Which Branch Of The Military Should I Join?

Dr. Scott A. Ostrow, Lt Col, USAF (Retired) for USMilitary.com

Throughout my 27-year military career (as enlisted and officer, Active Duty and Reserve) I was given the opportunity, several times, to serve in recruiting. In my current position, as an Air Force JROTC instructor, I am often asked advice from my students regarding enlisting in the military on which military branch to join. Unfortunately, sometimes students ignore my advice, and all too often, they never ask for it in the first place.


Instead, they rely on the information they receive from recruiters, and, unfortunately, many times they rely on information about another branch from another service’s recruiter, for instance, getting advice from an Air Force recruiter about the opportunities available in the Army. I have compiled this article about choosing the branch that’s right for you to join based on my newly released Third Edition of Guide to Joining the Military (Peterson’s, 2013).

Find Your Local Recruiter Near You!

This article is meant to serve as a starting point for those who have already decided that they want to join the military but want to compare what each branch has to offer, and for those still deciding whether or not the military is the right choice for them. The first part of this article is devoted to helping you create a needs assessment to determine which, if any, branch meets your needs the best. The second part defines the mission of each branch and provides a short comparison of each service’s Basic Training.

Part I
If you are seriously considering joining the military, you probably have checked out at least two of the branches. I advise you to check them all out, even if it means just visiting their recruiting website. Although I was not interested in joining the Army, I did look at its brochures first to find out a little about its programs before I made my final decision (of course there was no Internet then).

A word of caution though on which military branch to join: sometimes (in reality, most times) recruiting brochures and websites do not tell the complete story, and it is difficult to base your decision either for or against on the contents of a brochure, or website. When I was a recruiter, people were always telling me that they weren’t interested because of what they had read about it in a brochure. I’d usually say something like, “I understand why you wouldn’t be interested in joining, but how could you be interested in something you know little about? That’s why I’d like to take a few minutes to meet with you in person and tell you a little more about your opportunities.”

Smooth sales talk? Perhaps, but it was the truth. Would you buy a car based solely on the information contained in a brochure or website? Probably not! And unless you totally hated the car based on the information in the brochure, you would probably not completely dismiss it as an option.


Choosing the Military (Needs Assessment)
You should have made a list of your primary motivators before you set foot in the recruiter’s office. Whether your list was long—containing such items as money for college, job security, opportunity to travel, technical training, and good pay—or contained only one item, such as having full-time employment, the number of items on your list is not what’s important. What is important is that you are able to satisfy those motivators.

Whatever your list contains, the first course of action is to collect your list of primary motivators and put them in order of importance to you. This process, known as rank-ordering, will help you determine if you should proceed with the enlistment process.

However, it should be noted that at this time you may not have all the information necessary to determine whether you should enlist. For instance, if your most important primary motivator is receiving technical training, you will not know if the military can meet this motivator unless you have taken the Armed Services Vocational Battery (ASVAB) and physical examination. If this is the case, you must make the assumption that you will qualify for technical training and base your decision on the information provided to you by your recruiter.

After checking into the military branches that interest you, if there is clearly only one choice, then your decision has already been made (although I would have to question what you have based your decision on). But, if you are like most people (most people, that is, who have read my book and are taking my advice), you will have at least two branches in mind.

The process of choosing the right branch of the military for you is basically the same process that you should have used to determine if joining the military was right for you. You should start with your list of primary motivators and use the “yes/no” method to determine whether each branch can meet all or some of those motivators. Once you’ve determined which branch or branches can best meet your motivators, it’s time to compare those branches. What the first branch meets, the second may not; but what the first branch doesn’t, the second one might meet. Remember to look for the negative aspects as well as the motivators of each of the branches as you compare.

