Joining the Military

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I'm currently in the process of enlisting in the Marine Corps and I figured I'd use this page as a public journal to detail some of the process as well as offer a guide to anyone interested.

Part 1: Choose Your Adventure

I am a firm believer in the paradox of choice -- that we become overwhelmed with analysis paralysis when faced with too many choices and are more susceptible to buyer's remorse afterwards. When it comes to the military, this is especially true; every branch has at least some degree of overlap and the more research you do, the harder it can be to decide. There's loads of videos on YouTube and articles on career-oriented websites that attempt to answer the question, but I haven't found a single one that I think is actually helpful. Keeping the paradox of choice in mind, I'm restricting this guide to two branches: the Army and the Marine Corps.

The single most important factor in picking a branch is your career path:

The Culture and Lifestyle of the Marine Corps

It may not seem like a big deal at first, but this is one of the biggest reasons why people choose to become Marines.

Active Duty vs. Reserve/National Guard

Active Duty is full time and the Reserve or National Guard is part-time. In my opinion, going active is the best way to go for most people, but there are certain situations where you'd want to go Reserve or National Guard:

Part 2: Preparation

Before you talk to a recruiter, you should have a certain level of mental and physical preparation.

Mental Preparation

Remember the acronyms: Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) is your job. The Armed Services Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) is the aptitude test that determines what jobs you qualify for. The Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) is the aptitude test that determines your ability to learn a language, and is mandatory for anyone trying to get into the Intelligence field. The Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) is the place you go to fill out your paperwork, take your tests, and ultimately enlist and ship to boot camp. The Delayed Entry Program (DEP) is the training program between your initial enlistment and shipping out.

It shouldn't be necessary for most people, but it wouldn't hurt to study for the ASVAB. As far as I can tell, the best way to study the DLAB is to study the format of the test itself, as well as English grammar.

Physical Preparation

Your baseline goal should be getting to 50 push-ups, 90 sit-ups, and a 15 minute two-mile run. For females, the goal should be 25-push ups, 90 sit-ups, and an 18 minute two-mile run.

A lot of people in the DEP follow a fitness program called Couch to 5K (C25K). The program is made to transition people from a sedentary lifestyle into endurance running. A Katawa Shoujo-themed guide is available here.

To improve flexibility, try to perform the Dancing Warrior flow and Sun Salutation flow yoga routines once per day.

To improve sit-ups, start by doing 4 sets of 5 sit-ups (30 seconds of rest between sets) once per day. If you're really determined, try every other hour or every hour. Every three days, increase the number of sit-ups per set by 1, or more if you're comfortable. Once you get to 20 per set, switch to 2 sets of 40. Once you get to 45 per set, switch to 1 set of 90.

To improve push-ups, start with 2 sets of 8 (30 secs of rest between sets) once per day. Same as the sit-ups, if you want to do more, try every other hour or every hour. If you can't complete the set, complete it by doing double the remainder as standing push-ups or elevated push-ups (if you have 2 left, do 4 standing/elevated). When you can complete both sets, add another set. When you can complete all three sets, add another set. When you can complete all four sets, start adding another rep to each set and reducing the rest between sets. Eventually, you will be at 1 set of 50. For females, just half the number of reps.

In the Marine Corps physical fitness test, you will be scored based on three categories: pull-ups/push-ups, crunches, and a three-mile run. Choosing to do push-ups is worth only 70% of the maximum score.

In the Army combat fitness test, you will be scored based on six categories: three-rep deadlift, ten-pound medicine ball throw, hand release push-ups, 250m (820ft) shuttle run, hanging leg tucks, and a two-mile run.

Part 3: Starting the Process

Once you feel confident in your fitness and the research you've done, it's time to begin the enlistment process.

