Learned in Uniform

Ken Begley

I SPENT ALMOST 43 years either on active duty or in the reserves for the Navy and Army. Yes, I’ve been around.

The following is my list of the top 17 items—including some pertinent financial details—that might surprise those who have never served in the military.

No. 1: Our primary mission is not to fight wars. Instead, it’s to be so big, so bad, so mean, so well equipped, so well trained and so well led that any potential enemy in its right mind wouldn’t want to fight us. Failing that, our secondary mission is to fight and win wars.

No. 2: If we had a draft, we would be less likely to become involved in armed conflicts. We haven’t had a draft since 1973. If every family faced the prospect of their children serving in combat, there’d be less willingness to go to war unless it was absolutely necessary. As it happens, all males age 18 to 25 are still required to register with the Selective Service System in case a draft is ever reinstated.

No. 3: The military doesn’t choose which wars to fight. You and your elected representatives choose wars. The treaties that our government signs generally determine which potential conflicts we become involved in. Political solutions should be a first resort, military action the last.

No. 4: We fire a lot of bullets in combat. It was estimated that 50,000 rounds were fired to kill a single soldier in Vietnam. In fact, I was told that automatic weapons with large magazines were invented for the military because we’re notoriously bad shots when under the strain of combat.

No. 5: Few people become members of the military. Today, about 0.5% of our population serve in the armed forces. That means that if, you have 1,000 people graduating high school, five will serve. The percentage was 11% during World War II.

No. 6: Very few people stay long enough to officially retire from the active or reserve armed forces. Only 30% of officers and 10% of enlisted personnel retire from the military.

No. 7: Military personnel are, in my opinion, well compensated when you include pay, pensions and medical benefits. Military pensions are considered the gold standard. Enlisted active-duty soldiers, who join the military out of high school and serve 20 years, can potentially retire in their 30s with an inflation-adjusted pension and lifetime family medical benefits. The estimated present value of a military pension is often more than $1 million.

No. 8: The reserve armed forces also receive pensions and medical benefits at retirement age. Reserve retirement is age 60, with a few exceptions. Pension benefits are prorated based on actual days of service.

No. 9: A reason some soldiers weren’t deployable during the first Gulf War was dental work. I was at a meeting at Fort Knox during that time. A dentist said the dental work on soldiers was so bad that he had to rebuild whole mouths for Army Reserve and National Guard troops. Later, these organizations required annual dental checkups.

No. 10: There’s no free medical insurance for reserve military personnel unless serving on active duty. It wasn’t until 2007 that the government allowed “drilling” reserve troops—meaning those participating in “inactive duty” training—to purchase military medical insurance for themselves and their dependents. It’s a great benefit, with the military paying most of the cost. A family plan currently costs about $240 a month. It’s the best medical insurance I’ve ever had.

No. 11: Retired military must take Medicare when they reach age 65. At that juncture, military health insurance, otherwise known as Tricare, becomes a supplemental plan that covers most of what Medicare doesn’t.

No. 12: You have to get promoted to stay on active duty. It’s called “up or out.” If you don’t achieve a designated rank after a certain number of years, you can be pushed out of the military before retirement.

No. 13: You’re required to pass weight and physical fitness standards to stay on active or reserve military duty. We were tested twice a year. They’ll give you more than one chance to meet standards. But if you fail, you can lose your job.

No. 14: Sometimes, a general is not a general. Each state has their own armed force—the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard—mostly funded by the federal government. The Adjutant General, or TAG, is the senior military officer overseeing these state armed forces. The TAG is generally appointed by the governor and may be a general only for that state’s national guard force. The TAG’s rank, as recognized by the federal government, can be less than that of a general.

No. 15: You don’t have to remain in perfect health to stay on active duty. An extreme case was Major Ivan Castro. He was blinded in 2006 in Iraq. Major Castro was allowed to continue serving on active duty until 2017. He worked primarily with the 7th Special Forces Group and later as commander of Special Operations Recruiting Command. He completed 50 marathons out of uniform and trekked 200 miles across Antarctica to the South Pole with other disabled veterans. This is 50 more marathons and one more trek across Antarctica than I have done.

No. 16: Sometimes, you get into the military by accident. Retired Brigadier General Patrick Dolan, who served in the Army National Guard, is a Roman Catholic priest who had no intention of joining the military. He was asked to do so by his archdiocese to fill a need for Catholic chaplains in the service. He was surprised to realize he enjoyed his time, which included four deployments to the Middle East. Along the way, he earned the Air Assault Badge, Parachutist Badge and Pathfinder Badge.

No. 17: Sometimes, recruiters lie. Army Times wrote a story in the middle of the last Gulf War about a retired National Guard physician in his 70s—which is past the required retirement age for all soldiers—who was asked to go back on active duty. The good doctor thought they didn’t realize his age. He was told they did and he could replace some other doctor’s stateside position, perhaps in Hawaii or a similar place, while the other doctor went to the war zone.

Instead, he ended up as the oldest service personnel in Iraq (2005) and Afghanistan (2006), and then completed four rotations in Germany. His name was Col. William Bernhard. In 2010, he retired—again—at age 79. Needless to say, he kept volunteering, because he was a patriot who knew he could help save lives.

Ken Begley has worked for the IRS and as an accountant, a college director of student financial aid and a newspaper columnist, and he also spent 42 years on active and reserve service with the U.S. Navy and Army. Now retired, Ken likes to spend his time with his family, especially his grandchildren, and as a volunteer with Kentucky’s Marion County Veterans Honor Guard performing last rites at military funerals, including more than 350 during the past three years. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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