Should You Join the National Guard or Reserves? (Podcast 009)

Joining the National Guard or Reserves is a big career decision. In this article and podcast, we examine the benefits and pros and cons of joining the National Guard or Reserves after leaving active duty. We also cover topics such as how to earn retirement points, how to earn a Good Year toward retirement, benefits while serving in the Guard or Reserves, health care options, retirement benefits, and more.
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When I separated from active duty, I was burned out. I served for 6.5 years, completing five deployments and a year-long special duty assignment with no fixed base (I lived out of a suitcase for a full year). During my career, I literally spent more time away from home station than at home station. I needed a break, and joining the Guard or Reserves was the last thing on my mind.

Several years after leaving the military, I came around to the idea of serving again.  Earlier this summer, after an 8.5-year break in service, I joined the Air National Guard. And I love it. And I’ve learned that joining after a long break in service isn’t that uncommon.

Join Guard or Reserves
Should you join the National Guard or Reserves?

In today’s podcast, we discuss joining the National Guard or Reserves. Joining the Guard or Reserves certainly isn’t for everyone. But there are many benefits to joining, including pay, access to affordable health care, education benefits, working toward a retirement pension, and one of the most important for me – being part of the military mission again.

Rob Aeschbach

Joining us in our podcast is a special guest, Rob Aeschbach. He is a retired Marine officer (12 years on active duty, and 10 years in the Reserves). Rob is a financial planner in the VA area. His financial planning practice focuses on helping military members and their families.

Rob was also our guest for podcast #3

Should You Join the Guard or Reserves?

I’ll start this off by saying this podcast and article aren’t trying to recruit you. I’m excited about the Guard and Reserves because I recently joined the Guard. But I’m also excited because I had many misconceptions about the Guard and Reserves. And to be honest, I think many active duty members do. Our goal is to help you look at the option of joining the Guard or Reserves in a different light. I was someone who dismissed the Guard and Reserves without a second thought – primarily because I was burned out from active duty. Today, I’m grateful I gave the idea a second chance.

Let’s discuss some of the benefits, pros & cons, and misconceptions about serving in the Guard and Reserves.

What Are the Guard and Reserves?

In short, the National Guard and Reserves are a reserve component designed to back up the active duty military. Members of the Reserve Corps typically work on a part-time basis to maintain proficiency in their career field.

Both the Guard and Reserves are very similar. Still, members of the National Guard and Air National Guard can be called upon by their state governor for civil relief actions, such as natural disaster relief, to help with terrorism threats, riots, etc. The federal government can also call upon Guard and Reserve members to relieve active duty members, fulfill deployment needs, and more.

Similarities of Guard and Reserves:

  • Both serve in a Reserve capacity for active duty
  • Typical service requirement = One Weekend a Month, Two Weeks a Year

Difference between Guard and Reserves:

  • Guard = State Mission that can be called to both state and federal missions, depending on the orders.
  • Reserves = Federal Mission.

Your Commitment: 1 Weekend a Month, Two Weeks a Year

The service commitment for the Guard and Reserves is often referred to as “one weekend a month, two weeks a year.”

This is more or less your commitment when you join the Guard or Reserves. But you may find that your requirements may vary by unit. If you are prior service, you may be able to join for as short a period as one year. Or you can join for up to six years or longer, depending on your contract.

Most Guard and Reserve units drill the first full weekend of the month and have a two-week Active Training (AT) period each year in which the entire unit drills. Some Guard units have a little more flexibility. For example, my unit has two three-day drill weekends during the year, and we take one month off in the summer. This is a little more friendly for vacation time.

Individual Mobilized Augmentees (IMA) in Reserves: The Reserves also have IMA slots in which members can backfill active duty slots on an as-needed, volunteer basis. IMAs typically don’t have the traditional one weekend a month, two weeks a year schedule. The benefit is a little more flexibility and the ability to write your own ticket.

You’ll hear more about this in the podcast, where Rob discusses the benefits of having an IMA slot.

Guard & Reserve Drill Pay

Members receive Drill Pay based on the days they serve. Pay is based on the active duty pay scale. However, your pay is based on the time you serve. Let’s break down the pay for Guard and Reserve members that works the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” schedule.

