Enlisting in the military can be a great option for individuals who want to gain specialized skills and leadership experiences that prepare them for a complex, globalized economy. Military members also enjoy a variety of educational benefits while on active duty, including funding from the Tuition Assistance program available through the U.S. Department of Defense. You may also apply for the College Fund available through the Army, Navy, and Marines and seek additional financial support through federal loan deferment and repayment programs. Beyond the education benefits, military personnel enjoy free housing and healthcare for themselves and their families as well as generous travel and retirement benefits.

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This guide outlines each branch of the military -- including their history and general functions -- as well as military jobs categorized by branch and their minimum education requirements. The guide also explains the enlistment process and ROTC preparation. Finally, you can gain valuable insight into military life from an active service member.

What Are the Different Branches of the Military?

The U.S. military's history dates back to 1775, when the Continental Congress established the first army, navy, and marine troops under the command of George Washington. Today, the U.S. armed forces comprise the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, all of which operate under the direction of the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard receives commands from the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Guard usually receives its directives from state leaders. The President exercises authority over all branches through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense.

Your training and career trajectory will vary based on which branch you choose. For instance, joining the Army means you may become an infantryman, later deployed to ongoing missions in Afghanistan. Conversely, enlisting with the Navy can prepare you for a career as a hospital corpsman who provides care to sailors and marines. Although each military force conducts its own unique activities, their collective purpose is to promote national security and prosperity and bolster international peace and collaboration.


Air Force

Before the implementation of the 1947 National Security Act, U.S. military aviation was the joint responsibility of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The act created the National Military Establishment (later renamed the Department of Defense) and established the United States Air Force as a distinct branch of the military. The Air Force currently houses over 320,000 active personnel, making it the largest air force in the world. You may enlist with the Air Force full time and take advantage of on-the-job training, full college tuition reimbursement, housing allowances, and retirement benefits. Alternatively, you can work part time by joining the Air National Guard and Air Reserve.

The Air Force's operational philosophy centers on "Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power." To these ends, the Air Force's core missions are air and space superiority through joint military ventures; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance that cement information advantages over the enemy; rapid global mobility to provide swift deployment and sustain operations over the long haul; and global strike potential using conventional and nuclear precision forces. The Air Force also expands the country's control capabilities through interconnected satellite and digital networks.


Army

The U.S. Army was established by the Second Congressional Congress in 1775. Although this branch of the military focuses primarily on land-based military occupations and battles, some subsections of the Army perform alternative duties. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers oversees the nation's rivers and hydropower capabilities. As the largest branch of the military, the Army currently boasts 472,000 active personnel, with additional members in the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard.

The Army's mission is to help the U.S. win wars through sustained dominance by seizing and controlling adversaries' land and resources. The Army's tactics continue to evolve to respond to irregular warfare and now consist of highly trained arms formations combined with unmanned combat vehicles, weapons, and sustainment systems. The Army also develops cybersecurity strategies and programs to tackle the growing threat of global digital terrorism.

Joining the Army can lead to a variety of high-paying, in-demand occupations such as construction engineer, fire control enhanced operator, and air defense system specialist. You can also work as a communications operator who facilitates important conversations through multichannel transmission systems.


Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard traces its history back to 1790, when it was established as the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Today, the Coast Guard works under the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime and operates as part of the Navy upon congressional declaration of war. The Coast Guard currently employs 42,000 active personnel, with additional career opportunities available in reserve positions.

As one of the more differentiated branches of the military, the Coast Guard performs 11 official maritime missions. The most common duties include ensuring ports/waterway security, maintaining navigational aids -- such as buoys, stoplights, and lighthouses -- and performing search and rescue missions. The Coast Guard also enforces immigration laws and prevents the illegal flow of drugs in and out of the country. Furthermore, the Coast Guard protects marine life to help at-risk species recover and maintain healthy, sustainable populations.

While some Coast Guard members are stationed in international locations like the Carribean and the Middle East, the majority of personnel work in their local communities. These servicemen and women occasionally get deployed on week-long missions away from their homebase. The Coast Guard provides specialized training in Class "A" schools according to a member's interests and ASVAB test results.


