(This guest post is brought to you by a servicemember who’s approaching Reserve retirement after an unusual career path… and you can too!)
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I enlisted in the Army as a combat medic in 1990. Being the oldest of three and a first-generation American, I felt a responsibility in alleviating the college costs from my parents. They paid for the first year, but my sister was the next in line to graduate from high school. So, after a year of school, I enlisted in the Army Reserves.
I was never athletic and never dreamed of being in the Armed Forces. But I enjoyed Ft. Disneyland, I mean Ft. Dix. I discovered in Boot Camp that the National Guard actually gave you a scholarship, a Combat Medic bonus and loan repayment. The Reserves only offered loan repayment. So, after returning from Advanced Individual Training at Ft. Sam, I moved from the Reserves to the National Guard. The catch was that I had to conduct training for one year in my unit in order to get the scholarship and Montgomery GI Bill. The year was 1991, and it was my first experience of dealing with a “recession.” I had to take a year off of school so that I could receive a scholarship. My plan was to transfer to a school closer to my unit. However, I decided that I missed my friends at my former school, which was five hours away. I returned to my former school and traveled five hours every month for drill. The Guard did not reimburse soldiers for travel then, so my $100 Amtrak ticket canceled out any money earned for a weekend drill. I did annual tours in Ft. Bliss and Ft. McCoy. I was even mobilized for flood duty. It was getting close to graduation and realized that I had signed an eight year contract— not 6 in the Reserves and 2 inactive years that I thought. I was about to graduate and did not want to stay stuck in my city due to the Army National Guard. I also wanted to become an officer and see the world. I found Air Force ROTC in my last semester and never looked back.
All in all, I spent 14 years and 9 months on active-duty as an officer. I got to live in Turkey, Japan and Korea. I earned several awards, even one in Squadron Officer School. I had started to become interested in saving for retirement in 1999. We had a guest speaker visit our base who lost all of his retirement savings at an airline company. I was in tears. He said that you need at least three pots of money for retirement. I began with a Roth IRA at $50 a month and a $2,000 annual limit. We did not have the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) until 2003 and it does not match military contributions. I had racked up $40,000 in student loans (at 8% interest) for my bachelors and graduate degree. About $4,000 was from capitalized interest when I deferred them for four years. I decided to clean up all of my debt from 2007-09. And did.
I met my Lt. Col.’s board with hopes of making it to an active duty retirement. Unfortunately, my boss did not know how to write a performance recommendation form (PRF) and along with not enough or strong enough stratifications (I had been in 3 or 4 person shops most of my career), I was passed over for Lt. Col. in 2010. I was devastated. When you meet the board above the promotion zone (APZ), there is about a 3% chance of making promotion. I thought that I would just have to endure being a “major” for the rest of my career. I look pretty young for my age, so unless you are in my year group or nosy, you would not know what rank I should be. So, I decided to deal with the humiliation.
Well, the Air Force had different plans. In 2011, the AF claimed to have notified those meeting the APZ that if you did not get picked up you may be involuntarily separated. I had feared that in the back of my mind, but seeing the occasional passed over majors around base, I ignored that feeling. Plus, I ended up winning a major command award before the board, so I felt like a phoenix rising from the ashes. I also felt more hopeful since my new boss wrote a really good PRF that included the new award.
My 3-star general called me in two and a half weeks before my move to Texas to tell me that I had been passed over again and this time I would be involuntarily separated. I was stunned. He asked if I had any questions after he explained that I would get a severance. I said, “No.” He said, “At least you are prior service” and I left his office. In my mind, I thought “Well my prior service does not count towards an active-duty retirement.”
So, my follow-on assignment to San Antonio was canceled. I redirected my household goods shipment to storage in California. I called my parents and asked if I could stay at their empty house in Florida until I could find a federal job. I had heard that you could buy your military time and my career could easily translate to a fed job. I also like to have job security and a matching TSP. I had a vacation planned en route to Europe, which I ended up doing. When I returned to the states, I worked and re-worked my resume. After reading the horror stories on a fed message board about it taking some folks two years to get a job in government, I hired a resume writer.
I enjoyed four months of terminal leave pay. But I decided that I needed to finish my military time in the AF to get a reserve retirement. I felt slightly humiliated when I tried to apply for the Reserves. Since I was passed over, I had to get a waiver and find a unit who would take me in. I waited until I found a GS-13 position 6.5 months later in the federal government. I called a Reserve unit near the town I was relocating to. The commander hired me after reviewing my last five Officer Performance Reports. I had to submit three letters of recommendation for the waiver. It took seven months for me to be gained into the AF Reserves.
I have been in my federal position for 11 months. Over the holidays, I realized that my Reserve point summary was missing my last year of active duty. I found an old print out from the Army National Guard in my records. It was hard to read, but I thought that I might have about 3 good retirement years. I requested a point summary audit and forwarded my Army NGB-12 (discharge record) and DD-214. The point summary personnel also requested my Army Reserves points from their counterparts. When the smoke cleared, I had 20 good years at $2,951 a month when I turn 60 years old. Of course, I have to repay the $118,000 in severance money. However, the AF cannot garnish more than 40% of my retirement check. I also plan on buying my military active-duty time so if I work 17 more years in the federal government, I can retire at 57 years old with 31 years from civil service.
I meet the Lt. Col. board next year for the Air Force Reserves mandatory promotion board. I think I have a good chance since I have my Air Command and Staff College finished (completed in 2007) and my masters. My AF Reserves boss said she got promoted to a Lt. Col. without having a masters. Also, our deputy chief got passed over for not having Air Command and Staff College finished. It looks like a different playing field this time. So with a solid PRF in hand, I am indeed a phoenix ready to rise again.
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