Ah, United States Marines, stewards of a martial tradition dating back 248 years and the undefeated world champs when it comes to one-upping someone by having it worse. More than expeditionary warfare, excellence in the basic, esprit de corps, and small unit leadership, it’s the ability of individual Marines to take pride in their suffering — no matter how needless — that defines the service.
Recently, this was put on display when the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith spoke about enlistment bonuses in the context of the U.S. military’s ongoing struggle with recruitment.
“Your bonus is that you get to call yourself a Marine,” Smith said at the 2023 West naval conference in San Diego, according to Military Times. “That’s your bonus … there’s no dollar amount that goes with that.”
The reply was so pitch-perfect and on brand for the Corps that it sounds like it was ghost-written by the spirit of R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket, then edited by the ghost of Chesty Puller, with a final review by the phantom of two-time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler, before being read aloud to an auditorium packed with the souls of countless lance corporals. It’s also not the first time a Marine Corps leader has suggested that pay is inversely proportionate to morale among Marines. In 2014, then-Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Micheal Barrett testified before Congress that pay cuts “will raise discipline.”
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But is it true? Is being a Marine all the bonus Marines need? Maybe not for the lance corporals and below across the globe living in barracks that may or may not be moldy, making between $2,150 and $2,500 a month depending on rank and years of service, and especially not when they find out fellow junior enlisted in the Navy are eligible for up to $50,000 to enlist, to say nothing of the Army and Air Force which are both offering signing bonuses.
Let’s break this down and look at all the ways that serving in the Marine Corps may (or may not) be as much of a bonus as getting a wad of cash in your hand upon enlisting.
Okay, well there is that. Getting cash up front to take on a job that’s inherently dangerous, whether you’re at home or abroad, has a value of its own. If your first duty station ends up being in a high-cost area where the basic housing allowance has yet to catch up with the rising housing costs, a few extra grand in a savings account might be more useful than that EGA tattoo you got one night at an Oceanside tattoo parlor while over at Camp Pendleton.
You get to bear the title “Marine.”
This is true. Upon graduating boot camp, you join a tight-knit community that is yours and yours alone. No other member of the military carries an honor that distinguishes them as part of their specific tribe, unless you count soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen, and guardians, not to mention the specific designations that come with certain fields, like Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, EOD techs, and fighter pilots. Each of which has its own traditions, stories, and unique culture.
Hmm, okay, well so much for that.
You get to win the who has it worst contest.
While other branches get dining facilities, the Marine Corps has chow halls. Where some branches have dorms that look a lot like college dorms, the Corps stuffs two to three, sometimes four Marines into a single barracks room, and in some cases, the bathroom is shared with an equally cramped adjacent room. While Navy Corpsmen get to strut around with their 80s and 90s porn mustaches, even those assigned to Green Side, Marines will be verbally flensed if even a single stray hair can be seen on their nasty face. And while some senior enlisted leaders in other branches couldn’t care less what their troops wear when they are off duty or hanging out on the weekend, a Marine walking to the base exchange to pick up a six-pack on a Saturday will have to navigate a gauntlet of off-duty staff sergeants and above who want to know why they are wearing “shower shoes” to a store. This is because the Marine Corps has determined the height of personal fashion was achieved in the 1950s with high and tights, tucked-in polo shirts, knee-high socks, and a clean shave daily, to hell with razor bumps and medical conditions.
This may have something to do with why 75% of Marines leave the Corps after a single enlistment.
You will have steady employment.
Indeed, you work steadily between five to seven days a week, depending on whether you’re in the midst of a workup for a deployment, downrange, or out on a training exercise. You’ll enjoy consistent work hours, assuming you take joy in waking up at 5 a.m. every day for PT, or the inevitable battalion-wide run, where you’re sure to spend half of it having your heels stepped on, or stepping on someone else’s since formation runs tend to devolve into one olive drab slinky within 10 minutes of starting. Oh, but you’ll get off early on occasion and you will have federal holidays off, so long as you don’t have to pull 24-hour duty or your command doesn’t decide to hold an entire unit’s leave hostage for some perceived infraction or the entirely subjective cardinal sin of ‘lax discipline.’
You’ll develop critical skills that will aid you the rest of your life.
It’s tempting to become belligerent and sarcastically note that, yes, you will exit the Marine Corps as a fully certified janitor who’s capable of sweeping up sunshine, mopping the rain, and who has a healthy respect (and a general fear) of fields of grass, which should never, ever, under any circumstances be walked on. But that would be childish.
Jokes aside, military service can and often does provide one with a range of technical skills and experience, in addition to a level of self-confidence and discipline that’ll be helpful in any line of work and in whatever you do. That said, those skills are not unique to the Marines and a few grand in the bank is also helpful.
You will leave the service with a thick skin and a high bullshit tolerance.
As a Marine, you are a master at enduring verbal abuse and your ego no longer bruises when a grown adult treats you like a child solely because they picked up rank six months to a year before you, even though they wouldn’t be able to spell their name if it wasn’t stenciled on their blouse. And when it comes to last-minute changes and up-ended gameplans, re-written org charts, and strategic pivots, you are the epitome of calm and the patron saint of Semper Gumby.
However, achieving 0-fucks-given inner peace will be difficult.
You get to travel to exotic lands, meet interesting people, and…
…stand post for 8 hours straight, only to get off and quickly stuff your face with shittier-than-usual food, before either going back on post, out on patrol or resuming whatever duty is expected based on your military occupational specialty — or something totally unrelated because “the needs of the Marine Corps” demand it. And while you’re working for months on end without weekends, you can ruminate on how you will inevitably get called a “boot” when you get back from deployment if you don’t have a Combat Action Ribbon, even though everyone is well aware that it’s not the early 2000s or 2010s and the only new CARs on base are the ones from the nearby dealership. No Dodge Chargers though.
Maybe it’s not enough to justify no bonus…
But as a Marine, you are part of a long military tradition, steeped in history and heroism born of hardship and hard-won victories. You understand adversity — intimately — both the serious and the outrageously unnecessary, and so too does every other Marine. In that shared experience, the good and the bad, you’re part of a larger whole. There’s no better example of this than when one current or former Marine bumps into another and recognizes that instant bond. That’s worth something at least.
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