Marine Corps

Established through the National Security Act of 1947, the U.S. Marine Corps operates under the command of the Department of Defense and works closely with naval forces to conduct expeditionary missions.

The Marine Corps holds three primary areas of responsibility. First, Marines seize and defend naval bases and work with the Navy to conduct other land operations. This can include performing amphibious missions with the support of the Army and Air Force. Secondly, the Marine Corps specializes in asymmetrical warfare that focuses on infantry tactics and uses any combination of conventional, irregular, and hybrid forces. With this high flexibility, the Marine Corps may deploy combined-arms task forces to nearly any location in the world within days. The third area of responsibility tasks the Marine Corps with fulfilling any other duty as directed by the President.

Marines operate by an exceedingly rigorous code of conduct and possess a resilience that enables them to adapt to -- and overcome -- any challenge. Outside of military conflict, the Marine Corps contributes to disaster relief missions and other humanitarian efforts. The Marine Corps also operates the oldest and most prestigious military band, which performs at over 500 official state functions each year.


Navy

In terms of sheer tonnage, the U.S. Navy is the largest navy in the world. The Navy currently boasts 290 deployable combat vessels and more than 3,700 operational aircraft. Over 337,000 active personnel work for the Navy, and 101,500 additional servicemen and women stand by in the Ready Reserve.

The Navy's official mission is to develop, maintain, and equip forces capable of deterring aggression, maintaining freedom of the seas, and winning wars. To these ends, the Navy controls air, sea, and subsurface areas through a broad spectrum of offensive naval operations. Navy personnel tactically employ carrier-based aircraft supported by amphibious and gunfire forces, the latter of which include strategic nuclear response. Naval presence is another major goal, as the Navy strives to be in the right place at the right time to combat and deter aggression.

As a member of the Navy, you will foster global collaboration by training with foreign navies. General missions center on regional security and may include at-sea rescues and environmental cleanups. Advanced Navy personnel also conduct reconnaissance and intelligence operations.


The Reserve

The reserve components of the United States Armed Forces include part-time military personnel who each perform at least 39 days of service each year. These reservists augment active-duty and full-time military when necessary, which may include national emergencies and wartime missions. There are seven reserve components: one each for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard in addition to the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard. These reserve forces sometimes receive support from civilian auxiliaries of the U.S. military, like the Civil Air Patrol and the Merchant Marine.

Based on a tradition that dates back to the American Revolutionary War, reservists are essentially citizen-soldiers. They support their local and regional communities but may be called on by the federal government during emergencies. These personnel perform weekend drills and 15 days of annual training as part of their required service. Reservists fall into three main categories: the Ready Reserve, the Standby Reserve, and Retired Reserve. The first category consists of Selected Reserve personnel, probably the most well-known for the crucial roles they play in initial wartime missions.


The National Guard

The U.S National Guard traces its origins back to the first militia regiments formed in the early 1600s. Today, this branch of the armed forces consists of units from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Most personnel hold full-time civilian jobs and serve part time as National Guard airmen and soldiers. They receive support from a full-time cadre of Active Guard and Reserve members.

The National Guard's primary mission is to train and maintain troops capable of prompt mobilization for war and national emergencies. During peacetime, the National Guard responds to the directives of state leaders, who often call on them to assist with natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes. When called on by the President, the National Guard assumes federal-duty status. Units then receive orders from the combatant commander of their respective theatres.

By joining the National Guard, you receive pay and benefits for every day you serve, including training, weekend drills, and deployment. The National Guard bases salaries on education level and job function. Opportunities run the gamut and usually include administrative positions, STEM careers, and special forces occupations that enable you to become a Green Beret.


What Are the Different Jobs in the Military?

The U.S. military divides its employees into two categories: enlisted personnel and military officers. Enlisted service members represent the vast majority of the military workforce and carry out day-to-day tasks like operating equipment and participating in combat operations. They may also build airfields and bridges or repair buildings and water purification systems.

