As if joining the military alone was hard enough, you’re stuck weighing options between active duty vs. reserve.
Or, maybe you decided on a Reserve or National Guard component.
That’s what I did.
Friends and recruiters advised me to consider active duty, but I didn’t listen.
I insisted on finishing college as soon as possible, so I enlisted in the Army Reserve.
With reserve benefits, I knew I could build my resume and pay for school.
At least partially. More on that later.
After my initial contract expired, I switched to the National Guard.
Yet, in hindsight, I believe a few years on active duty would have been more beneficial to my military and civilian career.
And while the reserve might be best for you, I suggest checking out these pointers before signing the infamous dotted line.
I’ll lean towards enlisted Army examples in this article as that was my path, but the advice applies to all branches.
First, let’s make sure you’re aware of all options.
Here’s a breakdown of all US Armed Forces components with headcount:
What’s the deal with the National Guard, you ask?
Each state maintains its own National Guard, derived from state militias dating back to the 17th century.
But now, the National Guard falls under the US Army and US Air Force.
Tasks for National Guard units include natural disasters or civil unrest. However, the federal government can attach the National Guard to active duty units for overseas service.
For this article, I’ll use the term ‘reserve’ as a catch-all for both reserve and Guard components.
Now, here’s why I think recruits can greatly benefit from a few years on active duty before focusing on school or switching to reserve status.
Active Duty Vs. Reserve College Benefits
College benefits are one of the most common reasons to join the reserve.
And if you’re like me, you want to get college out of the way as soon as possible.
For that, the reserves makes sense.
But I learned that while I did get tuition assistance and GI Bill benefits, my education wasn’t 100% covered.
Watch out for the fine print, active duty vs. reserve benefits may contrast depending on service.
Active Duty Vs. Reserve Montgomery and Post 9/11 GI Bills
The Montgomery and Post 9/11 GI Bills allow 36 months or more of financial assistance for school. But the amount varies depending on eligibility.
The Post 9/11 Bill covers the in-state tuition for public universities.
Students can attend private schools, but they won’t cover the extra costs.
In addition, the Post 9/11 bill provides a monthly check and covers book costs and possibly even moving fees.
The Montgomery GI Bill comes in two forms, the MGIB Active Duty and the MGIB Selected Reserve. The latter is open to reserve and National Guard members and offers a monthly stipend of $397 for full-time students.
But the MGIB-AD pays out around $2,122 monthly, depending on the year.
While both Montgomery and Post 9/11 GI Bills are available to active duty veterans and reservists, there are stipulations for part-timers.
The Post 9/11 GI Bill is only available to reservists if they are activated for one of the following:
- Title 10 active duty supporting named contingency operations
- All voluntary active duty, with the exception of active duty for medical care and medical evaluation
- Title 32 service for the purpose of organizing, administering, recruiting, instructing, or training the National Guard
- Title 32 service under section 502(f) for the purpose of responding to a national emergency
- When a governor (NG) requests federal assistance in responding to a major disaster or emergency
- When the Department of Defense mobilizes reservists in support of a combatant command
In the Army Reserve, I got a percentage of each credit hour and a monthly stipend. That was great, but it wasn’t the full ride many of my active duty counterparts enjoyed.
If you’re like me and don’t deploy, benefits are limited.
To be thorough we should note that it’s possible to attend college classes online while on active duty.
However, it’s tough to find the time, as you can imagine.
That’s why you should consider separating the two.
Four years seems like a long time when you’re 18, but consider how quickly high school passed.
Instead of following the traditional path of going to college immediately after high school, invest in future options.
With four years of active duty service, you can immerse yourself in a new world and lifestyle and learn new skills.
After you get out, you can re-assess based on your experience, or let your contract run out and have options to get school paid for without the reserve stipulations.
Active Duty vs. Reserve Training
While the training doctrine is the same branch-wide, active duty vs. reserve differ in practice.
Whether you serve on active duty or reserve, your training starts the same, regardless of your Military Occupational Specialty (job).
Everyone goes to basic training for 10-15 weeks, depending on the selected branch. For example, Army enlistees go to Basic Combat Training while future Marines go to Marine Corps Recruit Training, both commonly referred to as “boot camp”.
