Can You Quit The Military?Updated: October 24, 2020
Once you have signed on the dotted line and shipped out to boot camp, is it possible to quit the military? Many have tried, and even more have wondered if getting out early is a good option for them. There is no easy answer to the basic question since much depends on when and why you want to quit.
Quitting The Military: Before And During Basic Training
Here’s a secret your recruiter won’t tell you. Until a new recruit takes the Oath of Enlistment at MEPS, they aren’t officially “in the military” in spite of the legally binding paperwork you sign. You have signed a contract, yes. But there are rules that provide for letting you go if you are not a good fit or fail to adapt to a military environment.
If you went through all the motions of signing up for a military service only to decide it is not right for you and you have NOT been to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and have NOT taken an Oath of Enlistment, you are free to quit the process at any time.
It’s best to give your recruiter a courtesy call to let them know of your decision as early as possible. There is more than one reason for that, but for the new recruit it doesn’t pay to alienate the recruiter JUST IN CASE that recruit changes her mind later and decides to push ahead with the enlistment or commissioning. Being courteous and professional pays in these situations.
If you HAVE taken the Oath of Enlistment and have shipped out to basic training, you still haven’t fully committed to military service yet. You’re a lot closer to doing so, but until you formally graduate from basic training, you may still receive a type of “no-fault” military separation if you decide you don’t want to be in the military.
Getting Out During Boot Camp
These types of procedures are not easy–the drill instructors are trained to help people through temporary bouts of cold feet in basic training and you may be required to wait out a certain period where the training instructors try to determine if you truly aren’t right for military service or you’re just having a rough transition into the training environment.
But at the end of the day, you can quit military service without graduating from boot camp and go back home like nothing happened. The caveat here is that those who choose this route are NOT veterans, do not qualify for veteran benefits, and are not viewed to have served at all.
This has been a consistent feature of “early outs” from basic training for many decades. Remember, those who do not complete basic training can never be viewed as service members, prior military service members for purposes of going into the Guard or Reserve, etc.
After You Report To Your First Duty Station And Beyond
Once you have completed basic training and report to your first duty station, you are officially serving in the United States Military. You have signed a legally binding contract obligating you to fulfil the terms of that contract and there are no provisions for early outs, quitting, or abbreviated tours unless the Defense Department decides it is in their best interest to let you go before your original date of retirement or separation.
That said, there are provisions for certain special circumstances that may give some the alternative they are looking for when it comes to getting out of the military early or quitting the military.
Administrative Separation is one of those–those who are in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, etc. and who cannot adapt to military life may be offered (or required to take) Administrative Separation (AKA “admin sep”) instead of being forced to complete the entire term of enlistment. An Admin Sep is not easy to get and is often used as an alternative to punishment via the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Captain’s Mast, non-judicial punishment, etc.
You could be given an administrative separation for failure to manage your military travel credit card properly, for not meeting initial physical fitness standards at your first duty station, failure to successfully complete professional military education, etc.
And admin sep is not automatically punitive, but many of the circumstances that require one make them seem punitive.
Breach Of Contract
In some instances, certain facts come to light about a soldier’s enlistment (and this is true no matter which branch of the military you serve in) that requires your command support staff to take a second look at the conditions of your enlistment.
You can be involuntarily separated for breach of contract–and what that often means for some recruits is that a lie they told the recruiter during the screening process is revealed to be just that–a lie. If you concealed past legal entanglements, drug use, or lied about having or not having dependents, these issues could all result in a determination of breach of contract that can lead to the recruit being involuntarily separated.
Medically Unfit For Duty
Some are discharged because they are deemed mentally or physically unfit for duty. Like some of the other instances where there’s a decision to separate a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine from duty, this is not always punitive. In fact, far from it in many cases–but if the DoD chooses to let you go due to a medical issue (physical or mental) this is one early out option that does not carry the stigma of punishment, change of mind, failure to adapt, etc.
One common medical separation? Asthma. Some develop it later in life, others had it as a child and it “went away” only to recur later. Asthma isn’t the only condition that can lead to a medical discharge, but it’s a good example of something that may seem benign to the sufferer (as much as any medical condition can seem “benign”) but that the military has a particular issue with in terms of your being fit for duty.
In some limited cases the military may approve a servicemember’s request for an early out due to family hardship. A sole surviving son or daughter may be given special consideration in this way, and there are other scenarios that may warrant a hardship discharge depending on the branch of service and the circumstances involved.
While it is true that those who decide they are conscientious objectors after serving some of their enlistment or commission, getting out early as one is NOT easy.
The military places the burden of proof on the servicemember to show a real shift in thinking toward pacifism, or whatever objection is stated as the reason to get out of the remainder of a military contract. Some don’t understand that announcing a conscientious objection is not a golden ticket to an early out–you could be placed on light duty in the interim and be required to continue serving in uniform while your application is (slowly) reviewed and judged on its merits.
Don’t count on this process going quickly or to your liking–the road to an early out as a conscientious objector is NOT easy for anyone who wants to try.
DoD instruction 1300.6 addresses conscientious objectors directly, stating:
“An individual who desires to choose the war in which he or she will participate is not a Conscientious Objector under the law. The individual’s objection must be to all wars rather than a specific war.”
The same DoD instruction adds, “A Service member may be granted an administrative separation, or restriction of military duties, due to conscientious objection before completing his or her obligated term of service” but this will be based “on the Service member’s respective Military Department’s judgment of the facts and circumstances in the case.”
Furthermore, the beliefs leading to the objection to military service must have developed the objection AFTER joining–those who felt objections at enlistment time would not be eligible.
Some (and certainly not ALL) branches of military service may, depending on current guidance and other regulations, have a provision for early separation of a military member because they lack enough “retainability” to accept a new military assignment.
This retainability issue is one that is not consistently applicable but usually comes into play when a branch of military service is downsizing. The retainability issue can be used as a force shaping tool, giving military personnel planners the option to “early out” people who meet certain criteria.
In this particular case, if a military member is about to get a new assignment but does not have enough time left in the current enlistment to accept it, there may be a decision to make. The soldier can either re-enlist and solve the retainability problem OR refuse to re-enlist in which case (depending on circumstances, mission requirements, and other variables) the servicemember may be unprocessed immediately at the end of the current assignment.
Joining The Guard Or Reserve
In times when recruiting and retainability are not critical issues for the Department of Defense, your branch of service may permit you to get out of your current military contract early for the purposes of joining the Guard or Reserve. This is NOT a given, and much depends on the needs of the DoD. You will be permitted to do this at the convenience of the government and there will be service-specific procedures to follow in order to make the switch.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News