Commentary

With Afghanistan withdrawal set, a reservist’s war comes to an end

It’s simple math, really. The total active duty U.S. military is only 1.4 million people on a good day. However, the total number of all reservists, plus military retirees and folks alive who have ever served in the U.S. military, are in excess of 25 million.

Now, we have to acknowledge upfront that active-duty folks are up on the latest tech and the latest available training. Because of this, they tend to be a bit brash and cocky and a tad full of themselves. They like to think they run things. Reservists know, however, the active-duty guys are merely the current watch standers who are only doing this stuff for the first time. Also, reservists know that all our wars are actually won on the field of logistics. And reservists run logistics.

You’ve probably read about us reservists and ex-military retirees. This final wind-down as we depart the last of Afghanistan and Iraq brings an end to a reservist’s war that has lasted two decades. Most military folks who were serving when it started weren’t on the rolls when it ended. Like most Americans with a civilian career but a military background, I initially watched that first World Trade Center tower burn on 9/11 with some suspicion. We reservists of course, have an additional special filter regarding analysis of world events. So, when I saw the second plane hit the second tower on our bedroom TV that morning, I turned to my wife and said “there goes my day job.” Sure enough, the phone rang three days later, and I didn’t come home for the next two years.

Looking back now, if someone had told me the day before, on Sept. 10, 2001, that as a reservist with over 20 years total service in the sleepy backwater of the reserves, I would be back on active duty a week later for the next two years under wartime conditions, I would have thought you were nuts. I would have laughed at you and told you that it would take the Russian Navy sailing into Chesapeake Bay with all guns blazing to mobilize me again.

Age old lesson relearned: be careful what you laugh at.

The reserves are a very interesting organization. Reservists are everywhere, but most choose to keep a low profile in the civilian world. There is an old adage among drilling reservists that when your spouse, your civilian employer, and your Reserve bosses are about all equally angry at you, you’ve struck the right balance. Sad to say, there is much truth to this.

As a drilling reservist, you will find that early on, you must choose whether your civilian career or Reserve career will be the most important. Forget what you heard about balance. If you do good work in the reserves, you tend to be rewarded with more work, or at least heavily solicited to go back on active duty and do an extra 30 days here or 60 days there. Inevitably, you will have to emphasize one career over the other. Once you choose the primary career, expect to catch heat from your secondary choice.

One time-tested approach is to go low profile, and tell almost no one you work with in the civilian world that you’re in the reserves. You simply sneak away one weekend a month and you use your summer vacation to quietly do your annual active duty. It’s not supposed to be like that, but quite frequently, it is. There are, of course, many military-friendly civilian employers out there who don’t mind having reservists on board. However, any drilling reservist can tell you their favorite civilian-employer horror story regarding the other employers. Civilian managers expect to be able to move and assign their employees around the chessboard as needed. Reservists are in a protected class however, and they have to be given time off to do their one weekend a month, their two weeks in the summer, plus any other involuntary mobilizations that come up. As a result, many reservists find themselves on undesirable civilian employer assignments and infinite night shifts, passed over for promotions, or put on the “B” list at work.

Ultimately, you can still find yourself out of a job. Though this is, of course, illegal, many companies have perfected highly clever methods for culling reservists. I once worked as a senior manager in a prominent global consulting firm everyone has heard of. I had been there about six months when I had to leave the important client project that I was working on to do my two weeks of annual active duty. It was a major joint-service exercise that year with inflexible dates, and I was a key staff member. I returned at the end of two weeks to find I was being “downsized.” When I closely questioned the reasons why I was being downsized, the only answer I got back was “we question your commitment to the firm.” No dummies this company, they were of course careful to not ever mention the word “military” or “reservist” even once. In the end, I got a better job at a better company, but this scenario still happens to reservists every day.

Are reservists in it for the rank and status? Well, most people I’ve met in the various Reserve branches already have established civilian careers. While they don’t mind making rank, they tend not to be obsessed with it like the active forces who are playing the Great Game for the first time. The cross section of people in the reserves is also much more akin to what you used to see back when we had the draft: doctors, lawyers, American Indian chiefs. Honest to God, I attended a reservist military training course once with a real American Indian chief. Also, teachers, policemen, firemen, salesmen, truck drivers and tech nerds. Because of this, a lot of civilian networking and business relationships are formulated in the reserves. If you want to see true diversity in government service, come to the reserves.

Do reservists do it for money? It comes in handy, but when I was serving, my paycheck for an entire year as a drilling reservist wouldn’t even pay the taxes on my civilian salary. Subtract the unreimbursed gas, airfares, and rental cars many of us paid for to get to our assigned drill sites, and the net in many cases was zero. Many reservists don’t just flop down to the local armory anymore. It hasn’t really sunk in with Congress yet that, except for the National Guard, large chunks of the reserve don’t drill in their hometowns anymore, and haven’t for many years. Increasingly, reservists tend to be integrated with active-duty forces now — not hometown reserve units — and so reservists pay out of pocket for the privilege of crossing state lines, and sometimes the entire country, to go to drill weekends.

So, what makes people stay in the Reserve? Well the best answer I ever got was from an enlisted Reserve senior chief in the Coast Guard who I happened to share a bench with while waiting to take a military physical one day. He was a reservist, too, and so we struck up one of those obligatory “so-what-do-you-do-in-the-real-world?” conversations. His answer stunned me, so much so I had him show me a business card. He was the chief operating officer of a well-known multinational Fortune 500 corporation. His total compensation package approached $25 million a year. A company limo picked him up every morning and took him to and from work daily and, well, to make a long story short, he was one of those “Masters of the Universe” types that truly run global big business. Yet, one weekend a month there he was, sort of hiding out in the reserves — as a highly valued but still rank-and-file E-8 senior chief. Almost no one at his civilian employer knew about this other life, and even fewer in the Reserve knew what he did in civilian life. Incredulous, I asked him: “You have everything you need. So why on earth are you still doing this?” This was his answer. “Twenty-eight days a month, my job is to make money. Every decision I make is governed by what’s best for the company and what will make the shareholders and Wall Street happy and increase the value of our stock. This job in the reserves is my hobby and my partial payback. I give 100 percent of my reserve pay straight to charity. It is the antidote to what I do the other 28 days a month. Two days a month, I get to do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing to do.”

Hopefully, we won’t have any more wars in our future. But if we do, two decades of conflict have taught us one thing for sure: that war will be a reservist’s war, too. Because at our core DNA as Americans, we are all still a nation of Minutemen.

Timothy Aines is a former active-duty Marine Corps officer, and later, a retired Coast Guard commander reservist and businessman from Illinois.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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