However, all those great things come at a price: being completely, utterly out of control of your own life. When Uncle Sam said jump, I'd have to respond "How high?" No, make that, "How high, sir?"
I made up a pro-con list, and there were definitely quite a few perks. Physical activity and conditioning, lifelong benefits, travel, adventure. Not to mention that by the end of those three years, not only would I be debt-free, but I'd have enough money in the bank for a down payment on a house.
The downsides, however, far outweighed the advantages. The most obvious con is that I'd have virtually no control over where I was sent. I'd get to 'request' a site, sure, but everyone I've spoken to has admitted that the chances of getting your top pick, or even one of your top five picks, are "slim to none" (and I don't imagine that my status as a "single" woman would help me out any in the competition, where countless others will be able to play the "wife and kids" card). Not to mention that those thirty days of paid vacation are the only thirty days of leave a person gets. If I were sent to San Diego (where a lot of people go), I'd be able to see Liz, oh, maybe once every three months.
Related to that, as well as to my "single" comment -- I'd be essentially 'going back into the closet' in terms of my relationship. Yes, Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) will probably be repealed before I would ever serve, but I'm not foolish enough to think that people's attitudes are magically going to change with Obama's signature on the new law. Just because I couldn't be kicked out for my sexuality doesn't mean that it wouldn't be used against me in other ways. And no one can predict the future -- what if it doesn't get repealed quickly? I'd have signed up for a voluntary three years of never being able to bring my partner on base, never hold her hand while in uniform, never even mention her name aloud to anyone. It would be as if she didn't exist, as if that part of me didn't exist... which is exactly what I've spent the past three years trying to acknowledge, not deny. She's told me countless times that if I really, truly wanted this, that she'd support me in it, but I know the emotional fallout would be devastating to both of us. She'd be missing me and feeling as if I were voluntarily denying her existence, and I'd be missing her and feeling guilty for making things so emotionally and financially difficult for her.
My next point is probably best summed up in terms of an exchange I had with my mother when I was in high school. We were watching some Danny DeVito movie about the Army, and as I watched the characters climb the challenge tower, I said, "You know, it might be kinda fun to be in the Army."
Without missing a beat, my mother replied dryly, "Jessica, you have to submit to authority. That's not your strong suit!"
Right she was, and that's still true today. I just don't do well with arbitrary instructions, or people 'pulling rank' on me, or ignorant gun-toting conservatives loudly asserting their backward values. I was warned by several people that I'd have to be able to let those types of things roll off my back, and although I'd like to believe I could, if I'm honest, I'm really not sure I could survive in that type of environment.
After an agonizing 48 hours with all these thoughts rattling around in my head, I came to the conclusion that joining up would, in reality, be a purely financial decision... which is generally not a good reason to do anything. Being in the military isn't something I really, truly want from the bottom of my heart (in fact, it isn't something I ever desired in the least before I found myself in this frightening student loan situation), and I think that for a decision this big, there has to be a motivating force beyond that of money. There are, of course, a lot of perks other than the finances -- but they're all things that I can get from other areas of my life. For example, I can certainly travel the world without joining the Air Force; millions of people do it every day. I'm a credit union member, so I'll already get good rates on house and car loans without military help. I'll be working in the medical field, so I'll have medical, dental, and life insurance provided for me. And as for the physical conditioning, well, what have I been doing for the past six years? Joining swim teams and training for marathons, that's what. I don't need to be a military servicewoman to stay in shape.
Therefore, I've decided not to do it. I just can't get the image out of my head of myself in my cap and gown, sitting with my class on graduation day. Everyone else would be smiling, excited to go out and begin their careers -- and I'd be wide-eyed and panic-stricken, thinking mutely to myself, "What have I done?"
I was right to explore the idea, because it really did have a lot of advantages, and when I look back on this time in my life in ten years, I'll need to understand the decision I made and know that I would make the same choice again if it were presented to me a second time. It's much like the Duke versus ECU decision -- you all remember that. I thought and thought and thought about it, and eventually decided that the many advantages of Duke (great reputation, here in the area, option to study abroad, higher starting salary, etc.) made it worth the higher price. Today, I can still tell you all the reasons that I made that choice, and I still believe one hundred percent that I made the right one.
The Air Force idea, I realize now, was attractive because it was a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. I haven't been afraid of a lot of things in my life, but the idea of $100,000+ in loans is absolutely terrifying to me. Joining up would make the money a moot point. But I can't make a decision like this out of fear. Just because my current financial situation is stressful and scary (right now, I can't even afford a haircut until next payday) doesn't mean that I will always be unable to pay off debt. I have to trust that Duke will provide me with the education and training I need to land my dream job, and that I will in turn be able to pay down my loans relatively quickly without too much financial hardship.
My money situation at twenty-eight or -nine will be quite different from how it is now, at twenty-six. I know that, but I don't really believe it yet -- after all, things have been this hard, if not harder, for the entire three years that I have been an independent adult. When I actually start believing that my life can and will change, I think some of the fear will begin to dissipate.