I get that pension comment every month from readers who are in their 60s… or even older.
Most of them are doing fine, both financially and in life. They usually served some active duty before the Reserves or National Guard, and a few were even drafted for Vietnam. They decided not to gut it out to 20 years of active duty and they moved to the Reserves or Guard.
They attended monthly drill weekends and went on their annual two weeks of active duty. They did their unit’s administrative readiness requirements for a good year. If they had kept that routine for long enough then those years of active duty (and their good years of Reserve or Guard duty) would have added up to a total of 20 good years. At that point they would have received their service’s Notice Of Eligibility that they could file for “retired awaiting pay”. They would gone into their gray-area years and started their Reserve pension at age 60.
But for various reasons, they decided not to keep going for 20 good years. The perpetual sacrifices of work/life balance were too much. Their benefits as drilling Reservists weren’t enough incentive to stay in uniform. They finished their service obligation and saw no reason to continue. The prospect of an inflation-fighting pension and cheap healthcare in their later years was not worth the current cost in life energy.
Leaving the military seemed like the best option at the time.
Now that they’re older, these vets have a life perspective which servicemembers in their 30s or 40s might not have thought about yet. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind about staying in uniform, but it’s worth considering their experiences as you make your plans.
What About Other Benefits Before The Pension?
For those Reservists who left before 20, their immediate benefits of retired awaiting pay (until age 60) weren’t enough. They gave up their Tricare Retired Reserve health insurance (if they ever had it in the first place) and their Reserve Component Survivor Benefit Plan. (They’d either reached financial independence or they had similar corporate benefits.) They no longer had Space A military aircraft flights or military base access.
Why Did They Stop Drilling And Deploying?
Quality of life is the biggest problem with drilling in the Reserves or Guard, even when they’re not on active duty.
There’s a saying that you’ve achieved work/life balance when your civilian company, your unit, and your family are all equally annoyed with you.
If you’re holding a civilian job alongside a Reserve drill billet, then just about every month you have 12 straight workdays (including the weekend). Even if you’re not drilling that month, you’re probably doing extra days of Reserve paperwork and correspondence. Sometimes those extra days (often unpaid) are every week.
Then there’s the vital war-fighting skills of mobilizing and deploying. (The active duty troops need the practice just as much as the Reservists and Guard members.) Ideally they’re exercised every few years– not every year, and not just once a decade.
Unfortunately it’s tough to perceive that they’re adequately planned and well-executed.
Is it worth mobilizing in your unit to work at the command where you drill and do your active duty? Sure. That’s aligned with your mission and you already know the people you’re supporting.
Mobilizing and deploying to the desert because it’s “your turn” and you need the experience? That’s good too. It would help if the chain of command (I’m lookin’ at you, BUPERS) would pick a set of dates and stick to them, which would enable families to make mobilization plans (and stick to them). It would also help if families had more flexibility in planning those dates (and committing to them) instead of “Oh, hey, it’s your third year since your last deployment, let’s do it again somewhere!”
Along with mobilizations or training orders, it would be a happy surprise to have a Defense Travel System that works for the
servicemember instead of only for DoD’s databases. (Note to active-duty members: if you think DTS sucks now, wait until you take Reserve 89-day orders across two fiscal years to travel thousands of miles for a training course where you’ll need base lodging and a rental car. For extra bonus points, do it while you or your spouse are pregnant.) Do we really need to make the Reserves and Guard services suffer just as much as the active-duty ones?
As you can tell, I don’t have solutions to these problems. (I’ve watched the military “solving” them for at least 40 years.) Be aware that they exist and cope with them as best you can. Consider them in your personal list of why you’d want to stay in a drill billet or go to the inactive Reserves.
What About Their Civilian Career?
Every corporation where you want to work should support the Guard and Reserves. It’s the right thing to do. (Especially if there’s financial incentives from the government.) If they don’t support your military career then you won’t want to work there anyway.
But “supporting the Guard and Reserve” and “supporting your workload” are two completely different priorities. At some point the daily routine piles up into overload. It might be a quarterly report (at work or in the unit), the final week of a challenging project, or excessive travel. It might be difficult supervisors or teammates at either place. It could simply be an exceptionally bad case of chronic fatigue or burnout that accumulated over months.
If you’re running your own business then you end up juggling clients with your military duties. It’s never easy to separate one from the other, and compromises are inevitable. When you’re on active duty for training, or mobilized, or even deployed then you have to bring in a business partner or simply suspend operations.