Military officers occupy leadership positions within their branches. They manage enlisted personnel, organize operations, and provide advanced medical, legal, and technical services. With the right training and experience, you may become a combat specialty officer. These leaders direct military operations, which can include overseeing artillery systems, infantry units, and armored assault vehicles.

Not all military careers involve combat or its collaterals. You can find a variety of noncombat occupations, including administrative jobs in accounting and human resources. Support services are another popular field of work; those in positions such as military chaplain and dining hall chef play crucial roles in each branch or unit. Other in-demand military careers include:

Air Force

By enlisting with the Air Force, you gain access to the largest community college in the United States. This opportunity provides relevant technical skills and college-eligible credits as you progress in expertise and rank. To join the Air Force, you must meet and maintain compliance with minimum requirements that include a height and weight index, an eye-refraction level of no worse than +/- 8.0, and U.S. citizenship or eligible noncitizenship.

Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Specialist

Some of the most in-demand members of the Air Force, SERE specialists train airmen to survive the most hostile climates and conditions. These elite instructors coordinate training programs in advanced parachuting and survival for eight geographic disciplines.

Minimum Education: High school diploma

Aerospace Medical Service Technician

These specialists assist doctors by preparing patients for surgery and conducting postoperative monitoring. They help with aeromedical evacuations and perform dental, medical, and emergency procedures. Medical service technicians also administer medications and operate hospital equipment.

Minimum Education: Some college (associate degree preferred)

Behavioral Sciences and Human Factors Scientist

As applied researchers, behavioral scientists examine the human dynamics of Air Force activities and missions. They also act as technical consultants and use findings to improve organizational efficiency and bolster the quality of life for airmen and their families.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree in behavioral sciences, psychology, or another related field

Air Battle Manager

Battle managers oversee every aspect of air combat, applying their knowledge and experiences with weapons, aircraft, and surveillance strategies. They also develop and conduct air training simulations and evaluate units for effectiveness and improvements.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree

Space Operations Officer

These leaders enhance the Air Force's communication and tracking capabilities through satellite systems. They formulate space operations policy and train enlisted personnel according to established performance standards. Space operations officers also conduct research and development projects on future technologies.

Minimum Education: Master's degree in a STEM discipline

Army

As the largest branch of the U.S. armed forces, the Army provides ample career opportunities to enlisted and reserve service members. To access training and benefits, you must meet general requirements that include U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status. You also need to be a high school graduate and achieve a minimum score on the ASVAB Test. The Army provides four ways for you to become an officer, such as the ROTC route and Officer Candidate School.

Allied Trade Specialist

These Army professionals operate specialized machinery such as drill presses, grinders, and lathes. They supervise the fabrication and repair of metallic and nonmetallic parts. Allied trade specialists also conduct training sessions and safety demonstrations.

Minimum Education: High school diploma

Cryptologic Linguist

These service members use signal equipment to identify foreign communications. They translate and analyze these conversations, alerting the appropriate authorities as necessary. Cryptologic linguists also create transcriptions and translations for international correspondence.

Minimum Education: Some college with advanced military training

Environmental Science/Engineering Officer

As leaders in the Army health team, these professionals conduct research on environmental sustainability and industrial safety. They establish and assess standards for weapons, tactical gear, and uniforms. Engineering officers also help contain health hazards.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree in the physical/biological sciences

Judge Advocate

Army lawyers provide legal support during military operations, which can include prosecuting criminal cases and offering ethics opinions to commanders and their staff. Judge advocates also assist service members and their families; they provide legal advice and represent soldiers before administrative separation boards.

Minimum Education: Juris doctor

Dental Corps Officer

These military leaders oversee Dental Corps units during medical situations and coordinate employment among enlisted members. Dental Corps officers see to the dental health of soldiers, their families, and all individuals eligible for care. Specialization options include orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, and oral surgery.

Minimum Education: Doctoral degree in dentistry with unrestricted license

Coast Guard

If you want to train and work near your community, then the Coast Guard is a great option. The majority of careers are located in the country and, with opportunities available through the Reserve, you can maintain a full-time civilian job while completing your service duties. Basic enlistment qualifications include U.S. citizenship or resident alien status and a high school diploma. You cannot have more than three dependents and, if pursuing an active-duty position, must be between 17 and 31 years old.

