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These 4 People Joined the Military To Escape Poverty: Here Are Their Stories

·14 min read

Fewer than 1% of U.S. adults currently serve in the military. Fewer than 10% are veterans. These dwindling percentages are representative of the modern era: One in which citizens aren’t being drafted to war, and can instead choose a career path befitting them.

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However, not everyone has equal access to a career path, or even a job in general. According to EducationData.org, the average cost for a four-year college education in America is $35,720 — an amount that’s tripled in 20 years and grows at an annual rate of nearly 7%. For those who bypass higher education, they face a federal minimum wage that hasn’t changed in 12 years. Even with many cities raising minimum wages, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in 2020 that full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in 95% of U.S. counties.

So, while the long-celebrated “Warrior Ethos” speaks to bravery, heroism and selflessness — and those things do attract recruits to the U.S. military — there’s something to be said about free healthcare, free education and a roof over your head.

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Military service does require a great deal of sacrifice, but it can be just as rewarding. These are the stories of four veterans who joined not just to serve their country, but as a way to achieve financial security they’d never had before.

Gerald

I thought it was more likely that I would end up in jail than get the chance to use my education toward a job.”

Gerald Gangaram is a retired U.S. Army major and Apache helicopter pilot. After graduating from West Point in 2007, he attended flight school and later served a combat tour during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He earned his MBA from Georgetown University and now works to educate others on resilience, mentorship and other core values he learned in the military.

What was your financial situation like before you joined the military?

I grew up at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder — a single mom doing her very best to make ends meet for my sister and me in New York City. While she worked multiple jobs, my mom wanted me to focus on academics, but when I entered high school my focus was on hitting the school gym to “bulk up” for my fate with incarceration. I thought it was more likely that I would end up in jail than get the chance to use my education toward a job.

What were your reasons for joining the military?

I was looking to join the military as a way of serving my country and leading, especially after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. However, joining the military as an officer also enabled me to get a college education that I never thought would be possible.

I was “accidentally” enrolled in a JROTC program, where the Army instructors saw a propensity for leadership in me and showed me another path. When the time came to apply for college, and Ret. 1SG Gogarty asked me where I was applying, I told him I wasn’t going anywhere — that I did not have the money for college application fees, let alone college. At this point in my life, he knew I was considering joining the military, and told me about a school that had no application fees: the United States Military Academy at West Point. It was the only school I applied to, and thankfully I got in.

How did your military service impact your personal finances?

After graduating from West Point, I went to flight school at Fort Rucker. A friend and I were roommates in a two-bedroom townhouse. I told my mom how it had central air conditioning and heat, something we didn’t have growing up. She drove down from NYC on a visit to see it for herself. When she was leaving after the “grand tour,” she noticed a closet and asked what was inside; it was the laundry room, with a washer and dryer. She started to cry and said “You made it, boy.” Success was a washer and dryer, something else I had never had growing up. Needless to say, my financial situation was drastically different before and after joining the military.

A couple of years ago, I was medically retired from the Army after a head injury. Thankfully, my military retirement income will always give me peace of mind that I will never live in poverty again.

Would you recommend military service to a young person today as a means to get out of poverty?

I recommend military service for those who want to serve their country. While it certainly can be a means of bettering yourself on multiple fronts, including financially, the desire to serve should always be attached to it. This is not a commitment to be taken lightly — there is sacrifice involved — but it can open your eyes to other opportunities that many of us never knew existed because of the limited scope we may have had growing up.

Learn: How Much Do Veterans Make From Military Retirement?

Daniel

“I joined the Army because my single mother could not afford me and my sister.”

Daniel Kilburn is a retired senior drill sergeant who spent 33 years in the U.S. Army. His service allowed him to earn his MBA and eventually achieve not only financial stability, but financial success. He now works as a consultant, speaker and coach.

What was your financial situation like before you joined the military?

I recall having one set of clothes for the entire school year in 10th grade. I would cut two or three sets of cardboard inserts for my shoes every night before sleep — the soles of my shoes had holes in them — (and) I walked through one school district to get to mine. I did not have the 25 cents for the bus.

