Here's What You Need To Remember: Americans join the Army for plenty of reasons: for country, family, and honor. According to a study of enlisted soldiers, however, a core motivation is relatively simple: for money.
A RAND Corporation exhaustive survey back in 2018 of 81 soldiers between E-1 and E-4 suggests that the choice to enlist is influenced by two overlapping factors: institutional ones like family and duty, and occupational ones like professional development and job stability.
But while 37 percent of soldiers identified cited both institutional and occupational reasons for joining the Army, a full 46 percent said they enlisted due to purely occupational reasons; only 9 percent said they joined for entirely institutional ones. (Interestingly, those who did cite service as a calling were mostly medics.)
In other words, the overwhelming majority of respondents had economic reasons for joining up; for most enlistees, it seems military service is a job first and a calling second.
According to the RAND study, the primary motivations for enlisting include:
Adventure and travel: Perhaps Matthew Modine was onto something in Full Metal Jacket when he commented that he "wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture... and kill them." 42% of soldiers joined up to get out of Dodge. “I’ve been in Kansas the majority of my life, so I figured if I joined [the Army], I’d have a greater chance to go out and visit new states and new countries," one soldier told the RAND researchers.
Benefits: A significant number of soldiers (32%) called military benefits a major motivation for enlisting: health care, active-duty tuition assistance, and post-service support structures like the GI Bill. Military service is a "lifeline" for some Americans, the researchers note, citing one single mother who joined "just because I had my son and I needed the benefits, I guess you could say."
Job stability and pay: Nearly a quarter of soldiers had a simple explanation for their decision to enlist: They “needed to make money," especially given the economic turmoil the country's faced in recent years. "The Army can provide me with great education benefits, great career benefits later on," one soldier told the researchers. "So... why not start that and do that, instead of just working at some dead-end job that’s only paying minimum wage, maybe $10 an hour when I can go and get fantastic benefits?"After weighing the factors, another added, "I was like, well, why not, and if I stay in for 20-plus years [I can] retire at 40. So it seemed like a good deal to me, especially in the economy we’re in."
Escaping a negative environment: For many, the military isn't just an economic lifeline — it's a sociopolitical one. "I guess I just joined to get out of the situation I was in, didn’t really see myself going anywhere," one soldier told the RAND researchers. "Yeah, [I feel like the Army has provided that for me]. The kids that I grew up with, out of the group that I hung out with, two of them are in jail and then the three either passed away or disappeared."
Job training: Many of the enlisted soldiers chose the Army over other service branches "because it allows enlistees to choose their MOS before enlisting," providing an extra incentive for those who see the military primarily as an economic vehicle, according to RAND: "Participants stated that this provided them a bit of autonomy and allowed them some idea of the role they would be expected to play once their terms of service began."
Ironically, those soldiers who cited occupational incentives for enlisting over sacred ideals tended to stick with military service in the long haul, though soldiers who saw the Army as a career "tended to cite institutional motives with more frequency than those who did not," the researchers write. Just because the military service is a job and not a calling doesn't mean enlisted soldiers aren't planning on kicking butt at their job.
Well, maybe not too much butt. When asked why they chose to pursue the Army over other service branches, a few soldiers responded that they "felt the Marines were 'way too hardcore,'" according to RAND. "One respondent recoiled from joining the Marines after his Marine recruiter became overzealous and tackled him during a game of ultimate Frisbee."
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