Building a strong foundation
Article originally posted on Medium. Article has been search engine optimized since original post.
If you’re committing to a future in the military, you might be struggling whether to go active-duty vs. reserve. There may be more jobs and opportunities on active-duty, but it would be great to get school done.
If you’re still unsure of what branch or job to select, check this article first.
Between the recruiters, your family, friends, and the endless supply of information available online, it can be challenging to have the confidence to know you are making the right choice.
I know a four-year commitment seems like a lot, and it is, but at least examine these three reasons to go big Army first.
You can go to College later
If you are like me, then you know you want to serve and go to college. In that case, the Reserve or National Guard seems to make sense, right? There are a few differences between active-duty vs. reserve educational assistance.
It was an easy choice for me, and I served in both National Guard and Reserve units while attending college. I learned new skills, earned money, received benefits, and fulfilled a desire to serve. That sounds like it’s straight out of an ad, but it’s true. In hindsight, I believe a few years on active-duty first would have helped tremendously.
Maybe the most common reason for enlisting in the Reserve or National Guard is the college benefits. Most recruiting advertisements will undoubtedly point this out.
While Reservists can get money for school, they may be subject to more stipulations than those on active. For example, GI Bill payments may differ for Reserve depending on service.
People can attend college online while on active duty, but it’s likely impractical. Kind of like when you take your homework with you on vacation; you have every intention of doing it but never find the time.
Instead of serving in the Reserve or Guard while in college, consider keeping them separate. Committing to 4 years of active duty right out of high school would allow you to gain full college benefits after being discharged.
Some people want to be traditional students and go to college immediately. This could be to keep up with friends, follow in someone’s footsteps, or just social expectations. Check to see if that is an essential piece of the puzzle.
It’s important to touch on minimum commitments between active-duty vs reserve. Four years is typically the shortest timeframe available on active-however both Reserve and Guard components require a 6 year enlistment.
Insurance and Medical
But wait! There’s more to benefits than just college. Medical, dental, and housing are the biggest. Like with the college money, Reserve veterans might find themselves being unqualified depending on their service.
There may be limitations on VA benefits between active-duty vs. reserve, but basic medical will be provided.
If you wait a few years, then yes, you will be slightly older than your classmates. What’s the rush? As you get older, you will find there isn’t much of a difference between 18 to 22-year-old people-they’re all kids.
Enlist on active for a few years and get those sweet benefits!
Now get off my lawn.
That was the money for college, but what about the job training that always gets sold with it?
Everyone has to perform a specific job duty, in addition to their basic training. Let’s say, for example, you decide to go into your state’s Army National Guard as a combat medic.
You will first do your ten weeks of Basic Combat Training (BCT) with fellow Guard, Reserve, and active-duty Soldiers. Following BCT comes Advanced Individual Training (AIT), where all Soldiers split up to train for their job, which varies depending on the specialty.
Active-duty Soldiers with the same job will be side by side with you in formation in AIT, but that is where the similarities end.
After graduating, you go back to your home of record with a date to report to your Guard unit. You will probably take a few well-deserved days off and sleep in until 6:00 AM.
Reserve/Guard Soldiers report to their unit 2–3 days a month. Then it’s time to fill the remainder of the month with school, work, or both in many cases.
Think about that; in one week, you could be working at Lowe’s, studying for finals, then finishing the week by training for three days in the field. Needless to say, that could be a demanding schedule to manage.
During that same week, your buddies from training are doing one thing; being a combat medic-and drunk, let’s be honest. With each passing day, they become better at their one job while you are half asleep at work, wondering why you are wrapping an Israeli bandage around a 2 x 4.
To sum it up, training itself is the same between active-duty vs. reserve. It’s just practiced more consistently on active, obviously.
Active-duty vs. Reserve Funds
In addition to having more time dedicated to training on active duty, there is typically more funding. More money equals more training. This may lead to new adventures such as airborne school or the prestigious Combat Medic course.
Guard units are funded by their state, and if they don’t have room in the budget to send you to an additional school, you won’t be going. Even when they do, they may only select certain Soldiers to go, being those that have scored the highest on Physical Training (PT) tests.
I should mention Reserve components are fully federal, but they are typically smaller units and may not need “cool guy schools.” Yes, that is what we called them.
If you are in the middle of school, is it really feasible to drop everything mid-semester for an advanced Army course?
Think about 4 years on active duty, then take a look at enlisting in the Guard or Reserve. Fresh Soldiers from active duty should be a strong asset to Reserve units as they have been working in that field for an extended period of time.
I say should because active service doesn’t always equal awesome Soldiers, just keeping it real.
Since prior service Soldiers are generally more knowledgeable and experienced, they may be more likely to gain the next promotion quicker than others.
A fuller experience
The last tool that any self-respecting recruiter will reach for is the overall military experience.
This consists of battling a giant lava creature in an amphitheater of people cheering you on, by the way. Wow, that commercial is about 15 years old now, moving along.
Let’s take a look at our Combat Medic that joined the National Guard. She will get some experience during monthly drills and during Annual Training (AT), which is the 2–3 weeks a year they referred to in the advertisements.
During this time, she gets some great practical application of the job and a chance to see the bigger picture while being a part of elaborate exercises involving other units, including combat simulations.
Or she might be assigned to a firing range and sip energy drinks in her ambulance; everyone’s experience is a bit different.
This is where you get team-building experience, leadership, and delegation, as you move up in rank. That’s great, but it’s only for a few weeks, then it’s back to drilling on the weekends.
Extended Training or Deployment
There are ways to gain more experience as a part-timer, most notably a deployment into a combat theater. Aside from that, there are opportunities for humanitarian efforts or natural disasters, which may be voluntary.
This would give you more experience in your field, but again, it’s probably going to interrupt school or your job. While Reservists and Guardsmen are protected by federal laws to ensure they are not penalized for mobilizing, it is still going to turn life upside down for you.
It’s more of an issue when dealing with school, as you may have to retake a full semester that you had partially completed. Even if it doesn’t cost you monetarily, there is a time investment you lose out on.
If 4 years of college sounds appealing for the Animal House experience, the kids on active duty are having one of their own. Of course, the student body is going to be a bit different.
I say do both; it will surely get the partying out of your system. You won’t be staring out the window regretfully at 41, thinking, “Why didn’t I have more fun?”
You might still be hungover.
For many people, Guard or Reserve is simply the best choice given the circumstances, and there is nothing wrong with that. It was for me at the time.
If you’re on the fence between active-duty vs. reserve, strongly consider getting a solid foundation on a four-year enlistment.
From there, you can get a degree and continue service in the Reserve to further your career and have a secondary source of income.
Four years seems like a lot, but it goes by quickly.