Sanctuary and Military Mobilization

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A reader writes:

I’m currently deployed to Afghanistan. I am very close to sanctuary and may reach it during the end of my leave after my deployment is over. If I don’t reach sanctuary by the end of this deployment I will return back to the Reserves with no less than 17 years and 11 months of “active federal” time. If I remain in the Reserves and I get orders to perform duty over 30 days, that will put me well over 18 years.
I’m wondering if I have to be mobilized in order to apply for sanctuary or if can I be on “active duty” orders in which I will then reach my 18 years and achieve sanctuary.

I’m conflicted because before I was deployed I was eligible for a promotion and I needed a course completion to get promoted. Of course I must remain in this rank for a period of two years in order to receive the retirement pay.

My question is if I remain in the reserves for one year and get promoted can I apply for sanctuary once I go on active duty orders for anything? Because of my MOS, I am constantly on orders longer than 30 days at a given time.”

If you cross over 18 years of service on a set of active-duty orders, whether you’re on duty or on leave, then you’ve reached sanctuary status. The only thing that matters is being on those orders as you cross over 18 years. If you’ve demobilized and returned to Reserve status before 18 years then you’ll only reach sanctuary if you go back on active-duty orders and cross over 18 years while on those orders.

The key to “active-duty orders” is a set of orders longer than 29 days, which means that you get an active-duty ID card and you’re receiving active-duty benefits and you’re no longer considered to be “in training”. AT or ADT orders do not count because they’re 29 days or less. If you’re on active duty orders for longer than 29 days when you cross 18 years, whether those orders are ADSW or a full-blown mobilization, then you’re in sanctuary.

You might be able to delay your next set of active-duty orders in order to enter sanctuary on your timetable. You could certainly return to drilling in the Reserves, try to get the course and complete it, see if you get promoted, and then request a set of active-duty orders to enter sanctuary. I hope that the Reserves does the right thing by you and ensures that you get both the course and the selection for promotion. You have to decide how long you’re willing to wait for those.

But maybe there’s another way. Do you have to be drilling in the Reserves to get selected for promotion? If you’re on active-duty orders, could you complete the course and then get promoted? If you’re on active-duty orders, could you skip the course (or get a waiver) and be promoted by virtue of your performance and your accomplishments?

Time in grade is more straightforward. Federal law requires servicemembers to serve three years TIG in order to retire with that grade, but service secretaries have the authority to waive it down to as little as two years. The waiver from three years to two is almost routine during a drawdown, but I strongly doubt that we’ll ever see SECDEF ask Congress for the authority to approve less than two years. So you’ll have to stay in that rank for at least two years before you can keep it on your retiree ID card.

However, the pay is another matter. Your High Three active-duty pension will be based on the average of the highest 36 months of pay that you received during your career. Even if you’re only in a promoted rank for 23 months and have to retire at the lower rank, your pension will still be boosted by that 23 months at the higher pay. The sooner you get back on active duty and cross the line to sanctuary, the sooner you can get to 20 years and start that active-duty pension. You have to decide what’s more important to you: retiring at a higher rank or starting your pension sooner.

If you demobilize before you reach sanctuary, then every day in Reserve status means one day less of active duty. It’s one day less of pay, and it’s one more day of delay before you reach 20 years of federal service and can draw an active-duty pension. It’s one more day of counting on the Reserves to help you complete the course, and hoping that the Reserves will promote you despite a drawdown.

Your service will track your active-duty time and will know when a set of orders would put you in sanctuary, because your service has to pay the difference in pension before DoD will take over that funding. If you’re on Reserve status when your service’s policy changes or budgets are slashed, or if (for some weird bureaucratic reason) you’re not able to get active-duty orders to reach sanctuary, then you’re losing an active-duty pension worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you have an accident or get sick or have a family emergency while you’re in Reserve status, then you’re delaying your return to active duty and jeopardizing that pension.

Every day that you delay sanctuary is costing you money. I’m painfully familiar with how quickly DoD policy changed after the Cold War during a decade of drawdown. I can only speculate what collateral damage will fall on DoD from the coming legislative battles over sequestration and the federal debt ceiling. In my opinion, waiting in the Reserves for a promotion is a risk that you can’t afford to take.

Even if everything works out and you get the promotion on schedule, it will be months before your higher pay (and higher pension) makes up for the delay of obtaining that promotion. If you’re waiting in the Reserves for a year (even with drill pay or a civilian paycheck) then it’ll take years for your active-duty pay and your active-duty pension to make up for missing a year of active-duty pay.

If I was in your situation (with a heightened awareness of abrupt policy changes) then first I’d determine exactly when I’d go over 18 years of active duty. I’d try to extend the current mobilization so that I’d cross over 18 on that set of orders before demobilizing. If that didn’t work then I’d get back on any set of active-duty orders as soon as I demobilized so that I was getting to 18 as quickly as possible.

Perhaps while you’re on this mobilization you could consult your active-duty chain of command about this course and your promotion eligibility. Maybe you can obtain the course (or its equivalent) or get a waiver and be eligible for promotion. See if you can get promoted while you’re on active duty instead of having to revert to Reserve status. Once you’re in sanctuary you can apply for integration into your service’s active-duty forces, and then apply to stay on active duty until you’re promoted and reach at least two years of time in grade. That’s another way to get your pension and still retire at a higher rank, and it happens a lot faster than waiting in the Reserves.

Please let us know how it works out. I’ve been getting a lot of sanctuary questions lately, and your experience is going to guide other servicemembers who are facing this issue.

Related articles:
Military Reserve sanctuary retirement and time in grade
Military Reserve sanctuary and active-duty retirement
Military Reserve and National Guard retirement calculators
Sanctuary and military retirement during a Reserve career

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  1. Doug, you are correct, we did have to meet the qualifications requirements for the orders, however, we had enough qualified personnel who weren’t hitting sanctuary that we had options. If that is not the case, then it’s a command decision, which as you’ve alluded to can go quite high.

  2. My experience as a commander was that they watched the sanctuary time for Reservists *VERY* closely and had Reservists sign waivers regarding sanctuary – i.e. they would forgo sanctuary if they took orders that took them over those 18 years – otherwise, we would find someone else for those orders who didn’t have that burden. I had many of my personnel sign those waivers when deployments were much more prevalent than today. Be aware they may be watching you and your time……and if they haven’t then that’s your luck.

    • Yep, Army and Marines seem to be much more liberal in their sanctuary policy. Navy– pretty tight. I’ve seen Navy Personnel N9 step in to cancel mobilization orders issued by a PACOM flag officer.

      I think the Air Force practice of signing away your federal sanctuary rights is skating on mighty thin legal ice… the orders should go to the best-qualified servicemember, not the cheapest. Still, none of the lawsuits have been successful– yet.

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