Is the Grass Greener?

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- With long work hours, deployments and time away from our families...is military service worth the cost? I admit we may occasionally ask ourselves this question and frankly, we should. The military recruits intelligent and critically-thinking service members, so it's only natural to think about this. Interestingly, when discussing career options with Airmen who've served their full commitment, I've found the reasons many choose to continue to serve aren't necessarily the same as the reasons they joined.

Much research has been done to determine why people enter the military. Common reasons include a sense of patriotism, a family tradition of service, money for college, an opportunity to learn new skills or some combination of all of these. Since we join at a relatively young age, many of us aren't really sure what to expect. Regardless of how we get in, after signing up we usually attend some type of job specific training. In the U.S. Air Force, for example, many learn how to either fly or fix aircraft. Whether officers or enlisted, we build our tactical expertise during our first couple of assignments before moving into increasingly supervisory positions. Eventually our service commitment comes up and we have a choice: continue to serve or transition to the civilian workforce. It's in my discussions with Airmen who've arrived at this decision point that I've learned a common theme among those who choose to stay.

As a recently-graduated fighter squadron commander, I've had the distinct honor to work with highly-motivated Airmen who pride themselves on their ability to fly, fight and win in defense of U.S. national interests. While in command, one of my primary duties was working career vectors and follow-on assignments for our Airmen. Although the details varied, I've found those who decided to stay did so because they realized they made a positive difference they simply couldn't as a civilian.

It makes complete sense. After serving their first five to ten years in the military, they got a taste of something that's hard to find elsewhere. Consider the news. Although we all feel affected by what we see on CNN, few civilians truly feel what they do has any effect on what they read. Not so for those serving in the military. Regardless of our primary duty and whether we're at home station or deployed, chances are we're either directly or indirectly involved in world events.

While our fighter squadron was flying close air support in Iraq, we were involved with several situations and events that those back at home read about in the news. Whether it was providing armed overwatch for convoys or fledgling Iraqi elections, those that were either flying those missions or supporting them from the ground had no doubt that what they were doing mattered. At some level they were all making a difference and knew it. When discussing their future career options, I'd key in on how they personally matured during the performance of their military service.

Sometimes I'd share my personal experience and how I've grown. I joined mostly because I wanted to fly fighters. Sure, on some level there was desire to be part of something larger than myself, but I was too young at the time to know what that really meant. As fulfilling as it was to strive to be the best F-16 pilot I could be, this was ultimately limiting as it's eventually a selfish motivation. As a squadron commander, I've discovered the greatest satisfaction was in making a positive difference for the Airmen I had the honor of serving with. Much of my time was invested in helping others reach their goals and in turn helping the squadron succeed in its primary mission. Whether it's working school slots, follow-on assignments, or helping take care of our families back at home, when you get it right there's simply nothing that compares. These Airmen learned they had a similar effect on those they served with.

So, back to my first question: are the long hours and multiple deployments worth it? When it comes time to make a decision on whether to continue to serve on active duty, this is a question we each have to answer for ourselves and our families. From my point of view I've seen our Airmen take more opportunities to make a positive difference for each other and our country while serving than I'd ever thought possible and they know it. If you want proof, just turn on the news.