Contacting a Recruiter

This is both the easiest and hardest step in the enlistment process. Once you start talking to a recruiter, it feels more like you're making a commitment, and with that feeling comes the fear of commitment. In reality you're just going into a job interview, except you're the one deciding the future of your career. There are several different ways to contact a recruiter:

Once you're with your recruiter, you'll have the opportunity to talk about jobs, benefits, and to ask any questions you might have from your research. If you don't come with questions, you didn't do enough research. There's also a pretty good chance you'll take a practice version of the ASVAB. The Marines will probably give you a routine about making a priority list with tags, which they actually have an online version of. Once you're done with your conversation, your recruiter will offer to schedule you for MEPS. Try to get scheduled for a one-day visit if possible.

Going to MEPS

Before your recruiter drives you to MEPS, you're going to go through a pre-screening of your medical and criminal history. Be completely honest with them. They have a vested interest in making sure you get through the process, and they will tell you what you should and shouldn't say when you're at MEPS. They'll also tell you what documents to bring. This includes your birth certificate, social security card, driver's license or state ID, and the required documents if you have any medical conditions. And remember to shave, wear a collared-shirt, clean pants, and especially clean and unremarkable underwear. Trust me.

If you're scheduled for a one-day visit to MEPS, your recruiter will get you checked in at your hotel. In Houston it's a Holiday Inn. You get a free dinner and a free breakfast, and you're expected to show up at a briefing before you go to bed. If you miss the briefing, you don't get to go to MEPS. At around 4AM they'll get everyone on the bus and they'll drive to MEPS. Try to sit as close to the front of the bus as possible.

Once you arrive at MEPS you'll start waiting in several lines, which will eventually result in you meeting your branch's MEPS liasons and acquiring the documents that you'll be handing off to various people over the course of the day.

Taking the ASVAB and Other Tests

After checking in with your branch's liason office, you'll be sent to take the ASVAB. After the ASVAB you'll also take a personality test and a cyber test. If you're trying to go into Intelligence, you'll either take the DLAB after the ASVAB, after your medical evaluation, or you'll have to visit MEPS another time.

The ASVAB can also be taken in high school in a paper test format, in which case you won't have to take the test at MEPS.

The ASVAB is divided into nine sections, and usually takes between just under an hour to two hours. The test is mulitple choice and is taken on a computer. The DLAB is administered in the same format, except the answers are audio-only.

Once you finish the ASVAB, you'll be given a sheet that contains your Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) score, which is a percentile score from 0 to 99. The minimum score for the Army is 31 and the minimum for the Marines is 32. You'll also be given your line scores, which are different for each branch. Line scores are used to determine what jobs you qualify for.

After you finish the ASVAB, you will also take a multiple choice personality test. It may seem confusing and unnecessary, but answer honestly. After the personality test, you might also take a cyber test that measures your technical knowledge of computers and the Internet. As far as I know, these tests aren't important but they can affect your qualifications for certain jobs.

The DLAB requires a minimum score of 95 to qualify for a language program, but the Marines and the Army are usually looking for scores of 110 and higher. Intelligence jobs require a score on this exam, but it doesn't have to be passing. If you get a linguist job, be prepared to learn Arabic.

Medical Evaluation (Penis Inspection Day)

Once you finish your testing, you'll be sent to receive medical evaluation. You'll be shown how to fill out a medical history form, you'll take a breathalyzer test, and then you'll be sent to the medical department for the dreaded penis inspection.

Once you're in the medical department, your blood pressure, pulse, and temperature will be checked. If you pass, you'll be sent to take a hearing and vision test. I strongly recommend sitting as close to the door for each test as possible, and if you hear "next" start walking for the door.

The vision test is different for each branch, but you'll have to take a standard DMV-style vision test as well as tests for color vision and depth perception for Marines. As far as I know the hearing test is standardized.

Once those tests are over, you'll take a blood test, drug test (urinalysis), and then you'll shuffle into the orthopedic and neurological exam room. This is by far the most notorious part of MEPS medical testing. During this exam, your height and weight will be taken. Afterwards, you'll be questioned about your medical history and mental health, and forced to duck walk and do arm circles. Once that's done, you'll be sent into the penis inspection room. At the conclusion of the inspection, you'll be given the final word as to whether or not you're medically qualified to join your branch.

