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Should you join the Reserves or National Guard?

by Doug Nordman

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Fair warning: this is a long post, even by my standards. Hey, it’s Thursday, it’s a holiday weekend, and (for a change) it’s not financial. There’s not even any math.

Not only is it the final post of 2011, but it’s (drumroll)… the 200th post! (*CLANG*)

For us WordPress wonks, this also marks my completion of the “PostAWeek2011” challenge. I’m looking forward to continuing this resolution in PostAWeek2012.

But let’s get to the post. Ironically for being one of my personal writing milestones, most of this one is written by other people!

A couple months ago a Navy Reserve recruiter asked a seemingly straightforward LinkedIN question, which I’ve edited slightly for acronym jargon:

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Why are the majority of separating servicemembers not signing directly with the Navy Reserve? The commitment is minimal as one can always elect to be inactive.  The contracts are extremely flexible and you are serving with some awesome volunteers. The USNR … may help calm concerns of deployment by writing into contract a mobilization protection for up to two years. There is even a $10K affiliation bonus for many specialties.

Over 60 replies have been posted, with sharply divided opinions. However the perspectives surprised even me, and I thought I’d share some of the quotes with you. I was especially impressed to see the positive press for the Army National Guard. If you want to have some military in your civilian life, then the Guard may be a better choice.

It turns out that a lot of veterans want to serve their country for “a weekend a month, two weeks a year”. That’s the Cold War model I knew, and two generations of veterans did very well by it. However the last decade has been completely different, and fewer are willing to risk having their “part time” military career overwhelm their civilian lives.  The biggest obstacle to a Reserve/Guard career may be the prospect of a year’s deployment.

On the other hand, the civilian employment model has changed too. Nobody expects to stay with the same employer for decades anymore. Reserve/Guard may be a valuable backup career… a sort of “side hustle” that builds on your active duty and eventually pays a retirement. That may be worth the deployment hassle.

If you’re considering separating from active duty, then educate yourself now. Active-duty servicemembers just don’t hear much about the Reserves– and when you’re separating you’re not exactly interested in learning more.

Let’s share some of those Reservist’s responses. (I’ve edited them slightly for clarity.) The quotes below are mainly about Navy Reserve and Army National Guard, but the other services have the same concerns. If you have comments about the other service’s Reserve or Guard careers then I’d love to share them in another post.

First up are two pieces of advice on juggling it all:

[The admiral] mentioned this weekend that you know that your life is properly balanced when your family, your job, and the Reserves are all equally pissed at you.

I’ve had a blast in the Reserves. … I’ve had the opportunity to go to Malta to fix a ship, bust drug smugglers off the Panama coast, earn a warfare qualification, serve on the Joint Staff, and sail (yes “sail”) on USS CONSTITUTION. I’ve been able to earn a master’s degree through the Naval War College and a second through National Defense University. My current job is due to my Navy experience.
There are ways to work things. You can travel on a Sat, do [six straight days] of drills and fly back the next Sun. There are flex-drills where you can apply your skills from home or a local site. If you’re just getting out and you haven’t tried the Reserve, give it a shot. The most important thing is that while you will run into folks who are incredibly hard, you will also find some of the salt of the earth. People who understand the commitment that’s made by putting on the cloth of the nation and making the sacrifice for their country one more day.
If you need help making it work, there are plenty of us who are willing to work through options with you.

Others are tired of the bureaucracy:

Life is all about choices. I love being in the Reserves. Not 100% of the time, but guessing around 95% And that 5% wasn’t when I was deployed… it was wrestling the Admin BS INCONUS that we are forced to put up with. Antiquated systems, antiquated policies and antiquated structure that are still focused on the “weekend a month, two weeks a year” Reserves. News flash: 9/11 changed all of that. We need to be more nimble and relevant, not just a warm body so that active duty can go on leave.

