Once in a while I'm asking my Thoughts on Military Service. An anonynous blog reader sent the following questions. It's been a while since I wore the uniform, but at least some of you readers might care to offer your own thoughts? I'll try to answer what I can.
I got into IT after graduating from college with non-technical majors and decided that I was actually interested in areas of practical science, such as: physical computing, engineering (mechanical, electrical, and design), robotics, aerospace, and programming. IT was a great primer for some practical work experience, but after my stint with [a security company] I'm evaluating if I want to acquire more direct technical training with the things I'm passionate about.
So, here's my barrage of questions; please feel free to answer however you want, I'm simply organizing the thoughts rumbling around in my head. If I left anything relevant out, which I'm certain I did, then please mention it.
1) What was your technical experience in the Air Force? Would you recommend it?
I spent a little over two years as a "real" intelligence officer, with my technical skills directed towards selecting targets in the former Yugoslavia and planning information warfare campaigns. In the fall of 1998 I managed to be reassigned to the AFCERT where I did hands-on technical incident detection, until I left the service in February 2001.
I owe my subsequent career in this field to my time in the Air Force, although no one handed me anything on a silver platter. I'll say more about recommendations shortly.
2) Is the ROTC an appropriate program for the technical skills I want to build? Would I be able to get hands on experience but also have support, primarily financial, for requisite schooling?
ROTC does not teach anything technical. The goal is to prepare you to be an officer, not provide any specialist skills. You wouldn't attend ROTC anyway since you have a degree. More on that later.
3) What particulars about Air Force technical training would you focus on?
I'm not sure I follow this question. However, the Air Force and all military services follow a three-step process for training. First you enjoy some sort of entry-level training, involving "basic training" where the goal is to transform you into a lean mean fighting machine. My entry into the USAF was through the Air Force Academy, which was a four year degree program. Next comes training for the specialty you will perform in the service, although this is really just an introduction. My specialty training was military intelligence, which was a nine month program. Finally you will get on-the-job training, where you learn the specifics of your first assignment. That happened at Air Intelligence Agency in my case.
4) What are the glaring weaknesses that you encountered?
If you're talking about training, I guess the biggest problem is the disconnect between what the school house thinks is important vs the real world. That's not unique to the military, but it places a burden on the on-the-job trainers, none of whom are really trainers! If you don't find a good initial mentor, you can be lost. I can thank Jesse Coultrap in my first planning role and Cheryl Knecht at the AFCERT for watching out for me.
5) Is a military program preferable over the alternatives, such as civilian work experience or going back to school? I.e. Is the this type of program a good way to save me time and money in these pursuits? I'm 23 years old if that gives you some idea.
At 23, with a degree, military service is still an option. Don't join the military just for training. We are fighting two wars with plenty other action occurring. Join the military to join the military.
6) Is there flexibility to pick up other skills? Let's say I do some electrical/computer engineering, would the idea that I also want to program or learn about aerospace be encouraged?
Some will disagree, but I bet a lot of readers will agree that, once you join, you become the property of the military. Some people I know tend to live charmed lives where they go from one awesome job to the next. Others can't wait to leave, once their commitment expires. This tends to result in senior leaders saying "isn't the service awesome?" They can't understand why some of their juniors aren't happy, since their careers have been so great!
7) Do you know anything about Naval equivalents regarding technical skills (or any other program out there)?
Navy?!? Are you kidding me?!? Seriously, all of the services are ramping up their "cyber" arms. I'm even going to speak at Annapolis soon. I can put you in touch with some Middies if you want.
8) How's Air Force life, generally?
Wow, big question. I could use some input from active duty folks here. Let me say that I personally found the burden on my family too heavy to stay in uniform. That was before Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was in the Air Force, not the Army or Marine Corps. I don't know how those guys can manage. They sacrifice everything.
9) Would it be better to go through an officer program or enlist straight up?
Since you have a degree, you should apply for Officer Candidate School or Officer Training School, depending on the service. I'm not disrespecting enlisted people, but if you have your degree I think many enlisted people would recommend getting your commission. The pay differential alone is worth it.
I'd appreciate comments from any other readers. Thank you.