One weekend a month, two weeks a year. Good start.
Add in money for education and potential cash bonuses. Discounted health care and mileage toward retirement. All in all, the National Guard and reserves make a pretty strong case for continuing in service once you leave active duty.
Still, there are some things you may not know. Some of it is good news — some less so. In any case, it's always best to look before leaping. Some lesser-known aspects of service in the Guard and reserve service:
One weekend … or maybe more
"For people who are leaving active duty and join a National Guard or Reserve unit, the thing they don't know is the actual time commitment," said Sgt. 1st Class Ann Marie Schult-Slosser, who joined the Illinois Army National Guard after 12 years of active duty.
"As a senior officer, those two days a month are not adequate to complete all the tasks: Not the administrative tasks, not your job tasks. A lot of Guardsmen think nothing of spending their personal time to get things accomplished. They use their personal vehicles, their personal computers. That was a surprise to me."
The brochure promises discount health care, but members may be surprised at just how deep that discount goes, especially if they've just left active duty for the private sector. The average family pays $204 a month for Tricare Reserve Select, while the average commercial policy runs $304, said Andy Jandik, spokesperson for Navy Reserve Minneapolis. The savings may come as a happy surprise to many.
The money may also be better than expected. You'll drill at your full active-duty rate, with a drill weekend equivalent to four days of active-duty pay, Jandik said. Between all ranks, that averages to $400 for the weekend.
Finding your groove
Staff Sgt. Neil Limber left active duty in 2011 after nine years and joined the Illinois Army National Guard. Like many in the same position, he felt unprepared for the shift in routine. "I didn't know the daily lifestyle, what normally happens — the battle rhythm," he said. "Coming off active duty, the days were very regimented. You start off with PT; you have your normal duty job; you go home at a certain time. It was very structured."
That approach doesn't work in the Guard, where service is just one aspect of people's working lives. Rather than feel out of sync, Limber has tried to turn the new mentality to his advantage.
"I speak with my soldiers during the month, to make a game plan for the drill weekend. If there's anything we can do beforehand, we will get that done so we're not just running around until late in the evening when our weekend comes," he said.
Few people join the reserves thinking they will be advancing their civilian careers, but often the two go hand in hand. Reserve service can connect you to prominent people in the community. Show a strong work ethic and professional ability, and you may get noticed by someone in a position to help your career, said Master Sgt. Shawn J. Jones, a public affairs specialist working for the Air Force Reserve Command Recruiting Service.
"It's certainly not unusual to hear stories about how unintentional networking during Reserve duty helped a citizen airman find a civilian job," Jones said.
On active duty, you're always at the ready, physically and mentally, said Gunnery Sgt. Robert Noyes, a career planner in the 4th Marine Division in New Orleans.
That's not always so in the reserve components. To stay in top form, reservists need to take greater responsibility for their personal program.
"You need to find ways to challenge yourself to continue to be physically ready. You have to continue your routine outside the drill weekend," Noyes said. "Mentally, you need stay engaged if you are going to lead Marines. You have to stay up on the latest news and the latest policies so that you can influence Marines and train Marines when the drill weekend comes."
In the balance
For Schult-Slosser, Guard service is worth balancing these pros and cons.
"With 12 and a half years of active-duty service, I didn't want to lose my retirement potential. I wanted to maintain my proficiency, and I wanted to keep my foot in the door with regard to deployment because I love deploying," she said.
"And I think that being a soldier in any capacity is a worthwhile cause."