The Military saving wayward youth - how true?

One trope of entertainment and popular culture is the notion that for a troubled youth (someone who has had school discipline issues and minor run-ins with the law, let’s say) service in the armed forces can set them on a better path, through instilling discipline and work ethic. But how true is this?

I doubt if this question has a clear factual answer, so please feel free to include personal anecdotes. Also, mods, please move if not appropriate for GQ.

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This is probably better suited to IMHO. Any factual information (published studies, etc) are of course still welcome.

Moving thread from GQ to IMHO.

It’s probable that many troubled youths found self respect, discipline and focus from a term of service in the military but I doubt that any firm conclusions can be drawn across the board. People are people and their troubles are more varied than we can know. With that being said, if a person chooses to enlist with some knowledge of what to expect, they’ll probably come out better than when they went in.

At one point in not too distant American history though, it was common practice for criminal court judges to give defendants a choice upon conviction, “Go to jail or join the Army.” I have a hard time believing that military service did either the Army or the coerced inductees much good.

The military gives you a secure job, 3 meals a day, a bunk, and rigid structure. Some people thrive and excel in that environment.

It’s similar to elite amatuer athletes that follow a rigid school and training schedule. Almost every moment of their day is planned for them. Some former athletes struggle afterwards because they don’t have that structure anymore.

I’ve read that the military can’t fix criminal minded people. They won’t conform to anybody’s rules. That’s why the military has its own prisons.

But somebody from a impoverished background with no future can thrive in the military. Have a very distinguished career.

A couple of anecdotes for you.

Guy #1 basically had a judge tell him that if he enlisted, the judge wouldn’t feel any need to proceed further with the legal case before him. The guy enlisted in the Marines, served in Vietnam, and came home with some shrapnel permanently embedded in his body and a purple heart for his troubles. When he got out of the Marines, he used his GI bill to get an education and had a long and successful career as an engineer. Did the Marines turn his life around? Hard for me to say. I didn’t know him personally in his youth. The military probably gave him some focus that he had been lacking before then. Then again, maybe it was nearly getting killed that changed his outlook on life.

Guy #2 was basically a screw-up. He was a nice guy, just constantly made bad decisions. He went into the Army, served in Iraq, barely managed to get out of the Army without a dishonorable discharge, and remained a screw-up afterwards. The Army definitely did not manage to instill discipline and a work ethic into him.

So, there you go. One case where the trope was possibly true, and one where it definitely was not.

Bolding mine.

I can point to at least 12 people who have told me that when given the choice, they chose the Army or the Marines. All of them said that it was one of the best decisions that they made.

A friend of mine served one tour in Vietnam as an infantryman. He then enlisted in The Corps, & served two more tours. After 33 years he retired. He still says that the judge saved his sorry a$$ from a life of crime & long prison sentences. Knowing him, I do not doubt that statement.

A cousin of mine was given this choice & serving in the US Army helped him to “get his act together”. He got to fly Hueys for most of his time in service. He eventually went to OCS, & retired after decades of service, as a Major.

I could go on, but I have other things to do today.

If either the US Army or the USMC thought that these men were not valuable assets, they would not have kept them on after the Vietnam fiasco. I recall in 1975 & 76 both of these organizations were “Outing” veterans with over 20 years of service. A lot of the lower ranking men with just one or two tours were also getting the boot. If you were offered a chance to re-enlist, you took it!

Thus, IMHO, your belief is incorrect.

I do not think that this would work with today’s Army, perhaps it would work with the Marines.

I was educated, unemployed, aimless, frequently suicidal, the kind of guy who is target of some of the nastier Pit threads (had they existed back then), and at 25 was very near to drinking myself to death or dying in an alcohol-related car crash. One day I picked up the family pistol, gave the barrel a lick, and in a rush of self-loathing thought, “No, death’s too good for a piece of shit like you.” I decided, for all intents and purposes, to go through with the deed metaphorically and cease to exist as an individual. Needing to do something with my body, I decided to lease it to the military (settled on Army). Ok? Now I do say some dumb stuff around here, but I was at least clever enough to pass a few psych evals and aptitude tests to land (and keep!) a pretty good military intel job as a linguist. Super secret clearance and everything. Guess for all the internal darkness I was able to avoid leaving clues that would be willingly given to the background investigators.

It was a huge break for me as a person. I had nothing to live for so I never got homesick, and I didn’t like who I was so I embraced the organization and let the Army create a person from me. Turns out I kept my basic self–sense of humor and tendency to overanalyze things–but in a little over a year I was transformed into a functional human being. At the time I didn’t realize I had bipolar disorder, I just figured I was moody. At any rate, the structure and the positive feedback I received apparently suppressed the worst symptoms, especially the depression, and let me actually build a personality I could be proud of. 20+years on I still look to my post-military self for strength when the symptoms get bad, and it’s enough to pull me through. I don’t allow myself to stress about the things I did beforehand because I killed that dude.

I would agree that my belief is unsubstantiated and I don’t pretend to claim otherwise. If you can provide a link to well supported, well researched post discharge interviews and examinations of service records of such coerced inductees then I would welcome the info. Until that happens, anecdote noted.