Even so, the military can boost your civilian career. Here’s a quote from a retired Reservist to keep in mind:
“One other aspect is that while in the Reserves, you get training in areas that may complement or enhance your civilian skills and help you progress more rapidly in that career. Juggling can get difficult and you may end up sacrificing in one or both of your careers, but it does expand the opportunities available to you and provide another pre-retirement stream of income.”
The military can also help cope with unemployment. Drill weekends won’t replace your income (unless you volunteer for a great set of orders) but the money can certainly help pay the bills and maybe even network to your next job.
Ironically, a successful civilian career can stop your military one. If you’re promoted at your job or move to a new location or simply take on more responsibilities, there may be “no time left” for drill weekends and unit administration. How’s your family feel about this? How hard do you want to work?
If you’re suddenly earning a lot more money from your civilian career then it’s easy to choose to go inactive– or even resign.
Heading To The Individual Ready Reserve (or the Voluntary Training Unit)
With all of the issues between a military career and a civilian one, at some point it might make sense to transfer to the IRR.
From what other readers have shared about their Reserve or Guard service, this is the beginning of the end of the military career.
Without drill weekends, life suddenly gets easier. The problems don’t disappear, but they’re easier to handle. You have more bandwidth for other opportunities– or crises.
While you can hypothetically earn enough points in the IRR to keep logging good years, it’s a new challenge. Opportunities are limited. It’s harder to access the resources you need, and it’s a lot easier to get behind on your milestones. One small step at a time, family and civilian career assert their higher priorities until there’s scant attention paid to your military duties.
I haven’t seen any statistics on IRR retention rates, but they’re well below those of servicemembers on active duty or in drill billets. And, depending on your branch of service, it can be very difficult to earn enough points in the IRR to qualify for retirement.
It’s Personal Now
I’ve had these thoughts sitting on my hard drive for years. When I was in my 40s and 50s there were lots of other things to write about, and this post didn’t have a very high priority.
However I was born in 1960. In 2020, this subject suddenly gained an entirely new relevance.
In 1993 I’d been on active duty for 11 years and my career hit its nadir. We had started our family (a personal zenith!) and our midwatch baby kept me short on sleep (for a good cause). I was on shore duty but it was a combination of on-call operations staff (endless crisis management) with two bosses who were… difficult… in the middle of the biggest drawdown since WWII. I was technically selected for submarine XO but I never got the job, and I was at my terminal rank.
I couldn’t see any other path than active duty. Out of fear, ignorance, and fatigue, one decision point at a time I spent the next nine years gutting it out to 20.
In 1993 if I’d left active duty for the Reserves, then I would have taken a contractor job at the tactics shop on the same staff. I might even have become an at-home parent while my active-duty spouse supported the family. As a lifelong computer nerd, my free time would have eventually gravitated toward the Web and I would have refreshed my programming skills.
There would have been plenty of life changes and a few more disruptions, but the money would’ve worked out about the same. Instead of waaaaay overshooting the financial independence goal in 2002 with an active-duty pension, we would have reached FI at about the same time while knowing that our assets only had to last until my Reserve pension would have taken up the slack in 2020.
Back in 1993 I was too tired and burned out to make the time to learn about the Reserves, let alone think about life in 2020.
Your Call To Action
As I’ve said many times before, I am not a
role model member of the Command Retention Team.
I’m a competent author, but I certainly can’t assemble a magical combination of words and logic to suddenly motivate you to rack up those 20 good years.
All I can do is call your attention to the analysis and sentiments of those who’ve gone before
If you’re no longer challenged & fulfilled by active duty, then it’s time to move to the Reserves or Guard.
If you’re at that Reserve work/life balance where everyone’s equally annoyed with you, then maybe it’s time to rethink your career priorities. Just be sure to give it enough thought today to avoid having regrets in your 60s.
[Note: The Reserve pension generally starts at age 60. Servicemembers who were mobilized after 28 January 2008 may be eligible to start their pensions three months earlier for every 90 days in a combat zone, or for a natural disaster, or during a national emergency.
The laws behind this benefit have been modified several times and there are additional restrictions & caveats, so read the post at that link carefully and then check your DD-214s.]
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Don’t Gut It Out To 20: Leave Active Duty For The Reserves Or National Guard
How To Calculate A Reserve Retirement
National Guard and Reserve Early Retirement Age
Should I Stop Drilling And Go To The Individual Ready Reserve?
What You Need To Know About National Guard Retirement
Finding Your Military Work-Life Balance