After making your comparisons, you may still find yourself with more than one choice. What do you do then? You could flip a coin, but I wouldn’t advise it. Instead, you may want to look at some of these factors:
• Length of enlistment—Some branches may require a longer term for offering the same benefits that you could receive from another branch.
• Advanced pay grade—You may be entitled to an advanced rank in some branches based on certain enlistment options.
• Length and type of training—How long will the training you’ll receive take? Usually the longer the training, the more in-depth and useful it is. You’ll also want to consider how useful the training will be once you’ve left the military.
• Enlistment bonuses—I caution you about using an enlistment bonus as the only factor in deciding which branch to choose. If it comes down to a tie between two branches and only one offers a bonus, it’s not a bad reason to choose that branch.
• Additional pay and allowances—There may be additional pay you’d be entitled to that can only be offered by a particular branch. For instance, if you join the Navy, you may be entitled to Sea Pay and Submarine Pay, something obviously not available if you join the Air Force.
• Ability to pursue higher education—Although all the military branches offer educational benefits, you must consider when you will be able to take advantage of these benefits. If you are in a job requiring 12-hour shifts and being out in the “field” a great deal, when will you attend classes? Even online classes may be difficult to accomplish in the field.
Once you have considered these factors, and perhaps some of your own, you should be able to decide which branch is right for you. If you still haven’t selected one branch over another, though, consider the following:
• Ask your recruiter if you can speak to someone who has recently joined.
• If there is a base nearby, you may be able to get a tour to get a look at its facilities.
• You may want to look for online blogs that cater to military members—then ask a lot of questions.
• Talk to friends and family members who are currently serving in the military. However, be careful not to talk to individuals who have been out of the military for a while, because they probably do not have an understanding of “today’s” military. Also avoid individuals who left the military under less-than-desirable conditions (for example, someone who was discharged from Basic Training for non-compatibility).

Guard and Reserve Opportunities
Other alternatives that may be available to you are the Air National Guard, the Army National Guard, and the Reserve components of the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. At this point it is important to mention that depending on your primary motivators, the Guard and Reserve may be a more viable option for you than Active Duty.
You should seriously consider the Guard and Reserve if:
• You have “deep roots” in your local community and you do not desire to leave home.
• You are attending college full-time and wish to continue at your current school.
• You currently have a full-time career and are only looking for additional income or some additional skills that you can apply to your full-time job. The Guard and Reserve would probably not be an option for you if:
• You are looking for full-time employment.
• You desire to leave your current surroundings.
When choosing between Active duty and the Reserve, apply the primary motivator principles to help you decide your course of action.

Part II
Missions Despite what you may see online, on television, or from the recruiters for that matter, the mission of the military is not to provide its members with skills they can use when they leave the military, or to provide funding for college. Although those benefits, and others, may be a byproduct of military service, the true mission of the United States Military is national defense. Although similar in nature, each branch provides national defense in its own unique way (listed below).

Regardless of component, The Army conducts both operational and institutional missions. The operational Army consists of numbered armies, corps, divisions, brigades, and battalions that conduct full spectrum operations around the world. The institutional Army supports the operational Army. Institutional organizations provide the infrastructure necessary to raise, train, equip, deploy, and ensure the readiness of all Army forces. The training base provides military skills and professional education to every Soldier—as well as members of sister services and allied forces. It also allows The Army to expand rapidly in time of war. The industrial base provides world-class equipment and logistics for The Army. Army installations provide the power-projection platforms required to deploy land forces promptly to support combatant commanders. Once those forces are deployed, the institutional Army provides the logistics needed to support them.

The Army’s mission is to fight and win our Nation’s wars by providing prompt, sustained land dominance across the full range of military operations and spectrum of conflict in support of combatant commanders. The Army does this by:
• Executing Title 10 and Title 32 United States Code directives, to include organizing, equipping, and training forces for the conduct of prompt and sustained combat operations on land.
• Accomplishing missions assigned by the President, Secretary of Defense and combatant commanders, and Transforming for the future.

The mission of the United States Air Force is to fly, fight and win … in air, space and cyberspace.

To achieve that mission, the Air Force has a vision of Global Vigilance, Reach and Power. That vision orbits around three core competencies: developing Airmen, technology to war fighting and integrating operations. These core competencies make our six distinctive capabilities possible.

Air and Space Superiority
With it, joint forces can dominate enemy operations in all dimensions: land, sea, air and space.

Global Attack
Because of technological advances, the Air Force can attack anywhere, anytime and do so quickly and with greater precision than ever before.

Rapid Global Mobility
Being able to respond quickly and decisively anywhere we’re needed is key to maintaining rapid global mobility.