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Lots of bureaucracy (and lots of acronyms):

I’ve been a Reservist for 12 years now. Each year gets harder because someone adds something to make it harder (FLTMPS, NMCI, NKO, Navy Reserve On-line, BUPERS, NSIPS, NFAAS, DTS, blah blah). Way too much INCONUS Admin BS. I’ve served as the training officer for two years in one unit and currently serve as admin officer for another unit. I track my hours worked that month vs. pay (O4) to execute a drill weekend– the ratio equates to minimum wage. Executing those two weeks a year is painful too – Navy policy and fiscal rules always clash. The time and effort for pre-annual training (NROWS, misc. admin de-confliction), annual training (the mission), and post-annual training (DTS, misc. admin) equates to minimum wage. The only silver lining is that minimum wage is not so bad when you get to work from the comfort of your home.
The commitment is significant. What this all boils down to is your value system. Is earning minimum wage in your younger years + pension @ age 60 + Reserve Tricare worth serving the needs of the nation with my experience I’ve gained over the years? For me it’s worth putting up with the INCONUS Admin BS. The downside is the risk of failing to reach 20 years of service. Getting older and wiser has pains – performance at PRT, older parents, children, spouse (supportive now or adverse later?), promotions at the civilian job with more responsibility along the way – these are my risk items working against my goal to 20 years. The only thing that keeps me going in the reserves is my ORM matrix I learned from the Navy to mitigate failure which in turn keeps my value system … valid.

Injuries and the VA:

It’s just not worth it. I wouldn’t recommend it due to being deployed at the tip of the spear. I was injured while deployed to Afghanistan. Dealing with the VA while being a relatively young professional working person isn’t working out. My medical appointments and rehab sessions are in the middle of the day and always result in losing at least a half day of work. The reality of a Reservist bringing back lifelong physical and mental scars and the damage done to one’s personal life during a year long deployment just isn’t worth the drill pay. I think a Reservist should really consider their personal situation with the possibility of deployment.

Navy Reserve spent the last couple decades consolidating their drilling sites, and two say that’s a problem if you’re not near a homeport:

Having just made the drive in bad weather, but not snowing. … driving 400 miles round trip in Wyoming, in winter, to drill, not happening.
If the Navy had a more “decentralized” reserve like the Army National Guard… it might help. Try finding a city of more than 20,000 people without some sort of ANG unit. Heck, even towns of 10,000 or smaller often have them.
Now, try finding a Navy Reserve unit in the same town. I’m in the middle of nowhere. There are five Army Guard units within 100 miles. The closest Navy units are more than 200 miles away.

[The] two-year deferment from mobilization… allows you to get ‘settled’ in your civilian life/career … and get a real feel for what the Reserve has to offer. There are ~125 drill sites across the country. I understand that many folks do not live in/near fleet concentration areas, but we are not the size of the National Guard (roughly 5-6 times larger than the Reserve). The Guard’s mission is the State and having a drill center on every corner makes sense. Finally, I will offer that one of the best ‘intangible’ benefits of the Reserve is the opportunity to network. Your new unit may consist of educators, project managers, financial planners, HR managers, and company vice-presidents. Being a unit superstar and building a reputation as a solid performer will go a long way when/if you are looking for future opportunities (both within the Reserve and out). It’s never an easy decision when you are trying to plan out the next 15 years, but if you do decide to close the door just try to keep the keys handy.

Four point out that if you’re junior then the Reserves may not be much of an improvement over active duty:

Junior officers look at the reserves as more of the same. Many … had IA assignments on “shore” duty and don’t want to return there (even after a two-year break). In addition, billets are tough to come by which means long weekend commutes to drill. Also, the one weekend and two weeks a year are no longer applicable. Many billets call for up to three months to meet operational needs. Combine all this with a job market where an employer demands connectivity and many more hours than 40 per week. Bottom line, the active Navy is using the Reserves to gap billets and meet needs that they cannot meet with active duty personnel. With looming budget cuts for the Navy, this trend will continue.

