My nephew wishes to join the Army straight out of high school.
August 31, 2015 6:29 AM   Subscribe

I wish to suggest other paths to him. Help me be a good aunt to him!

T is sixteen and just starting his junior year of public high school in a prosperous Los Angeles suburb where he grew up in an upper-level economic sphere. He’s bright, not very articulate but trying, very curious about the world, bored with school, not social, and just watched his parents divorce, which he’s aware altered that economic sphere. His mother’s family includes several career army members (T’s maternal grandfather is a black man who considered the armed forces the only path out of South Carolina in the ‘40s and his two sons followed that career path); his father says the army is for dolts. T has been told by more than one former servicemember that joining as a grunt will be boring and arduous. He has little interest in college, maybe because he has little interest in high school, where he earns decent grades. He wants adventure. He believes the army will give it to him. He leans right-wing, which some of his relatives consider a reaction to his father’s Democratic politics. He is not street-smart in the least. He pretty sure he’s straight (several of his classmates come from gay homes and he’s met several of our gay friends; I trust that he’s thought about this with as little prejudice as is possible) . He has a Latino last name and is racially mixed – to look at him, you’d think he was a tan white kid. He does not exude entitlement in the least, though I think he’s becoming aware that his upbringing was privileged. He loves animals though he’s never been allowed his own pet. He has traveled internationally. He is empathetic and reactive and thoughtful. He speaks Spanish, tho has let this skill lapse somewhat. He is not overtly competitive, tho he likes challenging himself in video games. He’s mild-mannered and has a slow fuse. His sport was baseball until last year, when he changed to cross-country. He has a sister a year younger. He spent a couple weeks at a military camp this summer and liked it, and wishes to go back there next year to take medic training.

I just spent a week with him on a road trip to Northern California and noticed some trends in his thinking and comfort. He values discipline, possibly because he has little self-discipline. He values communal living such as he would get in the service, possibly because his innate preference is to be alone, as long as someone else is nearby. Of the situations I exposed him to during our trip together, he liked best the rural parts, where he could hike on rough paths (he instinctively rejected paved paths). He loves the idea that membership in the armed forces would allow him to be in rescue situations. He wants to be a hero, of course.

Because he’s sixteen and sick of home life he’s willing to give relatives a fuller hearing than to his parents, and likes me more than most relatives because I’m “cool,” i.e. am not a parent, and enjoy long conversations with him. What can I suggest he do after high school besides the armed forces? My objection to this path is political but in this instance mainly personal - I just don’t think he’ll thrive.

Oh – Coast Guard is out. A relative warned him against that and he doesn’t care for the water. Tho otherwise I think it would appeal to his rescuing-and-adventure impulses. I just told him to check out search-and-rescue dogs – he could be a handler – but that’s not much for a 16-year-old to hang his hopes on.
posted by goofyfoot to Education (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by the agents of KAOS at 6:43 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not convinced that this wouldn't be a potentially good thing for him. You say he already has had an experience with military-style instruction and enjoyed it, and the military can be a very grounding and maturing experience for a young person who doesn't have much worldly knowledge. I served 6 years in the Navy and got to see and do things I never thought I'd get the opportunity to do, and now I have many civilian career options I never would have had otherwise.

Lots of young kids come off playing Call of Duty and Battlefield and decide being an infantry grunt or going for special forces is for them, which is never as romantic as they see it. You might not be able to convince him to skip the armed forces, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The trick is to work with the recruiter because, like most branches of the armed forces, in the Army you sign up for a specific job. If he's interested in being a medic he can join and spend his whole time working at hospitals stateside and abroad without so much as looking at a gun once he gets done with boot camp.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:57 AM on August 31, 2015 [21 favorites]

My little brother decided he wanted to enlist right out of high school, but we convinced him that he'd do better in the army as an officer, and that rather than enlist right out of high school, he should go to college and participate in ROTC and then (if he still wanted to) join. He had his heart set on Army, but this way he gets exposed to a number of other options as well.

He goes to Norwich University which is a private military college (kind of like the Citadel, but in Vermont). There are a number of civilian students and there are a lot of typical college things that go on in addition to the Corps of Cadets which he is a part of. My brother THRIVED there - he's majoring in Chinese (leaves for study abroad in Shanghai in a week), trained as an EMT, participates in mountain rescue stuff, is in the Vermont National Guard, led a platoon of freshman, and is fully committed to entering the Army as an officer once he graduates - but he's in a much better position to do what he wants to do now.