Precision Engagement
The essence lies in the ability to apply selective force against specific targets because the nature and variety of future contingencies demand both precise and reliable use of military power with minimal risk and collateral damage.

Information Superiority
The ability of joint force commanders to keep pace with information and incorporate it into a campaign plan is crucial.

Agile Combat Support
Deployment and sustainment are keys to successful operations and cannot be separated. Agile combat support applies to all forces, from those permanently based to contingency buildups to expeditionary forces.


For over two centuries the U.S. Coast Guard has safeguarded our Nation’s maritime interests in the heartland, in the ports, at sea, and around the globe. They protect the maritime economy and the environment, defend our maritime borders, and save those in peril. This history has forged the Coast Guard character and purpose as America’s Maritime Guardian — Always Ready for all hazards and all threats.

Today’s U.S. Coast Guard, with nearly 42,000 men and women on active duty, is a unique force that carries out an array of civil and military responsibilities touching almost every facet of the U.S. maritime environment.

The Coast Guard’s motto is Semper Paratus, meaning “Always Ready.”

By law, the Coast Guard has 11 missions:
• Ports, waterways, and coastal security
• Drug interdiction
• Aids to navigation
• Search and rescue
• Living marine resources
• Marine safety
• Defense readiness
• Migrant interdiction
• Marine environmental protection
• Ice operations
• Other law enforcement

The Marine Corps has been America’s expeditionary force in readiness since 1775. The Marines are forward deployed to respond swiftly and aggressively in times of crisis. They are soldiers of the sea, providing forces and detachments to naval ships and shore operations. They are global leaders, developing expeditionary doctrine and innovations that set the example, and leading other countries’ forces and agencies in multinational military operations. These unique capabilities make them “First to Fight,” and our nation’s first line of defense.

The mission of the Navy is to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.

In order to meet their individual missions, each military branch must train and indoctrinate their enlisted members. The initial military indoctrination occurs in Basic (or Recruit) Training. Although similar, each branch maintains its own unique Basic Training whose purpose is to transform young men and women into Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and Airmen. The table below gives a quick comparison of each branch’s Basic Training.

All military branches require trainees (recruits) to pass physical fitness tests. The physical requirements vary from branch-to-branch; however, they are all similar. Some branches also require trainees to pass a swim test in order to graduate. In all cases it is imperative that you prepare for both the physical fitness test and swim test before arriving at Basic Training. Although Basic Training is a major part of your initial military service, it should not be used as the sole reason for choosing one branch over another, especially if you are considering making the military a career. Do not base a decision you will need to live with for 20 years based on the first 8 to 12 weeks of your enlistment.

Branch Length of Training Location(s) Swim Test
Air Force 8.5 Weeks Lackland Air Force Base, TX No
Army 10 Weeks Ft. Benning, GA Ft. Jackson, SC Ft. Knox, KY Ft. Leonard Wood, MO Ft. Sill, OK No
USCG 8 Weeks Cape May, NJ Yes
Marines 12 Weeks Parris Island, SC San Diego, CA Yes
Navy 8 Weeks Great Lakes, IL Yes

Notes: All female Marine recruits go to Parris Island, SC for Recruit Training. Army Basic Training locations depend on MOS (military specialty). While most trainees complete Basic Training on time, some are set-back in training and, therefore, take longer to complete training.


Making the decision to join the military is an important one: Deciding which branch to join is equally important! It’s not enough to make that decision based on the information you received from a recruiter or a website. The purpose of this article was to introduce you to the military branches, and to provide some guidance in choosing which branch to join. It was not the intent.




