On June 30, 1973, the last man inducted into military service through the Selective Service system, otherwise known as the draft, joined the Army. Since then, every man and woman who has enlisted or been commissioned in any branch of the United States military has done so voluntarily.
Why have more than 1 million active-duty service members willingly committed years—sometimes decades—of their lives to do a job they know will be difficult and risky? The short answer is because it means something to them.
To learn more about what motivates people to join the military and what keeps many of them there after their initial period of commitment is complete, we reached out to service members from all branches of the U.S. military and asked them questions like “Why did you join the military?,” “Do you feel that your military service has had a positive impact on your life or the lives of others?,” and “Do you attribute any greater meaning to your service?” The answers we got were enlightening, inspiring, and deeply thought-provoking.
WHY THEY JOIN
While each service member has his or her own reasons for enlisting/commissioning, we discovered that there were certain common themes.
Some people joined because, to them, military service is an essential part of their identity. “It was sort of like a calling,” said Kristi Mattingly “9/11 rocked our world, and my life was in a spiral and I had that feeling inside reminding me that my purpose here would never be complete unless I served.” Ted Probert said, “I had always been patriotic and felt it was an important responsibility as well as an opportunity to serve a cause greater than [myself].” Chris Vetzel puts it more simply, but no less movingly when he said, “I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself.”
Some people joined for practical benefits like enlistment bonuses, career development, and the opportunity to learn new skills. Others did so out of a desire to gain clarity and direction in their life or to develop self-discipline. Whatever their reason for joining, many people discovered a much greater sense of purpose once they began their service. Marine Harold von Opdorp says “Initially, [I joined because] an ROTC Scholarship was the only way I could afford to go to college. After joining the Marines, I developed a genuine love for leading Marines and being a Marine.”
THE MEANING OF MILITARY SERVICE
Just as people joined the military for different reasons, each person finds a different meaning in their service.
Some service members see their service as a continuation of a family legacy. They had grandparents, parents, siblings, or other relatives who were in the military and felt that the best way to honor those loved ones was to join. When speaking of his service, Chris Vetzel said “I was able to experience something similar to what my grandfather, my personal hero and three-time Vietnam veteran, went through during his service.”
Some service members find meaning in their service by looking to the future, rather than the past. Many who chose to stay in the military after their initial commitment was over did so in order to help nurture and encourage newer recruits. Kathleen “Katie” Berry said “[Achieving higher rank] allowed me new and different ways to help the younger generations grow to be better versions of themselves and to better prepare them to lead the future of the armed forces.” Ted Probert felt that “…I was personally responsible for the lives and well-being of my Marines, and this was a responsibility that needed to be taken very seriously.” For some, however, they found their meaning much closer to home.
THE POSITIVE IMPACT OF MILITARY SERVICE
When asked if they believed that their military service had a positive impact on their lives and the lives of others, almost all the service members we spoke to answered with a resounding “Yes!”
Ted Probert said “Without question. My service in the Marine Corps and the opportunities and responsibilities I was provided positively shaped my life and my outlook and perspective. Life changing.”
“[Military service] has made me who I am today,” said Katie Berry. “I am a lot stronger mentally and physically than had I not joined. I have ‘family’ all over the world, literally, and the bond with service members from all the branches is one that could never be traded.” Jeannette Tarqueno added “It taught me so much about myself, life, and more. It also gave me so many opportunities that I would never have had”
The best thing about military service, in Harold von Opdorp’s opinion, was “…being challenged every day to be better than I was asked to be the day before.”
Recently, there has been concern about the military’s ability to meet recruiting goals. With military and civilian leadership now questioning the sustainability of an all-volunteer service, it’s more important than ever to celebrate those who have decided to commit years of their lives to serve our country and to remember that this service does have value and meaning—both for service members and for those of us who benefit from their labors.
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