provides logistics and support to other branches.  
  • Most are assigned or select a specialty such as Airborne, Ranger, mountain, or mechanized infants.


  • Part of the Department of the Navy and historically functioned as the Navy’s “ground” troops.
  • Categorized when entering according to weapons system: rifleman, machine gunner, mortar, assault, or anti-tank.  

Army vs Marines

  • NEVER call someone who was in the Marines a “soldier.” Only someone who is in the Army is a soldier.
  • The Marines are part of the Department of the Navy.
  • The Army has its own medics while corpsmen provide battlefield medical care for the Marines.
  • Marines also train for amphibious warfare, while few members of the Army do so.  
  • Army basic training lasts for ten weeks; Marine boot camp lasts 13 weeks.

National Guard

  • National Guard are under the command of the state and are called by the state to handle emergencies.  Typically, they train and report for duty once per month and for a two-week stint each year.  
  • If they are federalized and called to active duty, then they are under the command of the federal government. This has occurred far more often since 9/11, as they have been deployed overseas on combat and non-combat missions, performed operations on the border and other duties.
  • National Guard members are generally older with families, do not live on military bases, and have employment and responsibilities beyond their military duties.  
  • National Guard members are ineligible for VA services unless they’ve been federalized or unless it’s written into their contract.

Enlisted Corps

  • Enlisted personnel hold non-officer ranks and generally have not been to college, and on average age are 17-22 years old when they when join the join the military
  • The five branches of the US Armed Forces all use the same "E-" designation for enlisted pay grades, while adding names to each that are service-specific (e.g., chief petty officer, master gunnery sergeant, private first class. In addition, there are delineations that reflect rank such as Junior enlisted (E-1 to E-3), Junior Non-commissioned Officer (E-4 to E-6), and Senior Non-commissioned Officer (E-7 to E-8).

Officer Corps

  • Officers play the leadership role in the military and most have completed a four-year college degree or greater before serving.  
  • Officers can be thought of as managers in the military, planning and directing operations and making critical decisions as part of their leadership roles. With this greater responsibility, they tend to earn a higher salary than enlisted personnel.  
  • Only commissioned offers can act as the commanding officer of a military unit.  

Key Elements of Military Culture

  • Strict chain of command, routine and structure.
  • Emphasis on respect for authority and self
  • Image of strength and self-reliance.
  • Commitment to honor and trustworthiness
  • Value of aggression and acting faster, harder, louder, and meaner.

The Military Lifecycle

The initial commitment for military personnel is eight years, but how this is broken up depends on the branch that the veteran had joined and their assigned role or job. The following is a summary of military enlistment and service.


Service members usually spend four years on active duty and another four years in the reserves.  Joining the military is an all-encompassing commitment that transforms an individual as someone who is essentially property of the US government. Military personnel cede many of what we think of as fundamental rights of a US citizen including freedom of speech or expression, freedom of assembly, and due process under the law. Although military personnel still have the right to vote and practice their religion, it is up to their military command as to when they may exercise those rights. In addition to the laws of the land, they are also governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and violators may be subject to non-judicial punishment, reduction in rank, reduced pay and restricted nutrition intake for a specific amount time as determined by command. In other words, the commitment is all encompassing and generally made when the recruit is in their late teens.


Basic training is the acculturation phase of military life; service members are re-taught how to live, are molded into a new image, their new identity as a service member is formed, and they leave behind their civilian identity. Marines describe this as losing the self and become part of the collective. They learn their branch’s customs, social norms, policies, procedures—including how to wear the uniform, how to walk, talk, shower, eat—and rites and rituals. The physical demands are intense and their drill instructor’s screaming commands rule their days.  The duration ranges from nine to thirteen weeks, depending on the branch; after which the next step is advanced training.  


During advanced the acculturation from basic training is augmented the specific training and education associated with their specific job that a member of the armed forces will mostly likely perform throughout their military career, known as their Military Occupational Specialty or MOS. An MOS can include a range of jobs and specialties from combat arms to support, to medical professions, administrative support, and logistical supply.  


A servicemember is assigned to a specific unit — in the US or overseas — for the duration of their time in the military. The assignment can take as long as nine to ten months, starting from when they initially sign their enlistment paperwork with the recruiter.


Most units are an active deployable unit, meaning that they will be sent somewhere away from their home base. However, importantly, this does not necessarily mean they will be sent to engage in combat or even to a war zone. Deployments can be unpredictable and can be up to fifteen months away from their base, home, and family. For those who are in the National Guard or Reserves this may also mean time away from their civilian work.  For married or co-habitating personnel this means that their spouse or partner will assume all responsibilities and duties that they normally share as a couple. Those who are single parents are required to assign custodial responsibility to another adult. In addition, while they are deployed, servicemembers may assign power of attorney to their spouse, parent or other person.  


When they come to the end of their active service obligation, this is the time for service members of decide if they want to re-enlist or leave the military.  Upon exiting the military service members receive paperwork known as the DD-214, which they will use as proof of military service and includes their MOS, highest rank achieved, awards and medals, type of discharge (honorable, general, other than honorable, bad conduct or dishonorable) and reason for discharge.  It will also be used to determine the VA benefits for which they are eligible. The process of exiting is variable depending on the branch of service as well as location. For some there may be a Transition Assistance Program (TAPs) which can be merely a checklist of information about returning to civilian life. The experience varies widely with some military facilities, states or localities offering more in to an prepare veterans to  reintegrate into to their communities, return or enroll in school, or resume employment.    


If a service member decides to leave the military, we call this a decision to “separate” from the military.  Consider the term separation – in the civilian world one resigns, quits, retires or moves on from a job – in the military one separates not only from a job but a culture.  Exiting is rapid and there is often a twenty-four hour turnaround time from EAOS to separation. This means that one day someone may have title, military social network, MOS, and the self-image or identity they have carried since basic training. Then the next day that is gone, and as far as those who encounter you in the community, they are just a regular Joe or Jane. Gone is the support system cultivated over the years and a sense of purpose. You have lost “tribe.”  Moreover, those who are stationed far from family or what used to be home, may lack any connections or social resources.

In addition, those exiting the military receive limited training on how to transition from the military to community life. As a result, veterans may be less prepared for the following:

Securing Housing

  • How does one apply for an apartment and what are the requirements?  
  • What a veteran’s rights or benefits when buying a home?

Securing Employment

  • What does one include in a successful resume or cover letter?  
  • What are the tips for nailing the job interview and ultimately the job (selling yourself, questions to anticipate, clothing, follow-up)?
  • How does one negotiate salary or advancement?

Reintegration Culture Shock and/or Trauma  

  • How does one cope with life as a civilian and re-acculturate to community norms?
  • How does one manage emotions either as a result of traumatic memories or in response to day-to-day interactions?