So, you’re signing on the dotted line.
First thing I’d say is, good decision. You’ve either got a lot of guts, a lot of devotion, or a lot of trust in God to be joining the U.S. armed forces. Or some combination of all three. Hopefully the latter.
Perhaps you’re one of those who didn’t have much direction or structure in life and went looking for some. I knew guys like that. Again I’d say, you could be doing far worse. Some of our best soldiers came from that background. The uniform can do amazing things to a person…as long as they’re willing to work.
I did a four-year tour in the Air Force. It was all stateside, the only really impressive thing about it being that it took place in the immediate post-9/11 world. It’s been over a decade since my separation, but I vividly remember the lessons I learned – how they equipped me for the future and simultaneously cast a pall over my track record. I have regrets from those days that the grace of God is still chipping off.
So I humbly ask for your ear now, as I offer some advice for military service as a believer.
1. Admit fault.
One of the best life skills I ever learned is the ability to admit fault.
This might range from laughing at yourself if you’ve done something dumb but harmless (getting all defensive will only double everyone’s laughter – these are shark-filled waters, people) to acknowledging your part in a serious error. I can personally vouch for how the words “I screwed up, sir” will impress favorably upon the higher-ups. Excuse-making is so rampant these days that you’ll stand out easily with that (as long as it doesn’t sound rote and is accompanied by a good plan to fix it).
It’s hard to admit fault. But someone once said, “If you’re wrong, you don’t have a defense; if you’re right, you don’t need a defense.” The ability to admit fault is a sign of strength. I can’t recommend it enough.
2. No hasty decisions.
Joining the military is a massive culture shock (figured that out yet?). You’re going from mops-for-hair, skateboards, and Taco Bell to a highly regimented and controlled existence where everything is decided for you. You might be deployed anywhere in the world and just have to adapt. (How ominous was it that Air Force basic training’s chapel so often featured the song “Hands and Feet” by Audio Adrenaline because of its lyric “I’ll go where you send me?”)
When these realizations hit you like a C-5, it’s easy to make bad calls. You might panic. You will do dumb things you’d never do as a civilian and laugh about it afterwards. What you might not laugh about is graduating basic training and then going back home and hiding instead of reporting to tech school, as one of my flightmates did (his career obviously ended). You might dive into a destructive relationship, as another friend almost did because of the pain of saying goodbye to that someone. Emotions confuse, make wrong things feel right.
Resist this effect. When a new challenge threatens to derail you, just tell yourself, “I don’t need to make any big decisions about how I feel about this right now.” Just sit on it for 24 hours or so, let things play out. It will save so much of your bacon. By the time you’re visiting home after basic training, you’ll be unrecognizable to yourself, like my seniors pastor’s son who, as a newly-minted Marine, couldn’t stop standing at parade rest in the middle of his old church.
3. Have a thick skin.
Much of my tour consisted of sitting on a launch truck having to listen to graphic, cringe-inducing descriptions of the trash others indulged in. Thirteen years later and I’m still asking God to scrub my brain of that stuff.
But…if you want my advice, it won’t do to pretend that you’re too good for it all, or to protest it. That goes sideways fast. You’ll be seen as prudish, holier-than-thou, and dismissed accordingly. They’ll ask, “It’s the military. What were you expecting?” And you won’t have a good answer. You’re gonna see stuff. There’s really no way around that.
Instead, have a thick skin, one that allows no objectionable stuff in, but also makes no sound as it bounces off. This is possible. I’m not sure whether “desensitization” is the right word or not, but I personally believe there’s a lot to be said for the Christian’s ability to prosper in such an environment. There’s no light in the room a candle won’t enter.
4. Appreciate the good bosses more than the bad ones.
The memory that really chafes at me today is letting my attitude get dragged down over the two or three bad bosses I dealt with, while under-appreciating the support of the dozen good ones. They were some great bosses. They believed in me. And life has since taught me that many people end up with a much, much worse ratio. But when we let our minds fixate on the bad, it can inflate and dwarf the good. Basic psychology.
Follow all lawful orders, no matter how inconvenient. Learn the right way to complain (and do it after you’ve obeyed). Don’t play the good bosses off the bad ones. Show your gratitude for the good ones by working hard for them and rewarding their trust. And if it helps, remember that everyone’s got a boss themselves who’s breathing down their necks. There’s always a bigger fish.
And for the record, “making you do your job” and “disciplining you when you don’t” are not signs of a bad boss. They’re signs of a good one.
5. Keep a positive attitude.
Self-pity and negativity are deadlier than any bullet. They cross battle lines; follow you air, land, and sea; and infect your fellow troops.
When things started going south in my teaching job a few years ago, I buoyed myself by looking back on my tour and recalling how quickly a bad attitude compounded my struggles. It tanked me. A downward spiral. And that’s on me entirely. I still have recurring dreams about going back and serving better. I can only thank God that he used the lesson years later to rescue me in a different theater.
Use faith and positivity to keep your spirits up. Seriously, it matters. Your performance will get a boost. Other troops will appreciate you. And, needless to say, a perpetual black cloud over your head does nothing for the Christian witness.
6. Give your best.
You’re not here for the college money. You’re here to serve your country.
There are three entities you should be mindful of at all times. First and highest is God: “Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Don’t be that Christian in your shop or unit who tries hard to share their faith but sucks at the job. Diligence, excellence, and enthusiasm are a head-turner of a witness to military-minded people.
Second, though they may not have crossed your mind, is the American taxpayers. They’re the ones paying for your training, uniforms, equipment, food and drink, and, yes, that GI Bill that’s being offered to you. You owe them, even as they owe you.
Third, of course, is those who have gone before you – the veterans, living and dead, who fought for your freedom. Believe it or not, they’re human. They were wide-eyed youngsters like you once, puking onto the deck of a Higgins boat while the waves off Omaha Beach thundered around them. They didn’t feel like heroes. They just took a deep breath, seized their rifles, and did the job at hand. That’s service. Be like them: just do the job at hand.
“No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends. ” John 15:13
I’ll say a prayer for you tonight. Remember, God has not abandoned you. He owns every wheel and lever turning around you, all the 1’s and 0’s in the computer systems “deciding” your fate. Your destiny belongs utterly, irrevocably, indisputably to the one who loved you with the blood of his Son. Don’t be afraid.
I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post of value, please feel free to share it on social media.