36 Responses to “Which Branch Of The Military Should I Join?”

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military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Thank you for Scott! You’re info rewards all who are seeking a career in today’s military. Regardless, if the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force and/or National Guard… you set the standard for quality information! Again, thank you…

military dot image rebecca    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

dear scott
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military dot image rebecca    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

dear scott
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military dot image George    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hey, sorry to bother you but i was wondering if its against the rules or law to ask for information from one branch and then ask for information from others? I am asking because i was thinking of the marines but also want to know about the other branches like the navy because i might be interested in them too

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

George, first it is no bother at all… secondly, it is not against any law to request career info from only one branch but HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. I’d first suggest that you begin with your talent/passion/desired job or career training(s). Then focus which branch has more to offer. Not only for your military career but with an eye for civilian opportunities. Thank you for your willingness to serve! Best, Larry Fowler

military dot image I am interested    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

I am still in High School not graduated from High School, yet ,
my question ? can I join you ? thanks

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Call your branch recruiter in your town/city. No doubt, you should graduate high school prior to enlisting… but talk to your recruiter. Good luck. Best, larry

military dot image Kendall    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Mr. Ostrow,

I have a few family members who have been in the military (a few decades ago). I recently have felt more and more of a calling to join the military but am very torn between branches. I want HONEST feedback from recruiters, but feel like most recruiters will say anything to get me to join. Nothing against the recruiters, I know they have a job to do, but I am seriously torn and in need of honest feedback for multiple branches. I am a 25 year old college graduate with lots to offer. Where can I go to have these types of conversations? If I am planning on “sacrificing” (in my opinion dedicating) the next however many years of my life, I want my decision to be based off of truth and honesty rather than recruitment. Do you have any advice/ recommendations for me?

Thank you in advance,


military dot image SSandera    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

After I finish boot camp can my kids come with me???

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Absolutely. Providing you can financially secure local housing wherever you’ll be based. Good luck!

military dot image Sam    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hi, I was wondering if the Marines and Navy did not have many opportunities or purposes as the other branches as you included only a paragraph for each yet more for the CG, AF, and Army. Can you please add more things or give information about these branches as I have wanted to join the Navy fir quite a while now?

military dot image Cali    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hi, im 22. Female. I’m also interested in more insight of the NAVY and Marines. I am in contact with both of their recreuiters. I already had a meeting with a NAVY recruiter & I’ll be having a meeting on Monday with a Marine. I’m in a real dilemma. I want what’s best career wise for my future but would also like to retire from the military.

military dot image AuBriana    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

When deciding what branch to join, do you have to focus on your achievement in school to determine if you will pass the test before you enlist? Also if you have an interest in some things involving that one specific branch but not its major things should you focus on enlisting in that branch or another one?

military dot image Mary Jane A. Vassil    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hi Dr. Ostrow,

I just want to say thank you for posting such a helpful article for people who are undecided to have reference to.

I am a sophomore in college and I have a family (a fiancee and two boys 6 & 3). I know I still have much time before I graduate but I really want to join the military, to serve my country, and have a bright future for my family and I. I went to a local branch and the reciter asked me a few questions about my life and school.

He advised me that my best bet was to finish up my college degree (BA to be specific) and plan to get married (which I was already planning on doing after college) before I make the important decision about joining the military.

Basically, I was curious about what branch of the military I wanted to get into based off of my career goals. I’m going for a BA in psychology and later plan on a Master’s degree to one day become a high school guidance counselor. Do you know what branch would support that type of goal, especially for a woman considering??? I know I want to help out teens with their future career goals, but don’t know if the Army would best support my choice once I graduate from college.

Any helpful information would be greatly appreciated!!

Thank you so much and have a wonderful afternoon.


Mary Jane

military dot image Caroline    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

I’m 16 years old and wondering, what sort of ‘prep’ will I need before I join any branch? Preparation being physical fitness, college options, etc. I haven’t decided on a branch but I’m leaning more toward Navy or Marines, but what would I need to do before joining any Branch?

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hey Caroline,
This is the reason you should contact your recruiter. They are prepared to provide all this info to you. Definitely great questions. If any doubt, interview both the Navy and Marines and compare. World of difference of jobs and opportunties. Above all, get your college degree as soon as possible.

military dot image Jingpeng    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

I’m a 20 years old Asian male studying physics at a New York state university. Currently, I am pursue a Bachelor of Science degree and a Bachelor of Arts degree. I really want to serve the military and I always want to gain some technical experience out of it. Do you think Air Force is a great choice for me?

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Jingpeng, the Air Force is always a great option. However, there are other programs worth researching. The Navy has excellent nuclear programs. Do your research.

military dot image Yawo Frederic    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

i am 3 credit way of getting my BA in international Relation and Minor in French, i am thinking about joining the Military but i really dont know which branch to join between the Airforce or the Army. can you please give me an adivce and do you suggues to join as an enlist or Officer ?