For each Drill weekend, you actually get paid for 4 drills, or 4 days of work, even though you only work 2 days. The pay for each drill is 1/30th of the base pay for your rank and years of service. The reason you get paid for two days of work, even though you only work one day, is that you don’t receive pay for BAH and BAS when you are on Drill Duty.

Here are the 2021 Drill Pay Charts.

You receive BAH and BAS on the days you serve your annual AT days (your two weeks of annual training). However, you will receive Reserve Component BAH (or Non-Locality BAH), not BAH for your location.

How much will you get paid?  It depends on your rank and time in service, of course, but you should make several thousand dollars per year. Many servicemembers volunteer for extra days and can easily bring in over five figures per year in additional income. Here is a list of Guard and Reserve Drill Pay charts, or you can use the Drill Pay calculator.

Guard & Reserve Retirement Benefits

Retirement is based on earning 20 good years of service. Your active duty time will count toward a good year of service. And if you served a partial year of active duty, it may give you an additional year of service. For example, I extended six months on my active duty contract, finishing with 6.5 years on active duty. I immediately transferred to the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) to finish my 8-year commitment. That half a year of active duty, plus the other six months in the IRR, gave me a good year of service toward retirement. So, I have seven good years already.

What is a Good Year of Service? A good year of service equals 50 points. You will earn 1 point for each drill served (remember, you earn 4 drills per drill weekend, so 12 drill weekends per year is 48 points). You also earn 15 participation points per year, and 1 point for each day of AT time (your annual training, which is usually around 15 days per year). So you can easily earn about 78 points per year with regular service (48+15+15 = 78).

Earning additional points toward retirement. You can also earn more points for each day you serve, for performing burial duty and certain Honor Guard functions, and for completing correspondence courses, including Professional Military Education, or even non-military courses.

Related Topic:

Retirement Benefits Start at Age 60

In most cases, retirement benefits start at age 60, including the Pension, and health care benefits. There are a couple of important points to note: you will be a Gray Area retiree until you reach age 60. During this time you will have base access, can use base facilities, and can shop at the BX, PX, NEX, Commissary, etc. You just won’t receive retirement pay or health care until age 60.

Receive early retirement pay: In some cases, you can receive your pension before age 60, provided you were activated for at least 90 days during a fiscal year after January 2008. The details are case-specific, so I recommend reading more about early retirement to get all the details.

Members of the Guard and Reserves are eligible for affordable health care through the TRICARE Reserve Select program. You must be in a drilling status to be eligible for this program (not in the IRR). There is also a Dental program. Here are the rates and more information:

TRICARE Retired Reserve: You can also sign up for TRICARE Retired Reserve while you are awaiting full health care coverage when you turn age 60. These rates are unsubsidized and run approximately $390 for an individual and $961 for a family. Here are other healthcare options for retired Reservists.

TRICARE Prime & Standard. When you turn age 60 you will be eligible for either TRICARE Prime or TRICARE Select. You will be required to transition to TRICARE for Life when you turn age 65.

Education Benefits in Guard & Reserves

The Guard and Reserves offer Education benefits, including the Montgomery GI Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR). The rates for the MGIB-SR are lower than what you would earn on active duty, so you may want to look into the MGIB if you are prior service. You may also earn access to the ost-9/11 GI Bill if you are activated.

Some states have their own benefit for Guard Members: I happen to live in Illinois, which is one of the few states that offer free college tuition at a state college for members of their state Guard units. I believe there are only five states with a similar benefit. However, many other states offer scholarships, tuition reductions, or other benefits. Be sure to look into your state’s benefits.

Career Options in the Guard and Reserves

More often than not, you have more career flexibility in the Guard and Reserves than you do in the active duty military. I was able to change career fields when I joined the Air National Guard. It’s also not uncommon for Guard and Reserve members to work in multiple career fields during their careers. Availability is dependent upon your base mission and the needs of your unit.

My recommendation is to contact the recruiter at your local unit(s) to ask which jobs are available, and what kind of promotion opportunity is there.