I washed my clothes by hand every night and hung them on hangers off the wall heater to dry. I hoped they would not get burnt by the gas heater, and that my mother would see them and ask me why they were there. Fortunately, they never got burnt, and my mother never noticed them. I never told her I only had one set of clothing, because I was told at a very young age to never ask for anything because I will not get it.

There was always milk in the fridge, and a glass of milk was breakfast. And quite often a glass of milk was dinner. As hard as I can, I do not remember lunch.

What were your reasons for joining the military?

I come from a very patriotic clan. All of the men on my mother’s side of the family served in the military. WWII, Korea, Bay of Pigs. I knew this, and as a child, I wanted to be a soldier — that’s what we did. At 15 years old I actively started researching the military as a place to be. It was apparent to me that my mother could not afford to raise my sister and me. I had a long relationship with a recruiter and the papers were drawn up; I presented them to my mother on my 17th birthday and enlisted in the U.S. Army two days later.

How did your military service impact your personal finances?

(For the first time), I was actually making money. And I was always broke because I did not know what to do, except spend it. I took a 10-year break in service. Once I reenlisted it took some time to figure out the finances — I was still uneducated on financial planning. A tipping point did come, where as a single father I could support two daughters, the bills were always paid and there was always food in the fridge.

(Now), my financial situation is above average as a single-wage earner. Statistically, my personal income is 33% above the median household income for the state I live in. This includes W-2 employment and retirement income from the U.S. Army. Of course, my situation would be different if I did not join the U.S. Army. Quite simply, I would not be receiving a military pension.

Would you recommend military service to a young person today as a means to get out of poverty?

Yes, if the individual is capable of learning and taking positive action. It will not matter how much you are making in any profession if you cannot manage the money. I have seen many people ruin their military careers because they could not manage their finances. And I have seen many people excel beyond their wildest dreams because they were able to manage their newfound economic resources.

Related: 5 Unique Financial Challenges Faced by Military Families

Sonja

As a young mother at the time, providing for my children was the utmost important thing for me.”

Dr. Sonja Stribling is a retired U.S. Army major who spent 21 years in service, including three combat tours and 15 months in Iraq. After leaving the military, she decided to use her training and experience to help empower women in both their personal and professional lives. Known for her transparency through struggle, she’s the author of the bestselling book “The Divorce That Saved My Life” and recipient of the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award.

What was your financial situation like before you joined the military?

I grew up in a small town in Arkansas. My dad was a sharecropper and my mother was a housekeeper. Money was something my family did not have a lot of growing up, so joining the military seemed like an incredible way to learn important life lessons, as well as receiving financial stability. As a young mother at the time, providing for my children was the utmost important thing for me.

What were your reasons for joining the military?

Seven of my siblings were in the military. I remember growing up and seeing the “Be All You Can Be” Army stickers, and Army uniforms in my parent’s closet, (and) it just seemed like the thing to do next.

How did your military service impact your personal finances?

After I retired from the military, I found myself laying on the couch thinking about my future. I wanted to find something that brought me happiness. I began sharing my story on social media, and it dawned on me that my transparency about my past was helping (other) women. The messages I received blew my mind, and led me to creating a new business about empowering women and helping them find their inner power. I’ve coached over 300,000 women to date, and (it’s) led me to grow a sustainable seven-figure business. The military taught me (how) to believe in myself, to find my inner strength and to overcome any issue. My financial stability is because of my time in the military teaching me about resiliency and to always serve others to find their greater purpose.

If I didn’t join the military, I’m not sure I would be here today.

Would you recommend military service to a young person today as a means to get out of poverty?

Honestly, I don’t think a young person should join the military to escape poverty, but to receive the necessary skills and personal development that the military will offer to create a better life.

Find Out: The Top 10 Cities for Military Families, According to Experts

Anonymous

The military was the only way out of the poverty I’d grown up in, and even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, the only way out of a marriage I desperately needed to escape.”

This person decided to remain anonymous; but shares their story of courage and financial empowerment through military service.

What was your financial situation like before you joined the military?

