Best Defense

So you just joined the Army? Some advice from our hardest-core Best Defenders

Veteran soldiers give their top advice on how to prepare for military life.


In case you missed it, here are some comments responding to the youngster who just enlisted and wanted to know how to prepare for Army life. I like these, especially for the themes that run through them about being in shape and keeping faith:

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Be in the best physical shape you can be. Fitness is currency in the military, and whatever you want to do will be easier if you are a PT stud.

Use the benefits offered to you, especially tuition assistance and recreational programs. Education will only you help you, whether you stay in or get out. On rec programs, you’ll never regret taking a cool MWR trip instead of some weekend drinking with the boys. But make sure to drink with the boys too. You become a team during off hours.

You can forget about the above, because life will be so crazy for the first two years, you’ll be completely at the mercy of your school and then your unit. But take pictures. Whether your career ends in four years, or in 20, you will never regret having too many pictures, only too few. Take pictures. Seriously.

* * *

Get yourself in good physical condition as that will make basic training easier and reduce the likelihood of an injury. The PT you do in Future Soldier Training isn’t really enough. Lift weights — it doesn’t have to be a lot if you’re not used to it, just enough to build some additional muscle. Condition yourself to drink some water when you exercise or are outdoors, whether or not you feel thirsty.

Thinking past basic training — make a list of the kinds of people you want to associate with and how they will make you a better person. Likewise make a list of what you want to do with your free time. Seek out those people and activities once you get to your first unit. Many soldiers with great potential fall in with the wrong crowd or engage in self-destructive behaviors after duty hours.

Learn a little about the history of the U.S. Army if you haven’t already. Books, YouTube, museums, whatever.

Volunteer with a Boy Scout troop. It will give you some insight regarding small group dynamics, training on tasks, leadership, etc.

If you didn’t participate in JROTC in high school, find a program near you and set up a visit with the instructors, or find a college ROTC program. People will make time for you if you ask them to. Ask the retired NCO what NCOs do and the retired officer what officers do (if it’s college ROTC they are active duty, not retired). Ask them for examples of the best and worst NCOs and officers they ever worked with/for.

* * *

Easy answer: Know your job. Do your job. Keep faith with your mates.

* * *

Join the infantry. Know all there is to know about your job and seek out other sections to cross-train with.

Pay attention to who you believe are good leaders, bad leaders, and others just getting paid more. Understand the relationship of officers to enlisted on a professional level and otherwise.

After four years, get out or transition to a different MOS branch that really interests you. You will now understand what the rest of the military is there to support. Most people miss this part and forget they are there to fight wars. Also, it’s hard to get out and apply infantry skills immediately. The most you will take away is social, psychological, and leadership/mission accomplishment abilities (all good things, of course). A secondary MOS helps make you more well-rounded.

Use your GI Bill. Veterans make excellent students and generally see through the bias and fluff that many college courses have that take away from the process of true learning.

* * *

Your first lesson is that you will do what the Army wants you do, and go where the Army tells you. They may be nice enough to ask, but don’t bank on them really caring. This is your first lesson in what comes of signing a contract of unlimited liability.

It’s not high school. You are not free to forget what you learn as soon as the test is over. Your life and the lives of others will depend on it. In the same vein, stupid s^%t will not just get you arrested, it will get you or someone else killed. If it’s the latter, you will have to live with it the rest of your life.

Pick the most squared-sway soldier you see, and model yourself after them. Not the charismatic malcontent everyone else is following.

Step up. Don’t be the soldier who spends an hour trying to skate out the crappy job it would have taken five minutes to do. If you get the rep as a weasel, you’ll never shake it.

There will be something you will be afraid of, or your body will tell you you’re afraid of. Remind yourself that if you give in you’ll have to live in the body of a coward for the rest of your life.

You will make the best friends you’ll ever have in your life. You will be able to say that there were people in this world that you would die for, and would die for you. This is a gift beyond price. Even if you get out after one hitch, never let those people get away from you.

Never lose your sense of humor. Have fun.

* * *

There’s two movie quotes that I value as mantras. One is from The Lord of the Rings (fellowship specifically): “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Easy — how you spend your time is the only thing you really control in life, spend it wisely because you can’t get it back. The second one is from Gattaca — and this one has to be seen to understand and appreciated the context: “I never saved anything for the swim back.” It meshes well with the previous quote, for reasons you can understand once you see the film.

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When you’re first starting out, doing the basics well are your first concern. You may be an intellectual wizard and god’s gift to humanity, but no one cares if you show up late, you’re poorly groomed, and can’t dress yourself.

Don’t ask why you have to do something, just do it with a smile on your face. You will get shit jobs. You will have to do unpleasant things when you would rather do something else. You will learn the “why” over time as you gain experience and rank.

Speaking of rank, understand what is expected of you in each job you have, and what is expected of you in your rank and others in their rank. DO your job as best you can, LEARN what is required for you to advance, HELP your leaders complete their mission and those in ranks below you to know their jobs and advance themselves.

Lastly, guard your career from self-inflicted wounds. Too many people shoot themselves in the foot. Know your limits and your weaknesses and minimize the risk you present to yourself. The climate of the military today is such that you are expected to grow up fast and be mature (perhaps beyond what should be reasonably expected). Don’t screw yourself over.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1

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