It's not what any of us expected he'd be doing with his life, but he is thrilled and has turned into a really mature, responsible, intelligent, impressive adult person. If your nephew is set on it, it may not be a bad path for him.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:04 AM on August 31, 2015 [30 favorites]

The Norwich idea made me think of the Corps of Cadets at Virginia Tech if the idea of a bigger university appeals to him. There are also ample opportunities to be involved in things like the rescue squad as well.
Texas A&M has a similar program and is closer to home if that matters.
posted by bowmaniac at 7:19 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

You don't actually say what his parents' wishes are (although I presume his father is opposed). Are they happy with you discussing this with him? Just a thought, however, given that he is only 16, have you considered that your help might not be appreciated?

Bear in mind that, given that you imply there has been a recent divorce, there might be a some raw nerves that could be triggered if one side of the family is being seen to put pressure on the kid to do something that is against the wishes of the other side of the family (you don't say which side of the family you fall on).
posted by oclipa at 7:19 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Echoing ChuraChura - my younger brother was very much set on joining the army out of high school and my older brother and I convinced him to go the ROTC route instead.

He was much like your nephew in that he was bored of school, wanted more discipline etc. Just being in ROTC prompted a lot of change in how he approached life. Even if being exposed to other options doesn't dissuade him from joining the army, he will be in a better position in the army and will have better prospects after leaving.
posted by nolnacs at 7:23 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

while in high school he can join the national guard


and get benefits toward college if he decides to go, or use the guard as part time work, and get sense of military life
posted by Postroad at 7:56 AM on August 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

I also think ROTC is a good option for you to bring up to him. College itself opens up a lot of possibilities and adventures, and is a great version of communal living where you can have your own space and still be around other people. Being in ROTC helps provide you with discipline and a smaller community within the campus.

In the nearer term, it sounds like pursuing medical/rescue training (whether at the military camp or after school) would be a good way to work towards his goal of working in a rescue capacity. If he's bored by high school right now, this type of hands-on learning could be a good way to balance that out. He should also look into volunteer options with EMTs, a fire department, or a search-and-rescue squad.

It sounds like a lot of your role could be in listening to him and helping him expand his range of options. The Army might be the right choice for him in the end, but it does sound as though he's not exploring a lot of other choices right now. If you can position yourself in a non-parent, non-authority role, you may be able to have some helpful discussions about what he values about "adventure" and being a hero, and where he might be able to look for those things. For example, when my mother was young she thought she wanted to be a flight attendant, because she wanted to travel; instead she went into business in a field that allowed her to travel extensively and use her communication skills. At 16 it can be difficult to have a sense of the options out there - hopefully you can help expand his horizons!
posted by earth by april at 7:58 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Exactly what I wish to do!
posted by goofyfoot at 8:11 AM on August 31, 2015

Agree with the suggestions of National Guard or firefighter. Hotshot firefighters are badly needed anow — it sounds up his alley and while it's dangerous so is war.
posted by Brittanie at 8:40 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

A friend's son just went in to the Air Force Reserve and is in EMT training now that he just finished basic. Once his training is complete, he'll be a certified EMT and thus able to get a job, plus he'll be in the USAF Reserves for the next 4 years. Sounds like a path that might work for your nephew if he doesn't want to go to college.
posted by COD at 9:13 AM on August 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

Coast Guard. Reserves. Peace Corps.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:30 AM on August 31, 2015

Make sure that he talks to a DEDICATED ROTC recruiter before he makes his decision. The best way is to contact the program at a college he thinks he can be admitted to and would want to attend. (That's the link for Army ROTC; you can get similar links for Navy/Marine and Air Force.) At the risk of oversimplifying, smart, worldly athletes with a desire for adventure are EXACTLY what the Army wants for someone who'll be joining the officer corps in 2020.

Storefront recruiters are very focused on generating the highest-quality enlisted recruits, and the best enlisted recruit is someone who's officer material but doesn't go officer -- so they aren't likely to produce a balanced assessment. (Among other things, they tend to make converting from enlisted to officer sound a lot easier than it in fact is, and much easier than it is likely to be with significant cuts in junior officer ranks expected in the next several years.)
posted by MattD at 9:31 AM on August 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

How decent are his grades, actually? Could he be eligible for one of the official military academies (West Point, USAFA, etc.), if he started working toward that goal now?
posted by yarntheory at 9:55 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Of the situations I exposed him to during our trip together, he liked best the rural parts, where he could hike on rough paths (he instinctively rejected paved paths). He loves the idea that membership in the armed forces would allow him to be in rescue situations. He wants to be a hero, of course.

