Of all the services, the Air Force is probably the most (but not exactly) like having a regular job. The Air Force is, in my opinion, far ahead of the other services in many "qualify of life" issues such as dormitories and base housing units. If these things are important to you, then the Air Force should be something you look into. However, in terms of educational requirements and overall ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Appitude Battery) scores, the Air Force (tied with the Coast Guard) is the hardest service to get into. For details, see Minimum Required ASVAB Scores.
National Guard and Reserves. All of the services have a reserve component and two of the services (Army and Air Force) have a related National Guard, as well. The primary purpose of the Reserves and National Guard is to provide a reserve force to supplement the active duty forces when needed. The biggest difference between the Reserves and National Guard is that the Reserves belong to the federal government, while the National Guard belongs to the individual state government. While both the Reserves and the National Guard can be called to active duty by the Federal Government, under the authority of the President, individual state governors can also call out their National Guard units to assist in individual state emergencies.
Following basic training and job training, members of the Reserves and National Guard drill (perform duties) one weekend each month, and two weeks every year. However, it's become more and common to activate Guard and Reserve units to supplement active duty deployments to such garden spots as Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In fact, as I write this paragraph (May 2004), 171,917 Guard and Reserve members have been mobilized in support of such deployments (See Guard/Reserve Mobilized for current figures). For an overview of the services, and their basic functions, see U.S. Military 101.
There are also differences in education benefits, assignments, job guarantees, and education programs, and enlistment/re-enlistment bonuses, which we'll discuss in the later parts of this series.
In addition to deciding on a military service, if you have a 4-year college bachelors degree (or above), you should decide whether you want to join that service as a commissioned officer, or whether you wish to join as an enlisted member. Commissioned officers make a lot more money than enlisted members. Additionally, their "quality of life" is generally better (better housing, quarters, ect.). However, they have a much greater degree of responsibility. For an overview of the differences between commissioned officers and enlisted, see U.S. Military 101.
The competition for commissioned slots is tough, and merely having a college degree is not enough. Factors such as college grade point average, and officer accession test scores are given much weight. It's also much harder to get approved for waivers (medical, criminal history, etc), for commissioned applicants than it is for enlisted applicants. If you decide you wish to apply for a commission, ask the recruiter to refer you to an "Officer Accessions Recruiter."
Once you've decided what service(s) you're interested in, you may wish to make appointments and talk to the recruiters of all of the services that interest you. Don't begin the enlistment qualification process, however, until you're fairly sure what service you want to join. It's unfair to make a recruiter do all the work to pre-qualify you, set you up for testing and medical, then back out and join a different service, instead.
Other Parts to this Series:
- Part 2 -- Meeting the Recruiter
- Part 3 -- The Enlistment Process and Job Selection
- Part 4 -- Enlistment Contracts and Enlistment Incentives
- Part 5 -- Military Pay
- Part 6 -- Housing, Housing Allowance, and Barracks
- Part 7 -- Chow Halls and Food Allowance
- Part 8 -- Education Programs
- Part 9 -- Leave (Vacation), and Job Training
- Part 10 -- Assignments
- Part 11 -- Promotions
- Part 12 -- Military Medical Care
- Part 13 -- Commissaries and Exchanges
- Part 14 -- Morale, Welfare, & Recreation (MWR) Activities