Last week I joined the Air National Guard. If you aren’t familiar with how the military is structured, the National Guard is part of the military Reserve Corps. It is a reserve component of our military that is often used to fulfill needs at the state level, or augment our active duty military. Some Guard members work in a full-time capacity, but for the most part, it is a part-time job often advertised as “one weekend a month, two weeks a year.”
While it can be considered a part-time job, the state or federal government has the right to call you up to active duty in the event of a state or national emergency. This can include being activated to respond to natural emergencies such as floods, tornadoes, and similar events, or it can mean being called up to serve on a deployment in a war zone. In other words, it’s a part-time job, with a serious commitment. I served over six years in the active duty Air Force, so I’m fully aware of the commitment involved.
Why Join the Air National Guard Now?
I’ve been out of the military over 8 years now. I loved my time in the service, but I was ready to move on when my enlistment ended. I was burned out from frequent deployments and travel and I wanted to start a family and settle down. After I separated from the military I worked for a federal contractor on Air Force related logistics projects. It was a great way to leverage my military expertise and still be around a mission I supported.
Eventually I started my own business and went the full-time entrepreneurial route. This was (and still is) an amazing blessing, as I get to set my own hours and work schedule, and I work from home and get to see my children grow up in front of me. But it also comes with its own set of challenges. One of the biggest challenges I struggle with is not being around professional peers on a daily or even weekly basis. On a professional level I also miss being part of something bigger than myself (I am active in church, but there is a professional element that is missing).
Joining the Air National Guard is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time (a few years now), and things finally came together (you can read the details of my journey here). I’ll start off by saying joining the military, even on a part-time basis, isn’t for everyone. But it has its share of benefits if you are and your family are able to handle the lifestyle and obligations. Again, the commitment isn’t one to take lightly, and it is one my wife and I discussed at length before I applied to join the ANG.
As with everything there are pros and cons. I’ll lay out a few aspects of the commitment, and some of the benefits. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have if you’re interested in joining the Guard or Reserves, or even active duty military.
Commitment – Time and Family
The biggest thing I considered was the commitment of joining the ANG. I signed a 3 year commitment, which was the minimum for my situation (prior active duty service, changing career fields). The three-year term includes a technical training school where I will learn my new job. This will last about 7 weeks, which isn’t too long in the grand scheme of things (many schools are several months; some are almost a year). But it is located in Biloxi, MS, which is a two day drive. I won’t be able to take my family with me, so this is a big sacrifice as far as my wife and I are concerned.
Thankfully, the time commitment will taper off after the 7 weeks of separation from my family (though the risk of being called up is always there). The standard training commitment is “One Weekend a Month, Two Weeks a Year.” In other words, I will report to my unit one weekend a month for training. I will also have a 15 day period each year where I will report to the unit. This can sometimes be broken into chunks, though some units require or prefer the time be done at one time.
The unit I joined is also a 3 hour drive from my home. That makes for a long drive each month, particularly in the winter months, but it’s not that bad. I work from home and don’t drive much, so I actually don’t mind getting behind the wheel for a few hours every once and awhile. The unit puts me up in a hotel and I get to deduct my mileage and travel expenses on my tax return, so it works out a little in my favor at the end of the year.
Again, the biggest sacrifice here is being away from my family.
Benefits – Pay & Retirement
There are some benefits that come with joining the Guard or Reserves. The first that comes to mind for most people is pay. I will receive pay for each month I serve. At my rank and time in service, I should receive a about $385 per month (2014 pay, adjusted annually for inflation), and around $1,450 for the 15 day training period. The total cash benefit should be just north of $6,000 per year. That isn’t a huge sum of money, but it also comes from working only one weekend a month, and two weeks a year. Military pay is based on rank and number of years served, so not everyone would receive this amount of pay – some would get more, and others less (I also have room for advancement in rank and responsibility, so this amount should gradually increase over the years). Here is a Guard pay calculator for more info.
I will also be working toward a pension, which is something I would otherwise not have access to. Active duty military members can earn a military pension after 20 years of active duty service, which they begin receiving right after they retire. It’s possible for some people to begin receiving a pension as early as age 38 if they joined at age 18 and retired immediately after reaching 20 years of service. Members of the Guard and Reserves also have to serve 20 years to qualify for a pension and other retirement benefits. However, those benefits don’t start until age 60, with a few exceptions.