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hey Yawo, this is easy. Officer. There too many benefits becoming an officer to mention here. Get your degree since you’re so close and talk to both the Air Force and the Army recruiters. Once you know what you career type that you’re interested, consider also talking to your Navy recruiter as well. Sounds like you have a great future ahead. My best, Larry

military dot image Jayden Rossey    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hi Larry. My name is Jayden and I am a sophomore in high school and this February I will take the asvaps. Do I need to pass these to join the military and if so what do I need to pass them. How can I leave a good impression on the recruiters with these? If you can get back to me I would really appreciate the help.

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Jayden, the recruiters will be happy to share with you about the asvab. Trust me, the recruiters job is to sell you. All to say, just be your yourself. Be professional but cordial. You’ll be fine.

military dot image mumbi    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

I am a kenyan female working eith military in kenya, I have a passion in working and joining us army kindly advice

military dot image Sulle Malalis    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Which branch has the best field medicine training

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Sulle, I’d be bias to offer such an answer. But, a great question. The ‘life style’ is totally different in each of the branches, so which life style do you believe would be best suited for you. Then, talk with a medical knowledge recruiter and do whatever necessary to get ‘behind the scenes’ facts. What I love most about the medical field, it will only grow… awesome ‘long term’ picture way after you leave the military. My best, Larry

military dot image Stacy    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hi, I am an occupational therapist interested in working for the military as a civilian. I was curious to know if I would have to do basic training as well? As a civilian would I be able to select which country I would want to be based in? Can you switch locations if there is a problem?

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hey Stacy, great questions. Normally, I refer you to a recruiter, but have you considered talking with a civilian company that provides occupational therapy (to the military)? Since they’d be doing the hiring, I’ll go direct to them. If unsure who they are, I’d google ‘civilian occupational therapists companies for the military’ or a combination of these keywords. Best, Larry

military dot image Josh    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Been out of work for awhile and have been considering the military.

Interested in joining the Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard. Is 32 to old to consider enlisting? Also, what jobs in the military help you get jobs in the civilian job market? Any help would be appreciated.

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hey Josh, call your local recruiter for each of the branches you mentioned. They’ll give you the latest and the greatest. Good luck!

military dot image Tony    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

What is the upper age to enter the Navy as a Doctor?

military dot image Vahid joshua    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hello..my name is vahid Joshua and I really wanted to join the navy seal to serve u.s.a. and to serve my family for living also serve my future for navy seal,thank you and god bless.

military dot image abdoulie kolley    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hi…my name is Abdoulie Kolley from the Gambia West Africa. I am really interested of joining the navy seals to serve the USA and my FAMILY. I so admired watching the Navy Seal movies in my laptop here in Africa.

military dot image Aref AlKoukash    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

My name is Aref al koukach , I am 26 years old from Lebanon. I am interested to work for the military as solder no matter in which country. Thank you.

Best regards

military dot image brenley    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hi there. Im a freshman in high school and a girland have wanted to join the military since the 6th grade. I don’t which branch to choose- Army or Air force. I’ve looked up a lot about each but still can’t decide. Im into STEM stuff but mostly math and engineering but I also like combat and stuff like that. Any advise on what to choose?

military dot image larryf    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Hey Brenley, so many face the same decision. The great news for you is that you have a few years to decide. Be flexible and go where your research leads you. For example, my son wanted to be a Black Hawk pilot for five or more years; then the week after graduating first in his Army pilot class he had to tell the Army his first selection. Guess what, he changed his mind at the last minute to the Apache. I’m not a recruiter, but I am a father and a veteran, do your research and visit a base that you can talk with people who live and breath your interested careers. This would include both Army and Air Force for you. For example, while a high school student, before my son decided on becoming a helicopter pilot he first toured Fort Rucker Army base and interviewed a pilot. Sometimes you’ll never know what its truly like working a job or career until you first visit the front lines. Hope this helps. Best, Larry

military dot image German Parra    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

I have a lot of questions about the military, can you please cntact me through email, i alreDy put it there.

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