Can Enlisting Put the Past Behind You?

Young man running through field

Dale Reubin / Getty Images

Using the military to escape your past and transform yourself is a long-fabled concept. The idea of losing yourself and forging a new identity in the profession of arms is best captured by the popular image of the French Foreign Legionnaire, who escapes a sordid past and assumes a new name far from the land of his birth.

And the rags-to-ranks (-to-riches) story of the citizen-soldier, especially since the introduction of the Montgomery GI Bill in 1944, has been a part of countless American success stories.

But does it work?

Legal Troubles

Let’s skip the idea that you can escape a jail sentence by enlisting. Rod Powers covers that topic very well in his article "Join the Military or Go To Jail?" Here, let's focus on escaping one’s personal history—bad neighborhoods, bad families, bad relationships, et cetera.

Success Stories

Without digging up statistics, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that people have used an enlistment (or a full career) in the U.S. military to transcend their troubled backgrounds. I've heard many contemporaries speak of visiting their hometown after years away in the service, only to find with each (often less frequent) visit that “everything is the same”—including the same dead-end folks from high school making little of themselves. In the meantime, the professional soldier has seen and done more than most at home can even digest.

One of the most famous examples from U.S. history is Ulysses S. Grant, a lackluster student and an unsuccessful farmer who found his calling as commander of all U.S. forces during the Civil War, received Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and later served as the 18th President of the United States (arguably not a very good one, but still.)

Closer to home, I know that my late grandfather-in-law—a U.S. Marine in World War II who later retired as a sergeant major in the reserves—escaped a working-class background, an abusive father, and the slums of Depression-era Brooklyn to become a respected civil servant, scion of his community, and comfortable dual-pensioner of the armed forces and U.S. Postal Service.

Even I used the military to escape some of my troubles. With a middle-class background, a strong mother, and an excellent education, I can’t lay much claim to a troubled life. But for me, joining the Marines was how I learned to “be a man” after witnessing my parents’ divorce, spending my adolescence as a quiet and unpopular kid, and lacking strong male role models.

Escaping Emotional Problems

Not so fast, though. The fact is, our intangible problems aren't so easy to run away from.

In my case, growing up in fast-forward through boot camp and beyond gave me a lot of tools, but it didn’t resolve the burden of my parents’ divorce, which lay buried and unexamined in the meantime. As a result, I’ve been through therapy, relationship issues, and even divorce at an early age. My experience as a Marine equipped me to face those challenges, but it wasn’t the cure.

I knew this later in my career when I took on the role of career planner and encountered some young Marines hoping to escape to another job, another duty station, another life—all to run away from deep emotional grief with their families and partners.

My advice for them: These are problems that will follow you no matter where you go. They can be dealt with only by facing them head-on and seeking support. Ignore them at your peril.

Financial Obligations

Having discussed emotional issues, here’s a brief footnote on escaping your financial obligations—because there isn’t much to say. Divorced and paying support to a spouse or children? Trying to get out of debt? It’s not going to work, plain and simple.

In fact, joining the military puts you firmly on the grid as far as the government is concerned—a grid where they can yank your entire paycheck without your permission to cover debts like unpaid child support. (You really would have to join the French Foreign Legion if that’s all you’re after, though I'm not so sure it's that simple for them anymore, either.)

A Note About Reservists

It goes without saying that by joining the reserves—performing part-time duty right near your home—it’s not as easy to escape as for an active duty enlistee.

However, you still receive the training, camaraderie, experiences, and benefits that can be your tools for success. Remember how I was talking about my own “escape” from troubles? For most of my ten years in the Marine Corps, I was a drilling reservist, living (between training and overseas deployments) right where I grew up. How about that?