Electronics Technician

These professionals install, repair, and update sophisticated electronic equipment, including shipboard weapons, navigation equipment, and data and voice-encryption systems. Electronics technicians work in diverse environments, like small Coast Guard stations known as electronic systems support detachment details.

Minimum Education: High school diploma

Public Affairs Specialist

Known as PAs, these enlisted professionals oversee communications for the Coast Guard. PAs write news releases and feature articles and produce videos for official websites and social media channels. They also act as official spokespersons to raise awareness of pertinent issues.

Minimum Education: Some college (associate degree preferred)

Intelligence Specialist

Intelligence specialists collect, analyze, and process crucial information that supports Coast Guard operational missions. These professionals also disseminate the information through official reports and mission debriefings. They work from Intelligence Coordination Centers and cryptologic units located all over the country.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree and specialized military training

Direct Commission Engineer

As part of their initial assignment, direct commission engineers can work for civil engineering, naval engineering, or specialized C51 communities. Naval engineering opportunities include industrial operations, in which engineers manage the repair of surface vessels. After initial assignments, these professionals advance in rank and gain the opportunity to attend graduate school.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree in a STEM discipline

Clinical and Rehabilitation Therapist

These military officers specialize in physical therapy and treat service members at Coast Guard accession sites. Clinical and rehabilitation therapists also work as part of the government public health effort and educate recruits and cadets on how to lead more active and productive lifestyles.

Minimum Education: Master's degree in physical therapy

Marine Corps

Because the Marine Corps receives noncombat support from the Navy, the majority of Marine Corps careers center on combat and its strategic/logistical components. However, due to the changing needs of the U.S. military and evolving combat tactics, the Marine Corps prioritizes the development of technical skills. Careers within this branch subdivide into Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) categories. To become an enlisted member of the Marines, you must meet initial requirements that include legal residency and physical performance. Prospective Marine officers undergo a separate training process.

Community Service Marine (MOS 4133)

These service members coordinate tactical field exchanges and other Marine Corps Community Services operations in a deployed environment. They also perform routine administrative tasks such as conducting inventory updates and providing managerial guidance to custodial personnel.

Minimum Education: High school diploma

Infantry Unit Leader (MOS 0369)

As a noncommissioned officer, the infantry unit leader assists commanders with training and deployment of weapons like the LAR battle rifle. They also oversee platoons during combat, establish unit command posts, and coordinate fire and movement between tactical units.

Minimum Education: High school diploma

Imagery Analysis Specialist (MOS 0241)

Working as part of the Marine Corps intelligence network, imagery analysis specialists process and analyze images gathered from various sensor platforms. They help commanders with target acquisition and planning reconnaissance missions. Applicants must be eligible for top-secret security clearance.

Minimum Education: Some college (preferably with coursework in geographic information systems)

Counterintelligence/Human Intelligence Specialist (MOS 0211)

These specialists work closely with other military intelligence assets to identify and de-escalate threats from hostile combatants and organizations. They may go undercover to discover sensitive information or save the lives of Americans overseas.

Minimum Education: Advanced military training with at least a bachelor's degree

Criminal Investigator (MOS 5821)

These Marine agents conduct criminal investigations under the jurisdiction of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. They analyze crime scenes, interrogate suspects and witnesses, and conduct covert operations. Criminal investigators also collaborate with law enforcement agencies to navigate hostage negotiations.

Minimum Education: Advanced military training with at least a bachelor's degree

Navy

In addition to full-tuition scholarships and the ability to attend college classes while on ships, Navy sailors benefit from comprehensive training in cutting-edge equipment and technologies. Service members also enjoy cost-effective healthcare and, due to the nature of their training and deployment, ample opportunities for travel. The Navy provides enlistment tracks for individuals with and without prior military service. If you are completely new to military service, entry qualifications include medical, legal, and moral standards, as well as adherence to a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy.

Information Systems Technician

These sailors operate shipboard control and special intelligence systems. They possess a broad range of administrative and IT skills, including network administration, database management, and software maintenance. Information systems technicians also work as part of the Information Dominance Corps to gather and analyze intelligence on adversaries.

