Which path should you choose: going to college or joining the military? Young people who’ve asked themselves this question have received a plethora of different answers. Both options are viable in helping you set yourself up for success in adulthood. Just like anything else in life, it’s what you make of it, and no two experiences are exactly the same. To help you understand the lifestyle differences between the two paths, two college graduates and one veteran will share with you a year-by-year breakdown of their experiences through those very special four years.
There was a lot of pressure to meet people, but at first you didn’t really know how. So you just stuck to the same three questions, consisting of things like, “Where are you from?,” “What’s your major?,” and, “Are you secretly the son of an oil tycoon?”
Overall, I think I was a little too overwhelmed to really process what was going on—there’s so much coming at you at once. You’ve got the sudden freedom, you’ve got these new people in your life that you’re suddenly good friends with, and you’ve got professors constantly asking you if you did the reading. If there’s anything you figure out quickly, it’s that nobody really does the reading.
I went to college 3,000 miles away from my hometown and was only really able to do so on a full-ride academic scholarship. It was terrifying being in a new city—though I’m from a large city, moving to New York was still a huge change. It was weird living with so many other people my age in one building all of a sudden, and I had five roommates in a very small three-bedroom/one-communal-area dorm. There was a lot of pressure on keeping my grades up, especially when what I thought I wanted my major to be proved much more difficult to maintain, and I had to take a good, hard look at whether I wanted to pursue that dream without my scholarship or change my course. I went home for the summer after that year and very desperately didn’t want to go back. I was homesick, miserable, hadn’t found a group of friends I felt very intrinsically close to, and felt all-around awkward.
Your first year in the Army is basically where you get your teeth kicked in. Everything you were, did, and knew no longer seems relevant. You’re going to do shit the way the Army wants you to do it. From your drill sergeants in Basic Training all the way to your team leaders and squad leaders in your first unit, you’re expected to be a sponge for knowledge and to shut your fucking mouth.
Life was simple in a way: You trained hard and worked long hours during the week and got drunk as fuck in the barracks with your buddies on the weekends watching movies, playing video games, and bitching about your miserable existence and how you should have gone to college. Even if you started off as a cavalier, gleaming-eyed young man full of glee and hope, the aura of massive amounts of testosterone, cynicism, and sexual frustration was prevalent. Back then MySpace was the main social network and you’d see your friends posting pictures of themselves at college parties surrounded by hot chicks, while all you had was Internet porn and a bottle of Jack to keep you company. Since most of us were under 21 and none of us were locals, meeting chicks was very rare indeed. Luckily, a few months in, I met a great girl through MySpace that went to a local university and we developed a long-term fuck-buddy relationship that gave me something to look forward to other than drinking myself into oblivion. My cousin and I were in the same battalion but different companies. He had already been the in Army for a little over two years at that point. We spent Christmas and New Year’s together drinking heavily in the barracks watching movies as we waited to deploy.
An article I once read on this pretty great website called Thought Catalog (def check it out if you get the chance) referred to sophomore year as “The Year Of The Wise Fools.” I think this summation is spot-on. You’re slowly gaining a sense of who you are and how you fit within the general landscape, but you’re still, relatively, an idiot. On a personal level, the majority of cool college stories I have occurred during sophomore year.
I feel like sophomore year represents the time in which you begin to move toward that thing you really want to pursue—you’ve finally figured out which people to acknowledge and which people to slowly start ignoring, so you’re finally ready to learn on your terms. Think of it as making your way through a crowded and cramped bar and then finally reaching the cool outside area. You light up a cig, talk about how you really shouldn’t be lighting up a cig, and finally get a chance to think.
I had a summer job in Los Angeles during the summer break and was lucky enough to transfer to a New York outpost of the same company, so I was juggling four and five courses a semester with 30-to-40-hour work weeks. Though my classes were being paid for by the school, I had to take out loans for my housing and had to fund my own food, clothes, and anything else I wanted. It was a lot, but I was able to interact with people who were already living and working in the “real world” and I realized that there was so much beyond the papers and assignments that I had been so stressed about during the previous year. I still didn’t have as many friends as college is always portrayed in the movies, but I let myself completely fill up my schedule so that I was either working or studying seven days a week. In retrospect, that was the stupidest idea ever, but it helped me cope with the loneliness.
To my bitter disappointment, that deployment I spent doing a support role for the line guys. We pushed out supplies from the main base to all of the platoons scattered throughout the country. When we did leave the base, it was doing detainee escorts where we would take captured Hajis from one prison to another throughout the country on Chinooks and Blackhawk helicopters. I saw the vastness of Iraq by the air—from our remote outpost in Al Qa’im to the major cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Tikrit. I also fucked up a lot that deployment and made nearly every single stupid mistake a cherry private could make to the frustration and wrath of my leadership. That deployment I was hit by how real this war was—my cousin’s team leader and squad leader both got killed in action.
We deployed in three-months-there and six-months-back cycles. We came back stateside and I began to take all the lessons learned from that deployment into the next training cycle, determined to be less of a fuck-up. The lifestyle of training hard, drinking hard, and fucking hard took firm hold again. Before one knew it, it was time to go to Afghanistan. Arriving at the beginning of the blistering Afghan winter, me and a dozen other Batt Boys were tasked to man a secret prison that contained high-value targets that were freshly captured off of objectives by the line guys. It pissed me off because I didn’t join the Army to stay on the base; I joined to go on fucking missions. We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas there, and I spent New Year’s Eve 2007 on an airplane ride back to the US. Luckily we didn’t lose anyone on that deployment.