You may also find that you are able to fill a billet with promotion potential. Some units will allow you to serve in a billet either one pay grade above or below your current pay grade. But other units may allow you to fill a billet two grades above your current pay grade. This gives you an immediate opportunity for career advancement, provided you meet the time in grade requirements and other qualifications for promotion.

Travel Requirements

You might be surprised to know that many Guard and Reserve members travel long distances to perform their drill duty. I counted license plates from about 7 neighboring states at my last drill. This isn’t uncommon. The good news is your unit may put you up in a hotel room if you live outside of commuting distance. You may even be eligible for reimbursements when traveling to Drill Duty, depending on your unit’s policies.

IDT travel reimbursements: The service secretary for each branch of the Reserves is allowed to authorize travel reimbursements for members who live more than 150 miles from their base, however, not all branches currently reimburse Reserve members for travel. Rules also vary for National Guard Units. We have some general rules for IDT Travel Reimbursements, but we recommend contacting your unit for more specific information regarding unit participation and availability.

You may be able to deduct travel on your taxes: Even if you can’t receive a reimbursement for your travel expenses, you may be eligible to claim mileage and other travel expenses on your taxes if you have to travel more than 100 miles for drill duty. You can also claim half the cost of your meals on your taxes. Those benefits don’t negate the cost of travel, but it certainly helps when you file your taxes.

Miscellaneous Benefits

In addition to education benefits, you can earn access to the VA Loan program, making homebuying easier and more affordable. Here is more information on VA Loan eligibility for Guard and Reserve members.

Other benefits include base access, the ability to shop on base, use base facilities, military discounts, etc. And for me, the biggest benefit is being part of the military again. I missed being part of something bigger than myself. Being part of a unit and a mission and that satisfaction comes from a job well done.

There is a lot more covered in the podcast, so I hope you give it a listen.

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  1. Elliot says

    1. army reservists and army national guard members are not considered veterans until they accumulated 180 days in active duty. Time spent in basic training and advanced individual training doesn’t count towards active duty time.

    2. There are full-time reservists and guardsmen. Active Guard Reserve. To get into the AGR, you have to be discharged in good standing from your last active, reserve, or guard component. Be between 18-54 years old. Hold the rank E-4 to E-8. Pass a Defensive Central Investigative Index. And not have been removed from active duty in the last 3 years.

    3. Many employers will be unable or unwilling to accommodate the 1 weekend a month, 2 weeks per summer schedule. And will look for sneaky ways to get rid of the guard or reservist employee

    4. There are only 3-5 (3 years active, 5 years IRR) and 6-2 options in the guard. Doing 3 years is less risky but leaves you with very little benefits. You don’t get the MGI bill. You don’t get a non prior service enlistment bonus or quick ship bonus. You also don’t get enrolled in the student loan repayment program if you do just 3 years.

    5. Employers don’t get federal tax credit for hiring guard members who have not been deployed

    6. Responding to state emergencies for natural disaster doesn’t count towards active duty time

    7. Recruiters will never admit that the government can take back the bonus if the service member didn’t serve the length of his contract in the job for which he received his bonus. Innocent servicemembers who had received bonuses also required to pay back when a kickback scheme involving fraudulent recruiting was discovered.

    8. The GI Bill and TA cannot be used for lateral or lower degrees. If you have a BA in history, you can’t use the TA or GI bill to get a BA in computer information systems. I don’t know if this rule applies to trade certifications though.

    9. Unlike active duty soldiers, reservists and guardsmen have to make time on their own to stay physically fit.

    10. One definite upside is that (based on what I heard) the guard and reserve give non-prior service members more freedom to choose where they want to be stationed and what MOS they can choose. Even if they failed out of their first AIT, they’ll go back to their RSP unit and are usually given their 2nd of the 3 job choices they signed the contract under.

    11. The guard consists primarily of former active duty guys and college students trying to get tuition assistance. So people seem to be much more relaxed and agreeable than active duty, which is a 24 hour, 365 day job with no overtime. During the short time I was in BCT before I was medically discharged, I ran into more than a few snakes in the grass even as a guy who stayed out of trouble for the most part. You’re being circled by wolves in that environment. Lot of huge egos who feel the need to assert themselves. It’s a nasty feeling.

