Once Upon a Time
Much to the surprise of people I meet these days I was at one point in the Navy. Looking back, it was the hardest time of my life.
I had joined the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at the age of 18 when I wanted to go to the University of Colorado but couldn't pay the out of state tuition. The Navy generously offered to pay for my college and in return I owed them time in service after graduation. When I was offered a full ride scholarship to the school of my dreams I only had one question, where do I sign?
ROTC is a phenomenal program. Students are well educated and given responsibilities at an age where most of the world looks at you like you're too young to drive.
The only thing negative I'd have to say about the ROTC program itself is they didn't do a great job of prepping you mentally for the stresses of active duty. The summer training tended to sugar coat it by focusing on the fun rather than the challenges we'd face.
At 18 You're Brain is Still Growing
At 18 years of age you've still got a long way to go to reach maturity. In fact, your brain is still developing.
The fact that our brains aren’t developed until the mid 20s means that “legal adults” (those age 18+) are allowed to make adult decisions, without fully mature brains. Someone who is 18 may make riskier decisions than someone in their mid-20s in part due to lack of experience, but primarily due to an underdeveloped brain. Mental Health Daily
It's hard to say if or how I would have turned out differently had I gone a different path. But I wonder now if I would have handled the emotional and mental challenges better had I joined at 25 rather than 18.
I applied and got into the submariner pipeline which begins with more than a year of training in nuclear engineering management. It was a grueling process that stretched many of us to our mental limits, in good ways and bad.
The stress and relative immaturity made for a mental health challenge I'd never faced before. Not handling it well started a domino effect that toppled my life sideways. Stress, anxiety, loss of personal relationships, loss of self esteem, and loss of health quickly followed. I was out of my depths.
I had slipped a disk and was going to regular physio appointments. I felt deeply isolated even though I was constantly around others. I'd started drinking to cope and honestly had thoughts like, "if I crashed my car and broke my leg I wonder how many weeks off I'd get?" Not the proudest moment of my life.
Fortunately I was self aware enough to know I needed some help. Unfortunately the only option I knew of was to make a doctor's appointment and say these words, "I think I'm a danger to myself." In the military those seven words begin a new set of dominoes.
- You're immediately withdrawn from your duties
- You're scheduled a psych evaluation (in my case this was weeks later)
- Your assigned to some light desk duty to help give you something to do
The evaluation deemed me mentally fit to serve but the process had exited me from the submarine pipeline. I spent the next couple of months working the light desk job and applying to different areas of the Navy. Intel, surface warfare, flight, tech. All areas at the time were overmanned and denied my application. Being stuck in no-man's land lasted a couple months more before the Navy offered me an early discharge.
I still have a lot of guilt over the net result of my service. If I'd managed my mental state better could I have flourished? If I'd chosen a different path besides submarines would the outcome have been different? Those questions will always be with me.
Hard at 22, Unfathomable at 18
The Navy friends I've stayed in touch with have all been changed significantly from their service. It's probably the biggest challenge any of us will face. If that's the case for college educated 22 year-olds entering the service then imagine how it affects the kids who enlist and begin serving at the age of 18.
Some join before they've ever lived on their own, before they've owned a credit card, and before they've had sex. It's hard to imagine the human I'd be today if I'd joined at 18, trained for a couple of months, and started serving active duty time in the world at large. Wow.
On the one hand I'm awed by the bravery of youth. On the other I'm embarrassed that human civilization has been built upon the shoulders of people so young.
Want to fight a war? Awesome, let's just recruit tens of thousands of kids, train them to follow orders, and give them high powered weaponry.
That model feels antiquated and disturbing to me, maybe it always has been.
We Currently Fill our Front Lines with our Youngest
Here's a chart with the age distribution of our different military services.
Chart from Statistics Brain
Check out the 18-21 column. The Marine Corps is double that of the next closest service. They also are the service most likely to see intense combat because the Marine Corps often serves on the front line. To fill this position the Marine Corps recruits 18-21 year-olds. There must be a better way.
Short of Raising the Age of Enlistment, Let's Try This
A possible solution would be to raise the minimum age of enlisting into the Marine Corps and incentivize people from other services to transfer into the Marine Corps. That would have two benefits. It would protect our 18 year-old service men and women from the worst part of war and it would produce more experienced Marines.
Another solution would be to stop going to war so often. But unfortunately that's not the way of the world right now.
Give Thanks, Give Support
Sending 18 year-olds to war isn't likely to change. The best we can do right now is support service men and women of all ages while they're serving and after. If you know someone in the service who's struggling with it, reach out to them, let them know you're there and that everything in life keeps changing. Where they are now is only temporary.
When their service is over they'll face another challenge, Transitioning from the Military Box.