Common considerations to guide your decision
Thinking of a future in the military and wondering what the best branch is to join? Maybe you’ve been debating this with yourself or others.
I recall my first visit to the Military Entrance Processing Station in early 2005 when I overheard a young male telling everyone in the common area that the Marine Corps was the best option for a successful military career.
As I watched daytime television and enjoyed my issued half-frozen sub-sandwich, he announced, “The best branch to join is the Marines, then Army, Navy, and Air Force.”
As Judge Judy scolded a landlord for failing to fix a leaky roof, the potential recruit added, “the Coast Guard didn’t count.”
I chuckled to myself, not only because the Coast Guard is a military component, but he didn’t have any info to back up his ranking. It was the best because he said so, and little argument came from the group.
If you’re struggling with this decision, let’s shut out the peanut gallery and review the high-level considerations.
Military benefits are a huge selling point for any potential recruit. Earning money and receiving medical and insurance coverage are attractive options for younger kids wondering what challenges await them in adult life.
Educational perks are popular, especially in the National Guard or Reserves. Each branch offers The GI Bill, tuition assistance, and loan repayment. Technically you can attend college while on active duty, but it’s usually impractical.
If college is a must, check out this article for advice on choosing between active duty and reserve components.
Medical, insurance and educational benefits come standard in the military and won’t play a factor in determining the best branch to join.
If you’re worried about salary, pay grades are standard across the military. The main difference is whether you follow an enlisted or a commission route such as ROTC. Officers have higher standard pay, but the scale is the same military-wide.
Recruiters may entice younger folks with sign-on bonuses and kickers for certain military occupational specialties (jobs).
In 2020 the Air Force offered bonuses to attract recruits to fill more challenging roles such as combat controller, crypto-linguist, and explosive ordinance disposal.
Last year the Navy offered incentives based on recruitment quotas. In other words, if you signed on the dotted line by a given date, you got a check.
As the Coast Guard is limited, enlistment bonus availability may differ year to year.
Unfortunately, bonuses don’t come in the form of cash-filled duffel bags. Similar to lottery winnings, the loot will be taxed and spread out over time. Usually, the recruit gets half upfront, and the rest is paid out incrementally after graduating from basic training.
Benefits and extra cash can be attractive, but no branch has the best pay or benefits. Any differences in pay or coverage are typically a result of service types, such as enlisted vs. officer and full-time vs. part-time.
Best promotion path
Thinking about a long-term commitment? Maybe for life?
Each branch promotes its servicemembers in a more or less similar way. Usually, leadership places caps on how many personnel can be promoted for a given rank in a particular unit.
Going from E-1 to E-4 is based mostly on time in service and time in grade. Everyone gets promoted at a similar cadence by until they get to E-5, barring any negative flags.
After that competition can get tough depending on your unit.
Data shows some disparities between branches regarding promotion rates, but several circumstances may influence your stripe-earning speed.
For example, a common complaint in the Marines is that promotions can be hard to come by.
This makes sense if we consider the numbers. Currently, there are about 186,000 Marines on active duty. Compare that to active Army at some 500,000 troops. The Army Reserve alone has more service members at about 200,000 than the entire active Marine Corps fleet, to add another perspective.
The Army also offers promotion points for awards, specialty schools such as Airborne, and other qualifications.
Generally speaking, there is no best branch to join for quicker promotion. Unfortunately, politics can play a role in any hierarchy. However, the chance of getting promoted typically depends on individual performance.
The military, in general, requires recruits to maintain or exceed physical standards. Be honest with yourself and assess whether you can keep up with any long-term commitment to stay in shape.
Basic training length and difficulty may vary, and your teammates will be relying on you in any component.
Marine Corps boot camp is the longest at 12 weeks, with the Coast Guard the shortest at 8 weeks. People generally argue the difficulty level regarding entry training, but none of it is exactly Ranger school.
The secret to getting through initial training is properly handling the high-paced environment, problem-solving, team building, and the ability to acclimate to military life. It can be physically demanding and hurt at times, but basic training/boot camp is a mind game more than anything else.
Don’t get hung up on your first training environment. Instead, review the differences in physical standards based on your age and gender and how that ties into your selected job.
For example, in Marine Corps testing, pull-ups are required. On the other hand, the Navy allows Sailors to choose between a run or swim as part of their test.
General physical standards are slightly different between branches, but overall the biggest influence is your job. For example, an Air Force pararescueman will have a significantly stronger focus on training than a Marine Corps culinary specialist.
How easily do you get uncomfortable outside?
Training and operating outdoors for extended periods can vary.
Combat arms roles in the Marine Corps and Army will spend the most time outdoors, generally. However, often attached to them are support personnel such as medics, and cooks depending on the environment.
If you haven’t spent much time in the great outdoors, grab a limited supply of camping gear and spend a few days amongst the stars.
If the weather, bugs, or bodily fragrances get to you quickly, maybe put the Marine Corps and Army at the bottom of your list.
Keep in mind this is generally speaking.
There are many support jobs in the Army and Marine Corps that require little to no field time, such as clerks and tech-related jobs.
Conversely, the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard host various specialties that operate almost exclusively in the field, such as search and rescue teams and combat controllers.
Home away from home
Regardless of service type, you’ll be sent out into the world to your first duty station following initial training. That’s assuming you go on active duty. Daily life can differ, but you’ll get a general idea of your relative geographic location depending on your branch.
If you go with the Navy or Coast Guard, you’ll live near the coast, obviously. When mobilized, Sailors can spend six months at sea or more. Similarly, the Marines generally have quick beach access. However, due to their smaller size, they have fewer installations.
Army and Air Force personnel enjoy many options worldwide, but Soldiers and Airmen can find themselves in smaller or remote duty stations.
Active duty recruits can submit wish lists for duty stations, but it’s entirely dependent on the military’s needs. Even still, transfers are inevitable.
The best military branch in terms of where you serve is subjective and inconsistent.
The purple elephant
If you’ve told family and friends that you’re strongly considering a future in the military, your safety was likely their first concern.
The Army and Marine Corps are traditionally thought to be the most dangerous due to hosting conventional combat arms units such as infantry and artillery. But the truth is, any job in the military has the potential for high-risk.
During the past 20 years, service members have fallen in every branch, including the Coast Guard.
The Army had the highest deployment rate than other branches. It wasn’t uncommon for units to deploy multiple times on 12-18 month rotations.
Clearly, deployment rates depend on current global conflicts. The chances of being deployed in 2004 were much more significant than today.
Some branches will have fewer combat casualties than others, but hazards aren’t exclusive to foreign conflict.
Training casualties can happen when working with dangerous weapons and equipment. The truth is, deadly accidents happen regularly in all branches, in the forms of vehicle crashes, equipment failures, environmental causes, or live-fire exercises.
There are high risk jobs in each branch, which will dictate your overall risk level.
Focus on a job first
Notice how much of your potential experience depends on your job?
While every branch offers a sustainable future with benefits, pay, education, and a chance to serve, your adventure will heavily depend on what job you sign up for.
Forget about the branches, and do your research on specific jobs as it has the most bearing on your location, training environment, physical demands, and risk level.
Everyone has their opinion on what the best military branch is to join, but you are the one signing your name and making the commitment. Think it over, and be sure it’s something you can see yourself doing and training for whether you plan to get out or not.
Turns out, there is no best branch to join. There’s only what’s best for you.