So, you’re signing on the dotted line.
First thing I’d say is, thank you. 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 armed forces. Or some combination of all three.
I served a four-year tour in the Air Force. It was all stateside, the only really notable aspect being that it took place in the immediate post-9/11 world. Over a decade since my separation, I still vividly remember the lessons – 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, because I want you to do better than I did. Here is the advice I’d give for surviving military life.
1. Learn to 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 defensive will only double everyone’s laughter – these are shark-filled waters, people) to acknowledging your part in a serious error. I can vouch for how the words “I screwed up, sir” will impress the higher-ups. Responsibility is rare these days; it really makes you stand out, as sad a commentary on modern society as that is.
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. But do it honestly. Don’t make it rote, and have a plan of action to fix things.
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. And more Taco Bell.
You might be deployed anywhere in the world and just have to adapt. Everything is fast-paced and high-pressure. You might panic. You will start fumbling basic tasks like you never did as a civilian.
This can cause poor decision-making. One guy I know graduated basic training and then went back home and hid instead of reporting to tech school. His career was obviously over. Quite a few young soldiers dive into destructive relationships for comfort or stability. Others start simply lashing out in all directions. Or they get resentful and let it build inside until it explodes, sapping their work performance.
Emotions confuse, make wrong things feel right. Resist this effect. When a new challenge or environment looms, 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 pornography others indulged in.
Thirteen years later and I’m still asking God to scrub my brain.
But…if you want my advice, it won’t do to protest it or pretend that you’re too good for it all. 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, but there’s a lot to be said for the Christian’s ability to prosper quietly in such an environment. There’s no light in the room that a candle refuses to enter.
4. Appreciate the good bosses over the bad.
The memory that really chafes at me today is letting my attitude get dragged down over two or three difficult sergeants I dealt with, while under-appreciating the support of the others. 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 the bad and dwarf the good. Basic psychology.
Don’t let it happen. Follow 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. Show gratitude to the good ones; reward their trust. And if it helps, remember that everyone’s got a boss themselves who’s breathing down their necks. 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; infect your fellow troops.
When things started going south in my teaching job a few years ago, I recalled how quickly a bad attitude compounded my struggles in the military. It tanked me. A downward spiral. I still have recurring dreams about going back and serving better.
I thank God that he used the lesson years later to rescue me in a different theater. Those memories buoyed me as I taught in that rural school, helped me focus on keeping a positive attitude and avoiding the downward spiral.
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.
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 and excellence are head-turners for soldiers.
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 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.