It pains me to say this, but he might consider the Air Force. I concur with college and ROTC as well.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:57 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have two sons who sound similar. One is in the Corp of Cadets at Virginia Tech. He loves it. His college experience is much different than mine, (he is leaving at 5:30am, I was coming in, etc.) but as he puts it, "I am not having fun, but I love what I do." He is also a volunteer firefighter and a certified EMT, so there is that too.

My other son just joined the Coast Guard rather than go to college. He just was not into school and did not want to waste my money or take out loans for something he was not ready for. We considered the Army, Marines and the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is a great option and a great choice for my son. Your nephew would have to look into it. I know there is a member here who loves to suggest the Coast Guard, although I cannot remember his user name. Essentially what we found was that the Coast guard offered the discipline he was seeking, but more of an everyday "adventure" than the other branches of the military. If you are in the CG, there is a big chance you are dealing with something (rescue, drug seizure, etc) every day but while in the other branches, you train most of the time. With the Coast Guard, the commitment can be 4 years so that is one difference where I think the Army commitment is 2 years at a time.

Both of my sons were varsity athletes in high school. They both are volunteer firefighters. One is an EMT. Although very different from each other, they are both empathetic, sympathetic, polite and very competitive like your nephew.

To me, if I were you, I would try to present him with various options and let him choose rather than suggest the Army is not the way to go but choice x is. If he chooses the Army, support that decision.
posted by AugustWest at 9:58 AM on August 31, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'll also chime in that as a parent now on my THIRD 17 year old, people this age change their minds. Obviously the trick is not to say that to them because it implies you're minimizing their feelings, but continue to discuss many ideas and let that change happen (or not) organically.
posted by kinetic at 11:41 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think the best thing you can do is to really engage with him about what his hopes are--why the army? what does he think it'll be like? are there any parts that seem more exciting than others? parts that seem daunting? parts that seem boring? what has he learned from talking to former service members? what about talking to current service members? are there other career paths he considered before settling on this one? what made the army more appealing?

Really listen to him. Don't offer counter-arguments. Don't tell him why he's wrong. Don't even make suggestions. Wait. Make sure he fully trusts that you understand his vision for himself, his hopes, his expectations. Then you'll have credibility to--weeks or months from now--start making little suggestions. "I heard about this sport/hobby/volunteer opportunity that I thought you might like--have you ever tried it?" or "I know you said XYZ book you're reading for English is super boring, I wondered if you might enjoy this really excellent book I just finished--I'd love to discuss it with you and get your take on it." Things that don't necessarily prevent him from joining the army, but that will broaden his worldview beyond boring school vs exciting army.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:23 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

See if you can get him to consider a gap year experience. The one I know about is a year of living communally, in the country, learning things like carpentry, organic farming, shed building for the farm, etched. Costs are similar to one year of college (maybe even a state school), but there are scholarships available. There's a schedule invved, which could hit his need for discipline.

After a year, I bet he'd have much better idea of what he'd like to do next, and the military would still be there, if he wants it. He'd also see a wide array of possibilities that are neither military or college.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:57 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Teaching English or working as an au pair overseas.
posted by bile and syntax at 3:14 PM on August 31, 2015

Response by poster: This is very helpful - thank you all. I should say that when military colleges are suggested to T he says no, though I'll present these options. Anything that offers him EMT training would appeal to him. Maybe I should undergo CERT training with him so he gets an understanding of rescue work?

He's reacted positively to the idea of a gap year but money is tight. What program are you referencing, vitabellosi?
posted by goofyfoot at 5:40 PM on August 31, 2015

I have no problems with the military per se, but you do have to choose what you do IN the military wisely. Even people who make a career out of it eventually retire, and that could be before the age of 40. While the intangibles the military gives you are nothing to sneeze at, there's something to be said for having a valuable blue collar or tech skill and a decade or more of experience in it when you're done.

they tend to make converting from enlisted to officer sound a lot easier than it in fact is

Same with earning your degree in your spare time while serving. Sure, there are resources for you to do that, but you'll have a lot less time and attention for it than they make it sound like. Plus, unpredictable deployment schedules and duty hours make it nearly impossible to commit to an in-person, brick-and-mortar class. Online and distance learning are better than nothing, but not the same.
posted by ctmf at 6:15 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not exactly a career path, but programs that might help him sort things out:
Civil Air Patrol -- Air Force auxiliary, does emergency services.
Exploring -- Connected to the Boy Scouts. Different posts have different career focuses.

Also, community colleges offer EMT and firefighter training.
posted by maurreen at 9:09 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

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