I received the following comment on a post and I thought it would be beneficial for all to hear.
Being that you have been active duty for a while, what things do you look for when deciding what your base choices would be? For example, my wife and I thought that proximity to family, quality, etc would be important.
This is a really tough question to answer because it really depends on what your priorities are, what career field you are in (or going in to), and what you want to do with your career. I will start by talking through some of the things I thought about over the years. I will separate this by enlisted vs. officer because the process or approach taken should be treated very differently for each.
My Enlisted Base Experience
When you first enlist you write down eight base choices available for your career field, but that is basically the extent of your personal influence on the situation. Once you submit your eight choices you are at the mercy of the available quotas outlined by AFPC. The basic criteria of these choices are PCS timeline, quotas (slots available) and rank. I submitted my eight choices for my first base but I ended up getting a base that wasn’t on my list. If you are enlisted there are ways you can get a pretty good idea of the manning at each of the bases you are interested in and that can help you with getting the assignment you want. I didn’t figure this out until several years into my career.
Since my first base chose me (instead of the other way around), I didn’t really think about where I wanted to go. Once I got there, I began to realize there are a few factors which directly relate to your quality of life at that base. Here are a few I learned from my earlier assignments.
- Mission – Do some research on the missions available in your career field, and the overall morale associated with those missions. For example, in the Security Forces world there is a general dislike of the “nuke” or ICBM world due to the strict security requirements associated with the mission. Strict requirements means more challenges, and more challenges means less resources and manpower. Try to tap into the “general” missions first for example ICBM, fighter, bomber, research, space, etc. That will help you narrow down the bases.
- Overseas vs. stateside – Seriously, you want to go overseas. If you are younger you may desire to be closer to family. Once you join the military it becomes necessary to start your own life though, and the sooner you do the better off you will be. Everyone should do overseas tours early because it opens your eyes to the literal world around you, your parents are still young, and your kids or marriage is young (if you have them). Once you have more roots and a family you can do your time stateside and take care of your parents.
- City size – This matters to a lot of people, but the trick is that some people don’t know what they prefer until they leave what they had. I lived in a very small area close to a medium sized city and moved to a base with a medium sized city, so my first transition was easy. Later in my career I moved to a fairly large city and realized I preferred that instead. Be cognizant of this but I wouldn’t use it as a determining factor.
- Family (parents and siblings) – Despite what I said about cutting ties, I absolutely love my family. Being halfway across the US is tough, but I also had to accept I was in the military. You will have to decide this one for yourself. Think about factors such as driving time, airline ticket expenses, etc. If you are serious about a base actually calculate the airline cost because some bases may seem fairly close but be small enough that they require a regional flight on both ends which racks up the price.
- Church – This can be very important to some people. It can be very frustrating to be stuck at a base that doesn’t have a church which meets your religious or spiritual needs. If it is important enough to you, you will want to do the research.
- Local Hobbies – What do you like to do, and what does your future base have to offer? If you know a location is similar you may be in good shape, but if your hobbies are drastically different from a base you may struggle. A lot of this is about attitude though. Having a positive attitude and being open to trying new things can completely change your experience.
Toward the later part of my career I married my beautiful wife and had a few kids, so my priorities changed. By this time I knew what I wanted for city size, I knew how close I wanted to live by my parents and I was fairly familiar with the missions across the Air Force. Here are a few other factors which began to play a role in my PCS decisions.
- Crime, neighborhoods, parks – I wanted my family to have a healthy and safe environment around my house, so this began to play a role. Look up the crime rates and try to get a feel for the different cities you are looking at.
- Commute – What is the typical commute to and from work, and where do most people live? For example at one base I loved my 45 minute commute because it was a quiet and peaceful drive. At my next base I absolutely hated my 25 minute commute because it was gridlock every day. This one will likely vary throughout your career.
- Medical support – We decided to have our baby off base so the quality of local hospitals played a role in where we wanted to live. This is more of a decision for finding a part of town you want to live in, not finding a city you want to PCS to (since most cities have good off-base medical).
- Military culture – Some cities by bases love the military population for various reasons. Some cities hate the military population because of the trouble it can bring. Additionally, the culture of the city itself can be different based on the makeup of the population. If the city has the only university in that region of your state, the city culture may be college with a military population present. If a city has multiple bases in city limits, the entire city could feel like a military base. Keep in mind bases from other branches can have a different effect on the culture of the city.
- Schools – Think about how old your kids are and what grades they will be in for your assignment, and try to gauge the quality of the skills based on what you want for your kids.
I am slightly hesitant with doing this post because I don’t think it is right to nitpick your assignment or dread an assignment because it wasn’t what you were expected (or didn’t provide what you thought was important to you.) Here are some tips which I have employed over the years to have the best assignments. I can wholeheartedly say every assignment I have had was better than all previous.
- Know the assignment process. You may think it is all to chance but you should know how it is up to chance, and what part of the process is under your control (it is more than you think.) Know the regulations, and make sure you understand the timelines and AFPC processes. Knowledge really is power with assignments. Keep in mind there is a normal career field process and a separate process called “Special Duties.” Special duties are different jobs which you can do outside of your career field. This can open up a few more options for people with limited assignment options.
- Once you know the process, do the research and make your decision. You should be making an informed decision based on what is important to you. Once you submit your choices just let the chips fall. The Air Force is going to do what it is going to do, and fighting it will only make your life more difficult.
- Embrace your next assignment. Get into what is fun to locally do there, don’t gripe about not being able to do what you used to do. Every base will have things you like and things you don’t like. Learn to accept the base for what it is, and focus on the things about the base you do like. Most of all, enjoy your time there.
- Again, always have a positive attitude. If your hobby isn’t available there, find a new one. If there are literally no hobbies, go back to school. You can always grow and develop, and each base can define your life in a positive way.
- Although the above process and priorities aren’t much different for an officer’s first assignment, the process changes more and more as you progress through your career. In short, your career progression plays a larger role in where you go as you progress. An officer is expected to have a certain degree of experience within his or her career field. If you have done a job already, it would be bad to do the same job at a different base. On the flip side, you don’t want to be a floater with no depth of experience. I wouldn’t worry about this at first but just know that things change as you progress through your officer career.
- Instead of the enlisted process of ‘submit your preferences and see what happens,’ each officer has a career counselor (I can’t remember the correct name). When you are hot for an assignment you submit an in-depth assignment preference profile and your counselor will contact to personally work your assignment. The assignment preference profile is called Airman Development Plan (ADP). You are of course limited by available openings, but you have to know the general gist of how you want the next chapter of your career to fit into your total career. This isn’t as important for your second assignment, but becomes extremely important as you progress.
- This probably goes without saying, but the higher your rank, the less say you have on where can you go (lots of Lt slots but very few General slots). Additionally, saying no to assignments can close doors in your career that can never be re-opened. If you say no to an assignment you could be saying no to O-6 even though it is years down the road. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THIS until you are well into your career and have an idea what you want to do with your life. I tell you this to point out that you have to begin to think about other factors as an officer. Regardless of what you do, stay true to your own personal values. Don’t sacrifice your family for an assignment which may help your career. Make every assignment decision with your family and not on your own.