Mobilizing with the Reserves and National Guard

When you’re trying to balance the Reserves/NG with a civilian career, an extended deployment can be a crippling drawback– or a unique opportunity. For active-duty servicemembers, deployments are just another part of the lifestyle that includes extensive support and assistance for both the deployer and their families. During the Cold War, Reserves/NG rarely deployed and family support (if any) was arranged by their unit instead of being a part of the active-duty system. Since 9/11, however, the Reserve and National Guard have been heavily mobilized to support worldwide operations. It’s now expected that the old system of “one weekend a month and two weeks a year” will also include “deployments every five years”.

12-15 months away from family and civilian career can be managed– or it can wreak havoc on the unready.  Families may not be aware of the support offered by the military, or they may not understand the best way to tap into the resources. Civilian medical insurance may be disrupted by shifting to military healthcare. Employers are required by federal law to protect Reserve/NG pay and seniority, but a prolonged absence may still affect their working conditions and career opportunities. Servicemember’s skills can decline while projects move on without them and clients find other support. It’s particularly difficult for entrepreneurs to keep their customers.

A relatively new benefit encourages Reserve/NG deployments with an earlier pension. (Note that veteran’s groups and some members of Congress are lobbying to backdate this benefit to 9/11 or even earlier.) With a year or two of deployment for every decade of service, the result is that a Reserve/NG member could start their pension (and their healthcare benefits!) in their late 50s.

Avoid these other civilian-military pitfalls

You can balance a civilian career with the military commitment, but both sides have to make accommodations. Sometimes the arrangement is harmonious, especially if your career is in federal/state civil service or a military-support field. Other times you’ll be tugged in different directions– particularly if you’re a small business owner or a self-employed entrepreneur. Federal laws (and many states) protect your veteran’s rights to employment and job status but there are subtle variations of cooperation, compliance, and enforcement. When your upcoming National Guard deployment may impact your civilian career’s opportunity to manage a special project, it’s important to let your coworkers know. You don’t want your occasional absence to cause a disruption and leave behind feelings of confusion or betrayal. If an adversarial relationship develops, everyone is on the losing side.

The most important aspect of balancing the two lifestyles is a detailed knowledge of your civilian-military leave policies. Your military chain of command will know what you rate but your civilian boss will probably need your constant support and education. You may be able to take a leave of absence from your civilian job, or meet your military requirements on weekends and holidays. You may also be required to use vacation days to complete your Reserve duties. It’s an awkward compromise and it won’t always seem fair.

You and the Reserves/NG can also support your employer. Schedules and deployments are usually set months in advance and can help you coordinate with your civilian staff. If your employer is particularly supportive of your Reserve commitments, then put them in for an award! Advertise every win-win situation. Show off your military skills whenever they can be applied to your civilian job, and look for opportunities to use your civilian skills in your military leadership and management. Your experience in each world may help you get promoted in the other.

Family life is another challenge. If you’re drilling then you’ll miss a family weekend every month, perhaps with travel, and you’ll be working at least two weeks a year in uniform– perhaps with more travel. National Guard units occasionally go on travel to train for weeks and then deploy for months. If you’re raising young children or spending extra time with aging parents, then you may have to transfer to inactive status for a few years until you can be flexible and mobile again. While you’re deployed, spouses may have to deal with the military and healthcare bureaucracies on their own. It’s important to make sure you both know how to find the information, assistance, and benefits that you’ve earned.

The good news about the higher deployment tempo of the Reserves and National Guard is that the active-duty military units have learned how to integrate more closely than ever with their counterparts. The military’s active-duty family support system is also much more attuned to bringing the Reserve/NG families onboard for the deployment, and showing them how to optimize their military benefits. In addition to your service’s websites, also maintains a large archive of benefits guides, recommended links, and discussion forums.

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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