1. The majority of separating servicemembers [want] to focus on a new career and word is out that Reserves is very demanding which equates to inability to focus on next career… If they wanted a Navy career they would have stayed in.
2. Promotion rates to senior ranks are abysmal while demands are increasing… Disproportionate investment to payoff.
3. Recalls and more recalls… servicemembers saw Reservists filling the ranks in theater big time and see very little reward for disruption of mobilization.
4. Military benefits are in drawdown crosshairs … adding further doubt on effort/benefit ratio.

As a junior officer leaving active duty I have seriously considered the Reserve to finish a career. I have done a tour to Afghanistan and would go back; just not yet. Although there is a two-year deferment option my civilian career could be ruined. I would expect in the next seven years to probably do two years of deployment time. Not bad when you consider that would put me past 20 good years. The problem is flexibility in the civilian job market. While all employers will honor the laws protecting my job I cannot keep up my civilian qualifications and training while deployed. I would say some jobs I am looking at would fit well with the Reserve if I can find a billet close enough to home. These would be jobs I am qualified to do now but where I am not a key player in a company. I want to take on a job that requires serious devotion to support the company as a key individual which means a deployment can seriously hurt what I bring to that employer. Other jobs I am looking at require some serious dedication to get qualified and then maintain those qualifications. Going on a deployment and neglecting maintenance of qualifications would kill my civilian job. In my case I can’t see having my cake and eating it too. If I get the civilian career I want then Reserve is out. If I end up in mainstream corporate America where I am not special and can leave and come back to a job after deployments then the Reserve may be a good fit. I have loved serving but expect that my service, performance and commitment should lead to a retirement.

I wouldn’t recommend joining the Reserve after 4-5 years of active duty. The amount of time spent on weekends, let alone weeknights doing Reserve “stuff”, isn’t worth it for 15-16 years to get a retirement.
Sure, I joined the Reserve because I had about 10 years active time and I didn’t want to throw that away. But after a couple years when my Reserve billet started conflicting with my civ job, and my studying for my MBA, I found that I lost a lot of quality time with family and friends. As a result, I wouldn’t recommend someone joining the Reserve when they’ve only reached ~¼ of the way to retirement.

Four more say that work/life balance is an issue but diversification may be worth the effort:

It is difficult to serve two masters. My Reserve friends make me very aware of the challenges with being successful in the corporate and the military realms at the same time. With that said, it can be done. The successful individuals look closely at billet selection to include the location and the time associated with that particular billet. At the same time the successful individual is upfront with the civilian leadership as to the requirements associated with serving the nation. They are also able to, where possible, educate their bosses of the benefits to the company linked with their Reserve service. It may be sales leads, software expertise, certifications, licenses, the works, but the successful Reserve does seem to have a link between what he/she does in the civilian side and the military service. I would like to add that a servicemember separating after 10-12 years will be well served to join the Reserve team and benefit from the retirement which will materialize with another eight years. Think of it not in terms of years but in terms of possibly one deployment (which may be deferred), one weekend a month and two weeks a year. Even if promotion does not come their way, the financial benefits associated with the Reserve service is not easy to push aside given today’s economic environment. In addition, by diversifying the sources of income, the possibility of the civilian job being lost, will allow for Reserve work to take up the slack … while adding to that retirement benefit. It all starts with the right selection of a billet which allows for the family, civilian, and military career balance.

Why servicemembers don’t affiliate may be due to the reputation that the Reserve has developed. After 24 years of active and Reserve time I have been Inactive Ready Reserve for the last 12 months and the difference is palpable. I no longer get datacall e-mails, mid-day phone calls, pay problems, and a long (300+ mile one-way) drive every month. Fridays mean “liberty weekends” again. If you are senior, Reserve means you will likely be in a unit management position or two, such as training, admin, awards, XO/CO, etc…which takes more time than the 16 drill hours on the weekend. While I certainly miss the mission, the people, the camaraderie and the “real” work, continuing on didn’t make sense. There were too many Fridays and Sunday evenings where I drove while very tired, wired up on caffeine and doing calisthenics or napping at rest stops to make it. My recommendation: more drill sites, more flexibility, less admin load, and fewer hassles.

