Join the Army, pay your student loans

There is a part of me that will always feel compelled to point out that Dec. 7 is Pearl Harbor Day.

John Hoff

This time of year can’t help but bring thoughts of student loan debt hanging over your head like the blade of a guillotine, whether you’re graduating in December or just registering for next semester. The idea of joining the military to pay off your massive loan debt might sound pretty crazy, especially with the war in Iraq not going well, Iran going nuclear and North Korea acting more insane than usual.

God, what I wouldn’t give to be in my 20s again, and able to put on my country’s uniform during these exciting and uncertain times.

I paid off my undergraduate student loans by doing a three and a half year hitch in the army, joining up in September of 1990, when nobody knew how the First Gulf War would turn out. There were estimates of massive American casualties in the first few days of the anticipated ground war, worries that Saddam would use nerve gas. But all that student loan debt was even more frightening.

Putting on army boots, eating army chow, doing endless push-ups with South Carolina fire ants biting your backside is, admittedly, a tough and nasty way to pay back student loans. But, can you come up with a quicker way to pay back $65,000 of loan debt in three years, plus fairly decent wages and benefits on top of that, plus brand new army boots and spiffy brown underwear?

When I was young, I dreamed of being GI Joe like my father. My high school guidance counselor had to nearly grab me by the scruff of the neck to make me apply to college instead of joining the military right out of high school. Four years at a private liberal arts college changed me a lot. When I was a senior, I considered myself a libertarian and an anarchist, not only opposed to war but, in fact, to government.

When Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait in 1990, I heard a story about Iraqi soldiers stealing incubators from a hospital in Kuwait, leaving premature babies to die on the cold floor. Something about this story made me almost insane with anger. I wanted to personally put my hands around Saddam’s neck and choke the life out of him, which bothered me deeply, because I don’t believe in the death penalty.

At about the same time, student loan debt was riding me pretty hard. High-paying jobs weren’t materializing and I couldn’t afford to

get dental care for painful wisdom teeth. I was doing some very serious soul searching when an army recruiter called me. His opening line was something about paying for college with the Montgomery GI Bill. I told him not to bother, that I already had my bachelor’s degree. His promise that I could go to Officer Candidate School fell on deaf ears. All I cared about was paying back my student loans. If he didn’t have an answer, I told him, he soon would hear a click.

Almost reluctantly, the recruiter told me about the army’s loan repayment program.

To this very day, the loan repayment program is not as well publicized as the Montgomery GI Bill, and for a good reason. Military recruiting commercials generally target people just out of high school, dreaming of college. The army wants young recruits whose heads can be filled, like empty jars, with military values. The Montgomery GI Bill will give these young recruits what is described as “over $36,000 in tuition” for up to 36 months of schooling. That’s, let’s see, three years while college takes, um, more. The commercials don’t emphasize that recruits pay money into the Montgomery GI Bill program during their enlistment.

In contrast, the loan repayment program will pay a college graduate up to $65,000 over a three-year period for unpaid student loans. It doesn’t matter how long it took you to rack up the loans, whether three years or six. Furthermore, you don’t pay in to the program. You just have to make sure your loans don’t go into default to keep receiving the payments, plus be very sure to fill out all the proper paperwork.

Also, under the program you join the military as an E-4, which means three things. First, you have more rank than most of the other recruits in basic training, which is a mixed blessing. Second, you will spend the rest of your military career being asked, “If you have a college degree, why didn’t you go to Officer Candidate School?” Third, you will be constantly explaining the obscure military loan repayment program.

One of the first soldiers who asked me about the program summarized it this way: “You mean, instead of joining the army as an E-1 and paying a big chunk of my paycheck just to earn the GI Bill, and get a portion of three years of college paid for, I could have, instead, just gone to college for four years, kicked back, racked up twice as much in student loans as I will ever get from the GI Bill, then joined the army as an E-4 to pay back all the loans?” Unfortunately, his next reaction was to hurl down his M16A1 rifle and weep and wail that his recruiter had betrayed him.

He was punished by the drill sergeant. It was pretty harsh. But, like Drill Sergeant Dozier used to say, “If you’re hard, it don’t bother you.” He also used to say “Blood, blood, blood makes the green grass grow.”

There was a period of time when it seemed like I learned more in three months of army life than four years of college, mostly practical and brutal lessons about the way the world actually works. Later, I gained enough perspective to realize I was simply learning different lessons than college teaches. I had great adventures, some involving life and death, but spent most of my service at an army hospital in Texas where it was nice and safe, usually warm and sunny. The liberal values I picked up in college pushed me toward a military specialization which emphasized healing instead of killing people and breaking things.

One day I learned, up close and personal, that truth is the first casualty of war. That was the day I learned the story about the premature babies in Kuwait was just wartime propaganda. I also learned it is possible to restrain your opinions and be completely obedient, even to the point of wondering, “What did I just do? Who am I, really?” There was always one constant answer: I just spent another day paying off my expensive college education by soldiering, which is a not a job for the weak of knee or faint of heart.

There is a part of me which never became, completely, army green. But there is also a part of me which will always feel compelled to point out that Dec. 7 is Pearl Harbor Day, and I hope college students will take a moment to appreciate the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform instead of, as Drill Sergeant Dozier used to say, “eating potato chips, getting fat and talking bad about your country.”

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]