Based on my active duty time already on the books, I will need to serve an additional 13 or 14 years to qualify for a pension, then wait a little more than a decade before I would be able to begin receiving those payments. It’s a long-term payoff, and one I haven’t committed to just yet. My plan is to do my 3 year commitment, then reassess based on how much I enjoy the service, and how it works with our family life. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by the possibility of receiving a pension when I’m 60.
Military retirement also comes with health care benefits, again, starting at age 60 for the Guard and Reserves. This could very easily be worth more than the monthly pension. I’m 34 now, and I have no idea what health care will cost when I am age 60, other than “expensive!”
Benefits – Low Cost Health Insurance
Health insurance is a huge topic right now, and rightly so. It has never been so expensive, or so confusing. As a self-employed individual, I pay a lot for my health care coverage. Joining the Air National Guard will give me access to TRICARE Reserve Select, which is a health insurance plan offered by the military. The cost for an individual is roughly $52 per month, and it is about $204 for a family (see rates). This is an incredibly good deal, especially compared to the current prices I pay.
However, I will need to look into it a little more before signing up. You must use a primary care manager and get a referral for each specialist visit, and you have to use everything in your network, or the prices go up. There aren’t a large number of local providers in my area who accept this plan, so we need to research our options before making the switch.
Benefits – Education
Illinois is one of the few states in the US that offers free college tuition at state universities for members of their Army and Air National Guard units. I believe I have to serve one year before I am eligible for this benefit. I already have the GI Bill, which I would be able to use, but this benefit would allow me to use the free tuition and save the GI Bill, and possibly transfer those benefits to my children. Transferring the GI Bill to my daughters would be huge – as would getting a free master’s degree. I have considered getting an MBA or some other advanced degree, but haven’t committed to it in the past. Having the opportunity to do so at little out of pocket cost (books, fees, transportation, etc.), makes this a much more enticing proposition.
Intangible Benefits – Personal and Professional
As I mentioned at the beginning, I miss the professional aspect of working with a team. There are few team environments like the military, and I miss being part of a unit and working toward a larger goal. This excites me to wear the uniform again. The sense of camaraderie the military provides is also something you won’t often find outside of the military. I’ve missed that for a long time.
A secondary aspect is the requirement to stay in shape. I’ve been slacking on this the last couple years, and recently I started working out again. I’ve lost a couple pounds, gotten stronger, and can run a couple miles now with no soreness or other ill effects. Joining the ANG means I will need to stay on top of this to continue meeting fitness requirements. I like the fact that I will now be held to a higher standard because it keeps me accountable.
This isn’t a Free Ride
I know I painted a pretty picture of the benefits, but that doesn’t mean this is a free ride. I interviewed with several people at the unit and one thing that impressed me was the seriousness and professionalism they all exhibited. There is a real mission at hand, and always the possibility of being recalled for either a state or federal mission. (The Guard technically works for the state, but can be called up to active duty by the federal government; the Reserves only work for the federal government, so they wouldn’t be called up for state issues). The state mission includes natural disaster planning and response, including things such as tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, etc. The federal mission is anything that affects the security interests of our country. Having already served in active duty Air Force, I’m well aware of the risks and commitment required to serve.
This Can Be a Great Opportunity, But it isn’t for Everyone
You don’t have to join. I’m not calling anyone out. I’m simply sharing my thoughts for why I decided to join. I’ve had several people ask me if they should join. The simple answer is: it depends. It depends on your age, where you are in your personal and professional life, how your spouse or significant other would handle it, whether or not you have children, whether you have prior service in the military, how long ago you served, and many, many other factors.
It could be very difficult to join if you have no prior military service and are well-established in your career, because you would need to take several months off to go to Basic Military Training, followed by tech school to learn your job. It could easily require a 4-12 month commitment just to get trained, depending on your job. However, if you are prior service, you may not be required to go through basic training or even tech school, and may be able to basically walk right into a unit and start doing your old military job again. The break in your home life and professional life might be minimal.
On the other hand, there are younger folks who are looking for some direction, a steady paycheck, or a way to pay for school. Joining the military can be a great way to do that. That was the route I took, and I have no regrets. I traveled the world, got a free college education, met my wife, and more or less had the time of my life. If you are considering joining the military, don’t take the decision lightly. Read everything you can and talk to everyone you know who has served. Then make the best decision you for your situation.