I have a relative who was given the “military or prison” choice by a judge when he was 19. He joined the Navy and spent 10+ in the Seabees (during peacetime). I won’t say it made him into a model citizen - I wouldn’t vote for him for any public office - but he’s kept his nose clean for 40 years.

First it must be said there has never been one standard for allowing people to enlist. It changes as needs change. Sometimes from month to month. Around 2004 standards were relaxed because the surge was needed. Now it’s basically back to peacetime needs and enlistment goals. Troops are still deployed but not in big numbers.

I have no doubt that in the past this was a thing. Now everything is on record and it is not easy to join. Over 75% of the target age group are not eligible to serve. One of the disqualifying categories is criminal history. If you have a record it is nearly impossible to enlist. Recruiters don’t want to waste time trying to push through a marginal candidate that will probably be disqualified. The military doesn’t want another problem child in the ranks if they can help it. I suppose it’s possible for the trope to happen if circumstances are just perfect but It’s not likely.

By all that I mean specifically the judge telling someone Army or jail. If you are at the point that you are in front of a judge it’s pretty likely you will not be qualified to enlist. Although the most fertile ground for recruiting is the middle class it is very common to find someone using the military to make the circumstances they were born into better.

Whoa! Just wanted to say this is great.

I also agree that it’s a very nice post.

Interesting that you saw your flaws as some entity that was external to you and your transformation process as starting with severing that part of you and your former self dying. It reminds me of initiation rituals which typically start with separation (from old self), transformation and integration (of new self).

Could you go on about how you replaced dysfunctional parts of your personality with functional ones? How you discovered better ways and made them into good habits you kept?

My friend’s father was one of those. He was a juvenile delinquent in the 1950’s and got the Army or jail choice from a judge. He chose the Army, served in the Korean War and had a 20+ year career in the military. He says that it saved his life.

A bit of a side post, but my dad’s story was poor-ish, rural, no education past high school, un-supportive family. He was adopted and then his parents had 3 birth children and he became a 2nd class citizen in his family. They were willing to pay for college for their “own” boys (not their girl), but not my dad. His father was a pastor of a church, very religious, and abusive by today’s standards.

Dad left home after high school, joined the Air Force, got legal tech training, got a good paying position in the AF, then called up my mom (his high school sweetheart) and said “I’m in a good place, now let’s get married”. He stayed in for 22 years. He said it saved his future for him.

He was the opposite of wayward, though. A “good boy” always.

There is an old proverb, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.”

If nothing else, the military keeps you busy during an age bracket where bored youth tend to get themselves into trouble.

It gives you a paycheck and a roof over your head, during an age bracket where poverty tempts people into crime.

Over the years, I have known a number of graduates of my state’s biggest military school. It did not fundamentally change their personalities — they were predators before, they are predators now. But it taught them how to work the system to their advantage. Once they realized that working within the system was more profitable than exhausting all their efforts in endless “rebellion”, most of them became productive citizens.

That metaphor is often used to describe boot camp.

Plus, it is a structured, organized environment, where expectations are both clear, and attainable to the average person. Lots of young men have never experienced that kind of environment. It’s no panacea, but nothing is.


If a young person’s biggest problem is the influence of family or a group of friends or neighborhood conditions, entering the military will distance them from that and provide a counter-influence.

I used to work in a crappy security job that would hire anyone, a lot of my co-workers there were ex military and liked to talk about it. Frankly, the impression that I got from many of them was that their stint in the army had just delayed the issues they had for a few years rather than solved any. I don’t think any of those guys had advanced in rank, taken any opportunities or made any attempt to ‘better’ themselves during their stint, from talking to them, though I’m not aware of any being serious screw ups in the military, they’d all been in for a number years and if any were booted out for misconduct, I think that would have got around.

Difficulty coping with the freedom and choice in civilian life wasn’t rare, and more than one of them had joined the company I worked for because the (asshole) boss was a former Sergeant Major and he ‘knew how to talk to them’ (likewise he liked them because they didn’t pay attention to normal employment laws). Some of them were serious fuckups, and scary ones at that (no, smashing up your pregnant girlfriend’s car is not a reasonable response to her going out with some friends when you told her to stay in). A couple told me about former colleagues that had coped even worse, including ending up homeless and alcoholic or dead; not from PTSD, just from not adjusting to having to make their own choices and having to make themselves follow their own rules without someone there telling them what to do. Rather than gaining a sense of responsibility in the army, they’d just learned to outsource it.

I’m sure many people do turn their life around and wind up in a better situation than when they joined up (they get better jobs than that one was), others just wind up like those guys.

I spent 30 years in the military (Navy) so there may be some bias. But I had a number of Sailors who were told join the military or go to jail. I didn’t believe this was still the case (1980s and 1990s) but it was.

I’ll say that in all cases, the guys in question kept their nose clean for the most part, although one was on the edge. I think that about half stayed in a far as I know, and the rest got out. There are several factors as work as many have pointed out. One part is that the four years in the military kept these wayward guys in check. It also allowed the normal growing up process to take root (18-22 years) so by the time they left, they had some adult tools to use, had some discipline and were just a bit older.

I can honestly say that I didn’t see anyone come out worse. And for all of the hundreds(?) of men and women that I talked to on the way out, I can’t think of one that said they came out less for it. Having said that, it’s not or everyone.