I went abroad the first semester of my junior year. Like everyone else who went abroad, I had such an incredible time that I spent the following semester acting superior to everyone who didn’t share the same new life experience as me.
Returning to college after spending a semester traveling all over Europe felt like going from an Elton John concert to an Austin Mahone concert. No disrespect to my man Austin; he just fits the reference.
When everyone else went abroad, I moved out of the dorms and into my first apartment—a really crappy walkup that was about a 20-minute walk away from the campus. I still filled my schedule with work and school and tried to romanticize how utterly threadbare my life was. My roommate bought our couch with a bottle of Belvedere, I slept on a yoga mat before I managed to get a bed, and I wrote my papers on a busted laptop with an old radiator whistling nearby. This all sounds like something out of the New York warehouse episodes of Glee, and I deeply wish I wasn’t as proud of the bohemian bullshit I let myself dive into. I still worked 40 hours a week, and I really liked my job, but that began to happen at the expense of shirking off a lot of my papers and assignments, only to make up excuses to get extensions and not fail out of my classes. It was a wakeup call that being an adult is a lot more about work than it is about the aesthetic, and sometimes you have to decide which is more important to you in the moment and which is more important to you in the long run.
By that time, I was comfortable in the Army. I wasn’t a big fuck-up anymore, so my leaders usually stayed off my ass. I knew exactly what I needed to do, what my job was, and what I could and couldn’t get away with. I turned 21 that year, went to my first bar in Seattle, and subsequently got kicked out of my first bar.
We were set to deploy again that summer, and a few days before deployment I found my grandmother had died. My cousin and I went to her funeral and missed out on the deployment. We stayed on Rear Detachment, which meant we pretty much had half-days all the time and spent much of that time drinking heavily and attempting to find some tail, mostly unsuccessfully. One morning, news came that one of the men in our company had been killed in action. A few weeks later, another one had been killed.
Senior year was the crossroads between living in an apartment that should probably be condemned and being “adult” enough to drink something other than watered-down Keystone Light. I found that I probably made the most friends in college senior year—just like senior year of high school, nobody really cares about the social distinctions they spent the past three years maintaining. People are finishing up sports, slightly embarrassed to have been a part of their Greek organization, and overall too consumed with the postgrad unknown to care about how sick Freddy’s party was. You also realize how much of an unrealistic bubble the American college experience is. While I definitely got a ton out of my four years, you certainly realize how alarming the disconnect is. If college prepares you for the working world, then playing baseball prepares you for running a marathon. They’re both sports, but that’s pretty much it.
By senior year, I was totally immersed in my job, and a big chunk of me didn’t think I really NEEDED my degree anymore—but then I realized that the job trajectory I was on wasn’t the right fit after all. I was working 60 hours a week, could afford a lot of really nice things, made friends with my coworkers, and was acting the part of the adult—but I just wasn’t happy. I had to force myself to put any effort into my classes, because I’d saved a lot of the easy, fun classes for senior year, knowing full well I’d have senioritis. The caveat in that, however, was that I was constantly reminding myself that if I could do okay by coasting along, imagine how much better I could do by working hard. Ultimately, I realized that the degree I eventually chose meant more to me than the job I’d had all through college and that I not only wanted to actually pursue using my degree, but that I’d be disappointed if I didn’t.
Working through college was a very important part of my experience, because it gave me a crash course in the wild world of money and having an apartment and adulthood and adult friends, but I was worn really thin throughout those four years and wouldn’t necessarily suggest you try to do everything all at once if you don’t absolutely need to. If I could do it all over again, and if I had the means, I would definitely have not worked as much as I did, even though I don’t regret how hard I worked. College is a time for discovery, and sometimes I wonder if I was too burdened with bills and being a grown-up to do that then—but now I’m making up for it by discovering myself along the way now.
Another training cycle started. The same dance all over again. I had calmed down my bar-hopping since I had gotten a girlfriend, but it didn’t mean I still didn’t drink to my heart’s content. Working, drinking, and hanging out with my girl was all I contented myself with during that training cycle. It had all become second nature at that point. We took off for the sandbox again. This time I drove Strykers through the streets of Mosul on hundreds of direct action raids. I was happy because at last I was doing the cool guy shit I’ve been training for. In typical poetic fashion, my girlfriend broke up with me. This was costliest and most heart-wrenching deployment during my time in battalion. We lost three great men all within a month of each other.
It’s a strange feeling being in a bar when only 48 hours earlier you were in the middle of the streets of Mosul pulling security. I was more than eager to get out of the Army. I had acquired an annoyed and hate-filled attitude toward my job, but I knew I had one deployment left before I was free at last. I bought a motorcycle and developed a passion for motorcycle travel when my buddies and I took a trip around Washington State.
In my final deployment to Iraq, I was driving Strykers like I did before. Though we did go on quite a few missions, it was way slower than the previous high-operations tempo deployment. The war was winding down. There was a stretch where we went two weeks without a single mission. Books, video games, and TV shows were how you kept your sanity from the boredom. I came back with only a month left on my enlistment. One month later, I hopped on my motorcycle to travel the US, leaving behind the red-fenced compound that took me in during my most formative years and forged me into a man.
You can read more of my writing at Thought Catalog.