Minimum Education: High school diploma

Navy Diver

As part of a highly skilled task force, Navy divers perform perilous salvage operations and search and rescue missions. These serviced members support various law enforcement agencies and act as technical experts for special operations units. Navy divers also carry out routine ship maintenance and construction/demolition duties.

Minimum Education: High school diploma

Hospital Corpsman

A hospital corpsman provides emergency medical and dental treatment to SEALs, Marines, and other service members injured in the field. They also serve as operating room technicians for specialized surgical operations. Furthermore, hospital corpsmen perform clinical tests and administer preventative care.

Minimum Education: Some college (associate degree preferred)

Nuclear Officer

These Navy leaders supervise, control, and command a vast fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. They oversee personnel and propulsion systems onboard these vessels and use high-tech weaponry in battle and ship defense. Nuclear officers also train newly enlisted sailors.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree in a STEM discipline

Navy Physician

Navy physicians occupy similar positions as civilian doctors, administering care to service members and their families. Unlike the majority of their civilian counterparts, however, Navy physicians enjoy an accelerated career track that involves opportunities to engage with global humanitarian efforts.

Minimum Education: Doctor of medicine

How Do I Join the Military?

This section outlines the five steps one must take to join the military, regardless of the branch. Note that these steps pertain only to enlistment leading to basic training. For information on how to become a military officer, consult each branch's official website. Before you commit to service, be sure to conduct online research about the branches of the military and what opportunities they have to offer. If possible, seek the guidance of a friend or family member who has spent time in the military.

Step 1: Meet With a Recruiter

After deciding what service branch best suits your interests and goals, speak with a recruiter at a nearby recruitment center. These professionals work for one specific branch and can answer questions about eligibility, benefits, and special circumstances -- such as whether or not having children or a physical condition affects enlistment. It is a good idea to prepare a list of questions for your recruiter in advance.

Step 2: Take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) Test

Once you confirm your decision to enlist, you will finalize the process at a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and sit for the ASVAB Test. This three-hour, multiple-choice exam evaluates what kinds of careers and military specialties align with your knowledge of math, science, and language. Scores from the ASVAB contribute to the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which determines your eligibility for enlistment in the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps.

Step 3: Undergo a Physical Fitness Evaluation

Your recruiter will explain the physical requirements as part of preliminary discussions. The subsequent fitness evaluation varies by branch but typically measures weight, height, hearing, and vision. The evaluation also tests your blood, urine, muscle groups, and joint maneuvers. Lastly, you will perform group exercises to check balance and other attributes. Depending on any medical conditions, you may be able to apply for a physical fitness waiver.

Step 4: Explore Career Opportunities and Review Enlistment Agreement With a Counselor

At this point in the process, the recruiting counselor will explain career options based on your interests, ASVAB results, and the needs of your military branch. Afterward, you will complete a pre-enlistment interview with a MEPS military processing clerk. If all goes well, this step ends with the Oath of Enlistment Ceremony, where you will sign the service contract.

Step 5: Prepare for Basic Training

Basic training spans 8-12 weeks depending on your service branch. To physically prepare for this rigorous experience, you should increase your exercise regimen. Over the first few days of basic training, you will receive immunizations, uniforms, and a required haircut. The remaining time sees you strengthening your endurance, developing skills in areas like first aid and marksmanship, and cultivating camaraderie with fellow trainees through trust exercises.

Preparing for the Military in College

Created through the National Defense Act of 1916, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) prepares college students to become military officers in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. ROTC programs are offered at 1,700 higher education institutions nationwide. Certain high schools -- particularly private institutions and military academies -- operate Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs. In exchange for a paid college education and guaranteed careers, ROTC cadets commit to eight years of military service upon graduation. Each branch facilitates its own version of ROTC training; the Army operates the most rigorous program, which consists of field training and leadership development on top of academic studies.

Review this comprehensive guide to learn more about the ROTC enrollment process and service commitments. The guide also details the financial aid available to cadets based on military branch.