Interrogation and Enlistment

After you're confirmed as medically qualified, you'll go back to your branch's liason office. At this point you'll probably be told to go eat lunch and relax for a while. In my case, the Marines ended up delaying me by about two and a half hours. The USO lounge usually has video games and TVs, so it's not hard to pass the time.

After you finish your designated relaxation time, you'll go back to your branch's liason for the final leg of MEPS. This is the moment of truth. There are people that breeze through the whole process and trip up and get disqualified in this portion. Your liasons will have reviewed your file and will start your pre-enlistment interview. The initial portion of the interview will be one-on-one, where you'll be questioned on your criminal and medical history. Stick to the story you and your recruiter decided on. Do not deviate from that story no matter what. Afterwards you'll be given a follow-up interview, either one-on-one or in a group, in which the liasons will tell you about all of the different background checks they're going to run on you, and how they'll find out if you're lying and you're going to go to jail, or that if you tell the truth now it'll be okay and you'll get to enlist. It's all bullshit. Once again, I repeat: Stick to your story.

After you finish the interview, you'll join the Delayed Entry Program and the liasons will give you a ship date. As far as I know, the Army liason office handles your job contract and boot camp date and location, with the option to reserve a job contract with your recruiter prior to MEPS, but in the Marines it's handled entirely by your recruiter. During this portion of MEPS you'll also be fingerprinted and set your references for a security clearance. As far as I can tell it depends on location and branch as to whether or not this happens before or after the pre-enlistment interview.

After you've signed the DEP contract, you'll be briefed on the Uniform Code of Military Justice and on the Oath of Enlistment. You might be given an additional period of time to relax or you might swear in immediately afterwards. Once you're finished, your recruiter will either take you back to the office to sign your job contract or take you straight home. At this point, you're now considered to be a Poolee in the Marine Corps DEP or a Future Soldier in the Army DEP.

Part 4: The Delayed Entry Program

Once you're enlisted in the DEP, you're technically part of the Inactive Reserve component of your branch and will be expected to attend weekly training events held at your recruiting station. They may not necessarily be mandatory, but if you miss too many of them or underperform in the monthly Initial Strength Test (not sure what the Army equivalent is), your ship date could be pushed back or you could be discharged from the DEP. If you're in the DEP for over a year, you're automatically discharged.

Spend your time in the DEP wisely:

Enlisted ranks:

Pay grade Army Marine Corps
E-1 Private (PVT) Private (Pvt)
E-2 Private (PV2) Private First Class (PFC)
E-3 Private First Class (PFC) Lance Corporal (LCpl)
E-4 Specialist (SPC)
Corporal (CPL)
Corporal (Cpl)
E-5 Sergeant (SGT) Sergeant (Sgt)
E-6 Staff Sergeant (SSG) Staff Sergeant (SSgt)
E-7 Sergeant First Class (SFC) Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt)
E-8 Master Sergeant (MSG)
First Sergeant (1SG)
Master Sergeant (MSgt)
First Sergeant (1stSgt)
E-9 Sergeant Major (SGM)
Command Sergeant Major (CSM)
Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt)
Sergeant Major (SgtMaj)

The Army and Marine ranks are mostly the same, but there are some differences and some false friends. Automatic promotions in the Army stop at SPC, while the Marines stop at LCpl. Corporals are the lowest grade of non-commissioned officer in both branches, but it is very common for soldiers to go from SPC to SGT, skipping the lateral move to CPL entirely. Similarly, 1SG is a temporary lateral move from MSG, while GySgts select between MSgt or 1stSgt as distinct career paths. While MSGs are promoted to SGM, MSgts are promoted to MGySgt and 1stSgts are promoted to SgtMaj.

Waiting to Ship...

I'll continue this guide once I return to MEPS to ship out. It'll include a full summary of Recruit Training at MCRD San Diego and I might make a follow-up summary of Marine Combat Training at SOI West, Camp Pendleton. Until then, to be continued...


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