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Want to Join the U.S. Military? Here’s How to Pick the Right Branch

Boot Camp
191009-N-WB795-1126 GREAT LAKES, Ill. (Oct. 9, 2019) Electronics Technician 1st Class Troy Kruyer performs the push-ups portion of the physical readiness test inside Pacific Fleet Drill Hall at Recruit Training Command. More than 35,000 recruits train annually at the Navy's only boot camp. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Brandie Nix/Released)

Thinking about joining the U.S. military? There are a lot of things to consider. Here is a guide and many factors to consider: If you’re considering starting a new career in the United States military, how do you choose the best branch for you? The truth is, the vast majority of pay and benefits you’re eligible to receive are the same regardless of the branch you choose, so finding the right fit is more a question of your preferred job (or military occupational specialty) and what type of culture you think you’re best suited for.

Regardless of the military branch you choose, now may really be among the best times in history to join, as the culture shift known as the “great resignation” that’s come about in recent years has resulted in the US offering historically high signing bonuses alongside concerted efforts to make life in the service a career people will want to stick around in. Not to mention the fact that the modern GI Bill does more than pay for school once you get out, it also pays you to attend classes as well.

Pay and benefits are mostly the same regardless of which military branch you choose

It’s important to know that, regardless of which military branch you choose, your paycheck will pretty much stay the same. The Defense Department breaks down salary by pay grades, which are universal across the force. While the ranks may carry different titles in different branches (an E-4 in the Marine Corps is a Corporal whereas an E-4 in the Air Force is a Senior Airman), E-4s receive the same basic pay and entitlements regardless.

Some things that will affect your pay rate across all branches include having dependents, speaking a foreign language, or serving in a combat zone—but when it comes to standard pay and benefits like the GI Bill, VA Home Loans, and the rest, it doesn’t matter which military branch you choose.

That means you can really make this decision based on which branch you think will offer the life that best suits you.

Look for the job you want to learn

When it comes to trying to choose the right military branch for you, the best place to start is with a list of jobs that you’d like to do. The first six months to a year of military service is largely made up of training, but once you get through all of that, the job you choose will dictate how you spend the rest of your time in service.

The Marine Corps has some 180 jobs to choose from, the Army offers more than 150, the Navy offers at least 93 different jobs (or ratings), the Air Force lists 135, the Coast Guard offers 24, and the newest branch, the Space Force, currently offers at least 16. That’s a lot to choose from.

Some jobs are fairly universal—every branch needs personnel administration, logistics, food service, and more—while other jobs can only be found in certain branches. If you want to be a Navy SEAL or work on the bridge of a warship, for instance, the Navy is the right bet for you. If you’d prefer to work on the most advanced aviation technology, the Air Force might be a better fit.

Take a look at the lists of jobs offered by each of the branches below. If you find one that you’d be excited to pursue, that’ll go a long way toward helping you choose the right military branch.

Choose your military branch based on culture fit

Every military branch has a culture all its own, but it’s important to remember that you’ll find people of all kinds in every branch. If you’re a huge Star Wars fan, rest assured that you’ll find folks to talk about the next season of “The Mandalorian” with, no matter which military branch you choose.

Remember that most of your peers in the military will be other people your age, which means you’ll have a lot in common. But branch culture can really dictate a great deal about how you go about your duties, and that can have a big effect on how you live your life.

The following are superficial descriptions of the cultures you can find in different branches, but they shouldn’t be seen as universal stereotypes. Instead, you can think of these as generalized ideas of the sorts of things that are highly valued in each of the following respective branches:

The Air Force: A professional environment with an emphasis on tech

The United State Air Force plays the vital role of dominating the airspace over battlefields the world over, and it often does so through a heavy emphasis on embracing cutting-edge technologies. You’ll often hear the Air Force referred to as the closest military culture to a professional private sector work environment, meaning it’s a great fit for those aiming high within the military and the corporate workforce thereafter.

The Army: Ground combat champs who take pride in building leaders

The Army offers a wide variety of jobs (military occupational specialties), but at the end of the day, this branch specializes in winning wars on the ground. The Army places a great deal of emphasis on developing capable leaders. As the largest branch in the military, the Army is a nation unto itself with a diverse professional culture.

The Navy: A life at sea with deep historical roots

While there are lots of places Navy personnel work that isn’t on ship, serving in the Navy offers the best chances of living a modern life at sea. Sailors can expect to travel the world aboard a wide variety of vessels while continuing a cultural seafaring lineage that traces its roots back to before the founding of our nation.

The Marine Corps: A culture built on overcoming challenges

The Marine Corps prides itself on small unit leadership, physical fitness, and respect for tradition. As a result, it’s sometimes seen as the most strict military branch, but the truth is, the Marine Corps is a great fit for those who love a challenge and appreciate structure. Marines serve in a wide variety of capacities but maintain no medical staff, so if healthcare is for you, another branch may be a better fit.

The Coast Guard: Bridging the gap between law enforcement and military

America’s Coast Guard plays the vital role of patrolling America’s coastlines, but that’s not all they do. You’ll find members of America’s Coast Guard serving in a variety of roles all around the world. This branch often works alongside American law enforcement in ventures ranging from drug enforcement to search and rescue operations.

The Space Force: An opportunity to help build a branch’s culture

America’s newest military branch, the US Space Force, is intrinsically tied to the Air Force which previously oversaw space operations. In fact, those who choose to join the Space Force will actually attend Air Force Basic Training. But while a great deal of Air Force culture exists within the Space Force, this fledgling branch’s culture will be dictated by the people who serve within it in the years to come. That means joining the Space Force gives you a chance to help shape that very culture.

Before you choose your military branch, speak to some recruiters

The US military is so vast and diverse that it’s almost impossible to summarize what service will be like for two individuals within the same branch, let alone across all of them. But once you know the type of job you’d like to pursue, speak to a recruiter about it to find out if it really could be a good fit for you.

Recruiters go through a great deal of training aimed at ensuring they can answer whatever questions you might have about the nature of service. They can also sometimes put you in touch with others who are currently serving in the role you’re interested in, so you can find more about it directly from someone actually doing the job.

Each branch has different minimum requirements for signing up, but within each branch, some jobs also have requirements based on test scores or physical capability. Recruiters will be able to help you navigate questions about what’s required of you to get the job you choose in the military branch you decide to pursue.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx News. 

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.