Prior to joining the military, I graduated college with just over $50,000 in student loans, in August of 2006 – right (before) the Great Recession. I was married and had two biological children with my husband, and had adopted my younger brother. My husband’s work industry was volatile, and the only jobs I could find had been in 100% commission sales (also volatile) and part-time retail management. Because of the ebb and flow of our income, the kids received Medicaid, but my husband and I had no health insurance. I was waiting for a full-time management position to come open so I could leave my sales job and have access to health insurance.

My marriage was not a good one. … He spent money faster than I could pay the bills, in what I know now was an attempt to keep me trapped. Just trying to juggle keeping the lights and water on with active car insurance was a struggle. My family was always poor, and once he’d managed to alienate me from almost everyone who’d been part of my life before him, I had nowhere to go and no ability to find a job that would allow me to support myself and my kids in a sharp economic downturn.

What were your reasons for joining the military?

One of the few friends I had left was married to a service member, and her life looked very, very different from my own. They had four children and were living well on a single income. She had none of the struggles that I had, and could do simple things like go to the doctor. It was impossible not to be envious, especially since what I wanted was a basic standard of living.

But changing the structure of my life required my husband to agree to let me join the military. I spent time talking up the benefits, how good it would be for the kids to have a more stable life, and when he got really sick and couldn’t go to the doctor and missed almost two weeks of work, he agreed we should go talk to a recruiter.

Ultimately, the military was the only way out of the poverty I’d grown up in, and even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, the only way out of a marriage I desperately needed to escape.

How did your military service impact your personal finances?

Today, my life looks very different. … I’m now separated from the military, and happily married to an active duty service member I was once stationed with. We have custody of my children and another child together. We’re paying for our oldest’s college education and expect to do the same for our other two. We have everything we need, and a whole lot of what we want.

I’m now able to work in my dream job, borne of being able to afford to work in a part-time, entry-level position “to get my foot in the door” because we could afford to live on his income alone. The freedom that came with not having to worry about healthcare, the benefits of on-base housing and a steady and reliable paycheck allowed me to take that step, which has now resulted in me being a leader in my field in a career where I can also work anywhere.

We have a healthy savings account, retirement accounts and the ultimate privilege for two people who grew up in poverty: our bills are on autopay and we don’t worry about it. Our kids think family vacations are the norm and the two oldest don’t ever remember a time where they came home and found the electricity had been disconnected for nonpayment.

Would you recommend military service to a young person today as a means to get out of poverty?

I often say the Air Force gave me my whole life, but few people know how true that really is. Because of that reality, I can’t not recommend military service as a way out of poverty. However, it’s not an automatic.

I highly recommend all service members, but especially those who grew up poor, take advantage of the financial counseling that is available through various base entities, and spend time learning about finances outside of those channels as well. There’s a trope about the young troop who buys a Camaro at 19% interest as soon as they get out of technical training because this is the most money they’ve ever had, only to realize six months later they can’t actually afford it. It also would have been really helpful for me to have known about the SCRA as I was digging my way out of the debt my ex had accumulated in our joint names, because the caps on interest rates would have made it a lot easier.

I wasn’t immune to the ignorance that comes with suddenly having a steady paycheck and definitely made a few mistakes, as did my now-husband when he first joined. We could have been better off much faster than we were had we known more about personal finance.

I am forever grateful that the military gave me a way out, and gave my husband a way out. People who start out like we did seldom make it out, make it to where we are now. So yes, I do and have recommended those trapped in poverty look at military service as an opportunity to make a better life, but there are other costs there.

The cost of your life being in danger. The cost of innumerable holidays, birthdays and anniversaries celebrated without you, or alone. The childbirths missed, the moves to new places where you and your entire family have to start their lives over, the cost of pursuing an education later in life and delaying your civilian career so that you’re starting in entry-level positions once you separate, working with people a decade or more younger than you and struggling to make the transition. The PTSD and chronic anxiety.

But when the other options are to starve to death, or be homeless, or never knowing what it’s like to be able to attain a basic standard of living that isn’t always on the verge of collapsing — well, it’s a cost many are willing to bear, and I have no regrets. But I’m also still alive to say that.

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Last updated: May 14, 2021

This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: These 4 People Joined the Military To Escape Poverty: Here Are Their Stories