As a child I remember my father telling me about the summer he worked as a brick layer to earn money for college. As the son of a Holiday Inn hostest, college was tantamount to reaching for the stars. By summer’s end, earnings counted, he realized that he was several hundred dollars short of the tuition fee. Back in those days, there were no such things as a Pell grant or guaranteed student loans; there was, however, something called a GI Bill. Designed for soldiers returning from World War II, the GI Bill allowed lower-income persons the opportunity to get their foot in the corporate door. My father looked over the services and decided a few years in the Air Force would be worth a college degree.

I am reminded of this conversation with my father as I read this week’s Washington Post National Weekly Edition, which discusses the Army’s lastest recruitment incentive. The $20,000 "quick-ship" program, which began in late July, encourages new recruits to report to basic training by the end of September. While Army recruiters are stressing that the bonus is the last thing they discuss with potential enlistees, $20,000 on the table is no small sum.

Part of the military family since birth, yes, my father did graduate from college only to find that the Air Force was the corporate he was looking for, I wonder if these individuals really know what that $20,000 buys them. Opportunities to travel the world, free healthcare, money for education, a steady paycheck, and the privilege of serving their country during a time of war is the typical spiel that crosses one’s mind when discussing the benefits of military service. 

Although the war against terrorism has underscored the Army’s true purpose, I still sense a fascination among civilians regarding the “clubbishness” of the military. One only has to tune into Lifetime’s Army Wives to get Hollywood’s version of the rank and file. While some of it rings true, the episode with the stepfather chasing his stepsons around the pool during retreat brings a smile to the lips; it is, as is most of television, a caricature of the reality it represents. Beyond the 12-plus hours a day, the less-than-ideal working conditions, possible monotony, all of which can be said of any number of jobs, lies the possibility of another world: one that may include the chance to lead others, find a passion, and finally move into another social strata. Opportunities aside, the military also offers the chance to miss your child’s birth, to forego lending your sibling a helping hand, or the responsibility of reassuring a child that her father will do everything to keep himself safe, knowing that the father is a POW somewhere in Iraq.

So what’s the difference between my father’s free college education and a 20,000 recruitment bonus? Is it the idea that a college education points towards the future, whereas $20,000 brings to mind bills labeled past due, flatscreen TVs, and, if one plays her cards right, maybe a new car? I realize in a world overwhelmed with things, the temptation to own is reaching epidemic heights. Using material wealth to define one’s self is nothing new; after all, a lot of those GIs used their college diplomas to move solidly into white-collar America. I suppose what makes the $20,000 bonus so crass is that a war is going on, one that is filling caskets, occupying hospital beds, and ending relationships. Yes, the military life has been good to me. My children have been to 33 states at last count, I have been able to take a break from my career to care for my child’s special needs, the free healthcare has been an absolute blessing, and yet, I just can’t get the sight of $20,000 and displaced limbs out of my mind.  

In The Fray is a nonprofit staffed by volunteers. If you liked this piece, could you please donate $10?