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Sanctuary and military retirement during a Reserve career

by Doug Nordman

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A reader writes:

I am an Air Force reservist with 18 good years of service. I have been trying to get back in for over four years, but to no avail. Per two recruiters, I have had to retake the ASVAB (which I passed), only to be told that they lost my results and have to take the ASVAB a third time. I was also told that my blood pressure has to be below 140/90 without medication. I am at a loss here and do not know where to go from here. I deserve to retire as I am in “sanctuary”. Any assistance you can provide is greatly appreciated.

Whether you’re trying to get back into the drilling Reserves or trying to get orders for active duty, the entire experience must be designed to test the strength of your commitment. They make it awfully hard to get to military retirement.

I don’t have a straightforward suggestion for the disappearing ASVAB results. It seems as if the only thing to do differently for a third ASVAB would be to try a different recruiter who’ll take better care of the paperwork.If any of you readers have solved a similar problem then I’d appreciate hearing about it.

Blood pressure is another tough situation. Most veterans have already tried weight loss & exercise. A few people are affected by “white coat syndrome”, where blood pressure rises whenever a medical technician (in a white coat) takes a BP reading. That’s a very real effect, but the only way to counteract it is through stress-reduction techniques (during the measurement) like relaxation or meditation. However (like losing weight & exercising) these techniques also take some practice to pay off. You could ask the medical staff about wearing a 24-hour BP monitor to show that your readings jump due to white coat syndrome.

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“Sanctuary” is a completely different situation, and I know quite a bit about the Navy version. It’s not to be confused with seeking refuge (or the old Syfy TV series). This is a military term that most Reservists never have to learn about, and it can cause a lot of confusion.

Sanctuary protects servicemembers on active duty who are approaching eligibility for retirement. It’s based in federal law (10 USC 12686) and implemented under the Department of Defense instruction 1235.12. When you’re on active duty and within two years of becoming eligible for retirement, you’re protected from being discharged. Here’s the specific text from paragraph 2.b.(5) of the Enclosure (3) guidelines on page 15:

(5) Active Duty Protection. In accordance with section 12686 of Title 10 USC, Reserve Component members ordered to active duty who, on the date they would otherwise be released from active duty, are within two years of becoming eligible for retired pay or retainer pay under a purely military retirement system other than retired pay for non-regular service under chapter 1223 of Title 10 USC:

(a) Shall not be involuntarily released from active duty before they become eligible for that pay.

(b) Shall be absorbed in Service-authorized active end strengths, unless the release is approved by the Secretary of the Military Department concerned.

In other words, sanctuary means that Reservists reaching 18 years of active duty while on active duty are entitled to stay on active duty until eligible for an active-duty (20-year) retirement.

This type of sanctuary requirement only applies to active duty, and it does not apply to years of Reserve qualifying service.

[Note:  Almost all Reservists are required to have 20 years of qualifying service (20 “good years”) to be eligible for a Reserve retirement. If a Reservist doesn’t meet the requirements to continue in the Reserves, they could be discharged before they reach 18 qualifying years of service– a different type of sanctuary in section 12646 of Title 10 USC.  Thanks to Kevin S in the comments for pointing this out!]

The difference between these definitions seems arbitrary, but the significance is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the “worst case” of the military retirement system, a Reservist could finish 20 good years while they’re still in their late 30s. If they filed for retirement then it would be at least two decades before they reached age 60 and DoD had to start paying their pension. If that same Reservist managed to reach 18 years of active duty during their Reserve career, then the sanctuary system would permit them to remain on active duty until they were eligible for an active-duty retirement– in their late 30s. Now DoD would have to pay at least 20 more years of an active-duty pension.

You’ll know when you’re approaching sanctuary. The Navy and Marine Corps start tracking their servicemembers as soon as they hit 16 years of active duty, and policy may only allow certain types of active-duty orders when the servicemember is demobilized before reaching 18 years of active duty. I’m not familiar with the other service’s tracking requirements, but their personnel systems will check for sanctuary issues before approving orders. If you have over 16 years of active duty in the Reserves then it’s worth discussing sanctuary with your local Reserve unit– you might not even be eligible for mobilization.

If you were in sanctuary, you should not have been able to be demobilized from your last active-duty orders. The personnel system software would have flagged your impending sanctuary months before you reached it. Personnel branches can make mistakes, but from DoD’s perspective this is too expensive to overlook– it gets a lot of attention.

One possible solution to these issues would be to talk with a recruiter for your local Air National Guard or National Guard. Their recruiters might take better care with your ASVAB and they might have different standards for blood pressure. Other Reservists have used the NG/ANG to get to 20 good years, so I know that option works.

If any of you readers have experience with Air Force or Army sanctuary, please share your advice or your story in the comments!

Related articles:
Why are you researching Reserve retirement?
Reader questions on Reserve retirement Tricare and points
Navy Reserve retirement credit for ROTC summer training
Calculating a Reserve retirement
Should you join the Reserves or National Guard?
Comparing an E-7 active-duty pension to an E-7 Reserve pension
Retiring from the Reserves and National Guard
Join the military to get rich and retire early?: the rest of the story

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