Each branch offers exclusive training around the country.
From there, graduates break out to train for their specific jobs.
For example, Army Soldiers attend Advanced Individual Training (AIT) anywhere between 4 weeks to 52 weeks depending on MOS.
The only exception is infantry Soldiers (11B) who combine their initial and AIT training into one long school, known as One Station Unit Training (OSUT).
Once complete, Soldiers go to their assigned units, anywhere from Kansas to Germany.
But if you’re in the reserve, you simply go home.
Then, the days of mandatory regimented schedules, early rise, and physically demanding days are over.
Suddenly, your calendar is wide open for school and work.
Of course, within a few days or weeks, you’ll check in with your unit for in-processing, get the drill schedule, and fill your obligation to train and deploy as needed.
Aside from that, going to school, working, and drilling can stretch people thin.
Especially when reserve centers or National Guard armories are hours away from home.
Training is Perishable
Let me give you an example to describe the training differences between active duty and reserve.
Suppose you enlist in the Army Reserve as a Lightweight Vehicle Mechanic (63B) and meet other 63Bs on active duty contracts.
You’ll all spend ten weeks training together in AIT.
After graduation, your active duty buddies go to their units.
As for you? Well, you just go home, while your active duty counterparts continue to work on lightweight vehicles every day for four years.
After four years, who will most likely be the more experienced and knowledgeable mechanic?
Don’t get me wrong, the reserve produces many fine mechanics, and sometimes part-timers are more competent than others.
And of course, reservist mechanics learn their jobs during monthly and annual training.
I’m just saying that repetition is key when learning anything.
It’s difficult for part-time mechanics to keep up with full-timers since they don’t get the rhythm as full-time Soldiers do.
Another impact on training between active duty vs. reserve is funding.
Reserve components receive federal funding as active duty units do, but reserve units are generally smaller.
Therefore, there may be less money to send Soldiers to supplemental schools or training to invest in their careers.
Also, since the National Guard receives partial funding from the state and federal government, training options may vary.
If funding is low, you’ll be lucky to get enough rounds for the range and MREs for the field.
Let alone extra training.
Even when units have extra money, they only get a few slots.
That’s why only the top-performing Soldiers receive the opportunity should it arise.
On active duty, not only are there more dollars to train with but there’s more time.
When I was in the Army Reserve, I might get offered an extra school or voluntary mission.
But I couldn’t always attend because of civilian obligations like school or work.
Now, this is an excellent time to address the “they can’t fire me for being in the reserve” argument.
Of course, it’s illegal for schools or employers to discriminate against reservists and fire or punish them for fulfilling mandatory training or missions.
But you also have to consider your own time investments.
For example, if you get an offer for Air Assault school, but you have finals coming up, do you go?
While your school won’t penalize you for missing school, the additional training isn’t mandatory.
But many Soldiers tell their employer’s voluntary training is mandatory so as not to be penalized.
Regardless of ethical concerns, missing school and finals can be burdensome on your own time if you have to make it up or retake the class.
It’s much easier to go on active duty for four years and get benefits to focus on school later.
Full-Time vs. Part-Time Focus
Between active duty vs. reserve, which is more challenging?
This is a common question, but it’s comparing apples to oranges.
Active duty service members have a completely different lifestyle than part-time service members.
For example, active duty members must be ready for inspections 24/7, yet reservists are only on duty for a few days a month.
The biggest challenge is the focus.
If you’re on active duty, you have one job.
Reservists must juggle work, school, and military obligations, on top of family and social life.
For example, if you’re struggling with a weight problem on active duty, you’re better off because you have a limited lifestyle and controlled environment.
Your team leader can work with you in the evenings and on weekends.
Unfortunately for many reservists, they lack the self-control and motivation it takes to exceed physical standards. With Soldiers living as far away as a couple of hours from their units, it’s not always easy to meet outside of drill weekends.
For example, my unit was 2.5 hours away.
There were times when other Soldiers lived nearby, but they had their own schedules to maintain.
This meant it was up to me to work out and prepare for drill on top of my schooling and work. It can get pretty hectic, and sometimes its hard to focus.
I was often in the field, thinking about something I needed to do for work or school.