I spent 21 years Reserve, around nine active (two recalls) and had five Reserve commands. The fundamental issue is being treated on an equal basis: pay, rotation, careers. When I was mobilized after 9/11 (and I know some things have improved since I retired in 2007) we were seen as bodies to plug holes that others did not want to plug while simultaneously not being compensated the same (active duty retirement, BAH, Tricare, etc.). Sometimes it was seen as a way to get an O-5 in an O-4 job to present more seniority, sometimes as a way to get more help for insatiable demands from flag officers to always be perceived as “leaning forward.”

I left the Navy a year ago after seven years of active duty. I was so against the sandbox and having several let downs in my Navy career– due to being just a number– that I did not want to join ANY Reserves. Had I gotten my head on straight, and in hindsight, had I joined the Reserve right off the bat– I could have had a great part time job– since it has been a year and I am still unemployed.  With the way the economy is now, I think recruiters really need to talk to folks who are coming out. The Reserves could be a life saver, a great part-time job and a way to network and keep getting a paycheck. And yes, now I have passed the six-month mark, so if I sign with the Reserves I am only free from the sandbox for only a year. Thanks to the lack of planning and maybe had the recruiter given a better spin to us coming out of TAP– things may have been different.  I have seen career Reservists (those with no civilian jobs) and I have seen some of the disrespect from the active duty towards them, mostly because some of them are just so relaxed and even forget how to wear the uniform. Others are just gung go and are truly there to help because they love the Navy and the service. It’s what you make of it and how much time you put into it.

This final post breaks it all down:

First, you get to do some pretty cool Navy stuff without the long-term headache and pressure of doing it as your full-time job. Some of the most interesting jobs belong to the Reserve. The military becomes, in many ways, your hobby. And, it’s a hobby where you can get paid.
Second (speaking of pay) you get double time for drill weekends and two extra weeks of pay per year if your employer allows you to either take paid vacation or pays you anyway.
Third, the law is behind you. USERRA ensures that your deployments don’t screw up your job…sort of. You may still have to fight for your rights and it may put you in an uncomfortable situation at your civilian job.
Fourth, you still get the camaraderie and fulfillment of being part of the Navy. You meet fantastic people with amazing skills. Don’t be surprised to see an O-5 NYC beat cop or an E-4 CFO. The Reserve is a ready made network.
Fifth, if you live in NY… the New York Naval Militia!
Reasons to be a little skeptical about joining–
1.) Time commitment. To be successful, it’s a half time job. Expect 20 hours per week if you are in a leadership position and want to break out. Yes, you work for free sometimes.
2.) You will deploy at some point. Probably multiple times. If you are self-employed or a small business owner with few employees, you may have to shut down and send your clients elsewhere. I don’t recommend joining the Reserves until your business is very well established or if you are in any kind of private practice where you need to maintain client relationships.
3.) Although we try hard, the bureaucracy of the Reserve makes the Soviet Union look like a model of efficiency.

So how do you make your own decision?

One last piece of advice: if you’re part of a dual military couple then it’s typical for one of your careers to lead the other spouse’s career. At least one of you may choose the Reserve/Guard before you reach 20 years of service. You may even need to go inactive if you want to support family or the other spouse’s billet. It’s a work/life choice that comes up with every new set of orders. Hundreds of dual-military couples have made it work, and you can too.

Related articles:
Military drawdown predictions
Reserves and National Guard
Mobilizing with the Reserves and National Guard
Retiring from the Reserves and National Guard
Reserves and National Guard: Tricare Reserve Select and Tricare Retired Reserve health insurance
Retiring on multiple streams of income
Comparing an E-7 active-duty pension to an E-7 Reserve pension
Dual military couples
Facebook for the Navy’s surface warfare community

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