    • Ryan Guina says

      1. True, unless the member retires from the military with 20 or more years of service. At that point, they are considered veterans.
      2. There are also officers who are AGRs. Members seeking an AGR position should speak with their base recruiter or personnel/human resources office for more information.
      3. Anecdotal comment, and potentially illegal. There are many more employers that are very supportive of members in the Guard or Reserves. Many even offer extended time off, differential pay, and other benefits.
      4. There are other service options as well, especially for prior service. Potential recruits should seek advice from a recruiter for more specific information about the available options.
      7. Members should always review the contract before signing it, and maintain their own personal copies. They can also consult with the JAG office (even prior to signing their contract) if they are uncertain about the terms of the contract, or what they need to do to fulfill said terms.
      8. False. The GI Bill can be used for many programs, including lateral degrees, certification programs, and much more. Tuition Assistance can generally only be used for a degree program higher than the member has already achieved. The base education office can provide more information about Tuition Assistance benefits. Veterans can contact the VA for more info about approved programs for the GI Bill.
      9. False. All military members have to make time on their own to stay physically fit. Some active duty units have mandatory PT. But many do not. And the mandatory PT, if present, may or may not be sufficient. Maintaining physical standards is always up to the member, regardless of whether they are active or reserve.
      10. Guard and Reserve units are in fixed locations and members aren’t subjected to PCS requirements (permanent change of station, or changing bases due to mission needs). So yes, members are free to join any unit that has an opening for which they are qualified. IF the member fails out of AIT or tech school, they are often given the option to retrain (at the Commander’s discretion). The job they retrain into is subject to availability and member qualification (ASVAB scores, physical qualifications, etc.).
      11. Every unit has a unique culture and can be made up of different types of people. Two people in the same unit can have vastly different experiences. So there is no quick summary that will apply to everyone. That stands for active duty, Guard, and Reserves.

      • Torrence Wiseman says

        I am 16 years old and from just this past month i can not stop thinking about joining the National Guard next year, it was first brought up by one of my married in family relatives Brent Wienk, he told my parents that i should join cause it will help me and my family in the long run. Ever since he talked to my parents about me joining that is all i want to do next summer is to join The National Guard. I can;t wait for hat day to come so i can surprise my great grandpa and see all the smiling faces my family will give to me because they are proud of me for what i am going to do for our country. My father will be proud for his 16 year old daughter for what she is doing. When ever that day comes is when i change my life for good in a good way. Thank you so much Brent for this opportunity and this chance to help our country through any rough or good times. I would have never thought of joining The National Guard if you haven’t gave me this opportunity to that could make my life a lot happier because i am helping people out. Thank you again.

  2. Gerald A Smith says

    I too joined the Air National Guard after 11 years Active Duty. I was called back to Active Duty after the events of 911. I later retired after a combined 24 years ( Having served as a First Sergeant for almost 4 years after being recalled. I went on to obtain a Master’s Degree and hired as a GS- 13 six months after graduating. Two months later promoted to GS-14 Branch Chief . Although retirement pay isnt until age 60, I was allowed to buy back 15 years of my Military time toward my federal retirement (essentially working 10 years) , but credited for 25 years (unless I decide to work longer). The military rated me at 50% disability for some service connected injuries and they have compensated me monthly since I retired. I am just regular that loves our country and serving, but also wanted to share the fact that outside of the pride to serving brings, there are many other benefits as well ( a second retirement income, zero down when purchasing a home, Base privileges etc).

    MSgt Retired
    Gerald Smith

  3. Thomas says

    When you re-joined the reserve, did you come back in under traditional retirement or blended retirement? Do prior service personnel have a choice?

  4. Thomas says

    This is great information. I’m re-affiliating with the Navy Reserve after a 9 year break from active duty … glad to know I’m not completely alone in that length of break. You are spot-on with your observation that the appreciation for wearing the uniform is greater the second time around. You see things differently in your late 30s vs your late 20s. Thanks.

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