I’ve gotten many emails in the last year with folks asking questions about what it is like to be in the Air Force. In the spirit of being honest, let me address some of the challenges of serving in the US Air Force.
Let me start off by saying these are general challenges and not everyone will agree with them...that’s okay! I’m painting with a very large brush, so to speak. Also, this isn’t a bashing session. My overall thought is that the Air Force gives much more than it takes. I’ll try to back up each challenge examples and follow-up with a pro.
Let’s get started!
Having to go through Air Force Basic Military Training.
There is no doubt that many people find Air Force BMT to be a very large hurdle. Who in their right mind wants to put themselves through someone yelling at them and telling them what to do? Who wants to wake up at 5am to revelle only to have 15 minutes to do their morning business and get ready for the inevitable pain of PT? Not fun.
There is a reason to the madness of BMT though. The Air Force is a military fighting force and it has to train people from every background imaginable from every part of the United States, and sometimes world. Not an easy task when you think about it.
Now, I am a firm believer that anyone who is qualified to join the Air Force can make it though BMT. Training is difficult, but not that difficult, especially when compared to other branches of the Military. Go in with a positive, never quit attitude, and put in the training in perspective...it’s only 8 weeks of a 4-6 year career (20-30 years for some).
Not being in control.
Once you raise your right hand a state the oath of enlistment, you belong to the Air Force and are held under a different law (the Uniform Code of Military Justice) than all your friends and family. You are held to a different standard and you are expected to adhere to those standards.
So how does this affect you on a daily basis? I interviewed a YouTuber who makes Air Force informational videos and he told me of a situation of his leadership wanting them to stop making videos. Does his leadership have the power to tell him to stop doing what he loves? Absolutely! In fact, they have so much power that if you were in the situation and didn’t stop, you could be prosecuted! Crazy right?
The pro is that I’m not telling you the whole truth. Yes, you give up a lot of liberties and freedoms when you join the Air Force, but you do have a say in what happens during your service. Just like in the example above, the situation resolved itself and they still make great videos. Your leadership are people as well who usually have empathy to your situation. Just don’t do anything stupid like drink and drive...you’re on your own with that stupid move.
Military culture and traditions.
Every time I watch a military movie, I see some sergeant yelling at a subordinate, telling them to drop and give them some push-ups. That or some ridiculous scenario that “would never happen that way!” But, that’s a different struggle which we can talk about later!
The above situation can happen, but the reality is that serving in the Air Force is a lot like having a civilian job. You come to work, do your job, and go home. Pretty simple.
But, some sayings that you’ll hear are “military barring,” “rank has it privileges,” “because I said,” “take out the trash,” “do it because you need an EPR bullet,” and things like that. The Air Force culture isn’t perfect, and there isn’t a person out there that will tell you it is.
BUT, one of the main reasons why people join the military is because of the culture and traditions. They want to be a part of something larger than themselves. There are pros and cons to culture and traditions and I tend to focus on the good parts...like being a United States Airman.
Very little input to where you live and having to move frequently.
If you are single, you can expect to move every 2-4 years. If you are married, the timeframe is stretched to every 3-5 years or so. Some people join because they get to see the world, in which case, this is a good thing. But, those of you (spouses/family included) who latch on to stability, will have problems with the frequent moves.
You do have input on where you get stationed through your “Dream Sheet” or preference sheet, but you are still limited to what assignments are available at the time. If you want to go to Germany or Tinker AFB, then it is a crap shoot based on who is changing station the same time as you.
Here is an example. In my 7.5 year active duty career, I PCSed 3 times because I was single. When I was returning from Kadena AB in Okinawa, Japan, my choices for bases I could go to were Scott AFB (5 positions) and Langley AFB (1 position). So my dream sheet consisted of only those 2 choices. So you have input, but you are still limited to what assignments are open to you. As you progress in rank (Senior NCO tier), you’ll have more input on assignments.
The pro to moving is that the Air Force will pay for all your moving expenses...so no worries there.
The possibility of leaving your family.
There is is saying that spouses and kids serve in the military just as much as the member. That is an understated fact.
There are many scenarios that could take you away from your family, but the main two are deployments and remote tours.
Deployments in the Air Force can be only a few weeks to a year. If you are selected for a remote tour, then your family have to stay behind while you are gone for at least a year. Don’t worry about the moving part or financial part, the Air Force will take care of that. The struggle is that you’ll be away from your family for that duration.
Low pay compared to civilians.
The truth is that enlisted members are embarrassingly underpaid for what they do. All one has to do is look at the enlisted pay chart compared to the officer pay chart. Also, there are some AFSCs that are working for pennies on the dollar when compared to their civilian counterparts.
BUT, what you’ll get by going the Air Force route is free training, skills, and a ton of benefits. Nearly free healthcare, free education, skills to use when you get out, and so much more.
Having to work long hours, and sometimes, with little recognition.
When you join the Air Force, you are a salary employee, which means that you will not get overtime. You better believe the Air Force, and other military branches, take full advantage of this.
There will be times when you work 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. This might occur when you are deployed, during times of training/exercises, or if manning is really low. If you are a shift worker or work in a 24 hour operations center, then you’ll be working rotating shifts, but on your days off you’ll be recovering from the shift work. That means less time with your family or friends.
It’s hard to find a pro for this challenge, but here’s the reality. When you are working long hours, then you tend to form a brotherhood/sisterhood with those who are in the grind with you. There is a camaraderie that forms when everyone is miserable! From my personal experiences, and from talking to other military veterans, this camaraderie is the most missed thing about serving. It may suck at the moment, but lean on your brothers and sisters to get through it.
High unemployment rate for military spouses.
Here are the facts.
- 18% military spouses are unemployed (Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 2015)
- 90% military spouses are under employed or overqualified for jobs (Syracuse University Survey, 2013)
- 38% of military spouses are paid less than their civilian equivalents (Syracuse University Survey, 2013)
- If you are stationed overseas, then these percentages are going to be higher.
This is the sad truth, and I can’t seem to find a silver lining on it. What I would recommend you do, is to sit down with your spouse and weigh the pros and cons then make the decision together. As mentioned above, your family is serving just as much as you are and they should have input.
They’ll more than likely have to be flexible and creative when it comes to employment though. I know many spouses that try to start their own business, like selling crafts or provide at home child care. There are many shift workers that NEED child care, and not many places that offer it. Also, do research on employment preference for your spouse. Some federal jobs give military spouses preference when hiring.
Well, that just about covers it I think. Do you have any that you want to add? Leave a comment below so others can learn. I’d be interested to hear what you think!