Other times I was at work or school and worried about something to do for the next drill.
Juggling these can be done, as many people do.
But it makes more sense to focus on one thing at a time.
Never half-ass two things, whole ass one thing.Ron Swanson
One last note.
Many people join the military to escape a negative lifestyle by applying a new discipline to their lives.
Maybe you’re one of them.
To do that properly, one must strongly consider active duty.
Joining any form of the Armed Forces can be a positive change for many. But for reservists that go back to where they came from after training, it can be difficult to avoid the negativity one attempts to avoid.
On active duty, regardless of assignment, Soldiers are 100% removed from society, allowing them to focus on themselves and their job.
Unfortunately, many reservists fall into old habits after training which can lead to a black mark on your record if those habits lead to severe punishment.
Remember, if you get discharged from the military for any reason other than honorable or medical, you’ll have to explain that to potential employers.
Full-Time vs. Part-Time Finances
If you’ve looked at military pay scales, you know the military isn’t making anyone rich.
Still, a career in the US Armed Forces can do wonders for one’s financial future.
For example, a Private Second Class in the US Army earns about $2,055 a month.
I know, not high rolling, but hear me out.
While duty pay is the same between active duty vs. reserve, here are a few active duty perks to prepare for your financial future.
Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS)
Active duty offers Basic Allowance for Subsistence which covers meals for service members at their duty station.
As of Jan 1, 2022, the BAS for enlisted members is $406.98 a month.
Rates vary by year and food costs for the installation.
Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH)
BAH is money set aside specifically to pay for housing, which depends on rank, time in service, and cost of living in the area.
Enlistees start military life in the barracks, but service members receive funds for housing when they move to a private dwelling.
This is essentially what reservists get as a stipend with their Post 9/11 GI Bill, but its on top of an active duty paycheck.
Active-duty members generally receive better options for home and vehicle loans.
Where active duty service members can take advantage of loans after 181 days of service, reservists must meet one of the following conditions:
- Served six years in selected reserve and were either
- honorably discharged
- transferred to Standby Reserve, or an element of the Ready Reserve other than the Selected Reserve, after honorable service
- Served in the Selected Reserve for more than six years
- Served in active duty for more than 90 days, this can either be Title 10 or Title 32 service
- Discharged or released from active duty for a service-related disability
All service members and veterans receive some form of TRICARE, the military’s health insurance.
But eligibility and options vary based on service.
Active duty members must enroll in TRICARE Prime, and their family members also receive coverage.
Prime does not require active duty service members and family members to pay out of pocket.
Reservists may enroll in Prime, but only when activated on full-time status.
Non-activated reservists may enroll in TRICARE Reserve Select which comes with a monthly premium and annual deductible.
You might be surprised to learn one can retire from the reserve.
But as you guessed, benefits differ depending on service.
Active duty service members are eligible for retirement after 20 years of service. But reservists don’t base their retirement on years.
Instead, they use a point system based on service.
To retire, reservists must accumulate 50 retirement points.
But the biggest difference is when retirees draw benefits.
After 20 years of active duty service, eligible retirees may receive benefits 30-45 days after the retirement date.
However, reserve retirees must wait until age 60 before they receive compensation.
Of course, reservists do not typically receive as much compensation as active duty retirees.
The Choice Is Yours
Don’t get me wrong.
All reserve and Guard components offer fantastic options, and our military as a whole would suffer without them.
But part-timers get a bad name because it’s not easy to juggle school, work, family, friends, and a drill schedule.
It takes a lot of self-motivation and focus to do it well.
I think people could do better for themselves overall if they took a few short years on active duty. Not only does it offer better training, benefits, and experience for the individual, but it also helps build stronger reserve units when those full-timers switch to part-time.
If you’re in your late teens or early twenties, a four-year commitment to active duty is enormous, and it feels like an eternity.
But don’t forget the reserve requires a six-year contract.
A lot can happen in six years, and a monthly drilling commitment can be challenging to manage.
That’s why I suggest doing four years of active duty vs. reserve.
You can focus on your job, learn financial independence, and have full-time benefits at your disposal.
Maybe after a few years on active duty, you make a career out of it.
Either way, it’s your choice. Just be sure you think long and hard, and do what’s best for you.