Why did you serve? As we thank our veterans for their service to our country, I started to reflect a bit on why people join the military. If you’re a veteran, what was the driving force behind your decision? Was it a high calling, such as duty to country, fighting for our countries values, protecting our way of life? Was it a more pragmatic reason, such as putting food on the table, seeing the world, the realization that you needed a change in your current situation? The nation has a collective love of heroes, to the point of making everything good into a heroic thing, and I was wondering, are people joining to be heroes?
My two favorite veterans are my father (USMC, Korea) and my oldest daughter (USAF, Iraq, Afghanistan). In talking to them, I have an inkling why they joined. I am very proud of both of them. I don’t, however, think of them as heroes. To me, being a hero is a very special thing. More later on that.
According to Task & Purpose, it turns out that the RAND Corporation was asked to find out why people joined the US Army. (Note that this is about the enlisted ranks.) This is very important to the military, since they want to identify the drivers behind recruits joining, and then concentrate their fire on that demographic in their recruiting. So RAND did a study of new recruits, just assigned to their first “Modified Table of Organization and Equipment unit”, whatever that is. They interviewed 81 soldiers, ranked E-1 to E-4 (“newbies”, in civilian parlance). Were they joining because it was a calling? For the most part, the answer is “no”. Only 9% said they joined for purely institutional reasons, while 46% said they joined for purely occupational reasons. As Task & Purpose pointed out, a great many of those who joined for institutional reasons were medics.
I don’t know if this is any different in other branches, but I doubt that the Army results are way askew from a statistical standpoint (although Marines are, well, a bit different, huh, Pop?). Furthermore, some of these rather normal people will go on to do extraordinary things, and that will be just like outside the military, only the specifics of the extraordinary thing will be different. Some will become heroes, most will not. My father and my daughter didn’t join for God, country, and the American way of life. But they did join, they served honorably, and then they went on to do other things. I am proud of both of them, both for their “veteran-ness” and for their “civilian-ness”. Their service is part of the fabric of their lives, not the defining part. I love my dad for being my dad, and I love my daughter for being my daughter, no more, no less. Heroes? No, but they’re still special. And I think that’s a more balanced view, and ultimately, a more healthy view.