By Morgan Thomas, Policy Associate

Within the many recognizable branches of the military are a multitude of ways to serve with which many Americans may not be familiar. When a civilian envisions someone serving in the military, they often think of someone who serves full-time, wears military fatigues and sees live combat. While those roles exist, military service can take other forms. The U.S. military consists of multiple components including active duty, the national guard and the reserves. Within each component there are part-time and full-time military and civilian employees.

Active Duty: The First Line of Defense

Active-duty personnel are the nation’s first line of defense and the largest component of the military. It is comprised of six branches: Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Space Force. The Army is the oldest branch of the U.S. military, while Space Force is the newest addition. Each branch of the armed forces falls under the Department of Defense and is affiliated with one of three departments: the Army, Air Force or Navy.

A person serving on active duty works for the military full-time. Active-duty personnel fall directly under the federal government’s orders and can be deployed at any time, for any length of time. These service members work in their respective careers on a federal military installation full-time, and most live on base. Active-duty installations are primarily made up of service members, however, civilians can also work on military installations. These civilians are known as federal Title 5 employees, which means that although they work on a military installation, their job does not require they serve in the military.

One of the key elements of active duty is the duty assignment. In active duty, a service member can be stationed domestically, known as CONUS, or overseas, known as OCONUS. Although every recruit notes their preferred duty stations, their assignment is often selected based on job vacancies and the needs of the military. There are a few exceptions to this based on unique dependent needs, such as access to specific medical care facilities.

One of the main attractions to serving on active duty are the benefits and entitlements. Active-duty service members in good standing have access to free health care, tax-free basic housing and subsistence allowance, education benefits, travel benefits, Veterans Affairs home loans, assignment incentive pay, hardship duty pay and much more.

The Reserve Component: The Second Line of Defense

The reserves are the nation’s second line of defense. The reserve component is made of two elements: the National Guard and the reserves. The component is made up of both part-time and full-time service members and civilian Title 5 employees. Currently, all branches have a reserve component except for the Space Force. However, there is currently a congressional proposal to create a reserve component for the Space Force. All reserve forces maintain trained units and qualified personnel to support or augment their active-duty counterparts in times of war, national emergencies and threats to national security, both stateside and overseas.

Traditional service members of the reserves and National Guard are required to drill once a month and complete two weeks of training annually. Drill and annual training requirements can vary from unit to unit and branch to branch. In addition to the ability to serve part-time, reservists may also select their duty station, unlike with active duty. As a primarily part-time force, the average reservist has a full-time civilian job outside of the military. Most reservists utilize the ability to select a unit of their choice, typically one close to their civilian job or home of residence.

The reserve component has access to the same benefits as active duty, however, the requirements to receive them can differ. For example, in order to qualify for certain military benefits such as retirement, reservists must obtain a certain number of points each year to have a “good year.” For reservists, a “good year” consists of 50 points which can be accrued in numerous ways, but most traditionally by completing their annual training and drill commitments.

Active-duty benefits for reservists are based on how much active-duty service time they have. Traditionally, that is based on how much time you’ve served under federal Title 10 orders. The reserves can only be activated and funded by the federal government, which makes calculating active-duty benefits for reservists less complex than for the National Guard.

National Guard
The National Guard is the second arm of the reserve component and consists of both the Army and Air Force. Similar to the reserves, members of the National Guard, or guardsmen, are trained and ready to defend the nation during times of war, threats to national security and national emergencies. However, the National Guard is also called up for state emergencies. Because of this, and contrary to the reserves, the National Guard reports to both the state and federal government.

The National Guard serves at the behest of a state governor and the president of the United States. During local emergencies, the governor can activate the National Guard on state orders, without prior presidential approval. However, in some instances, the president can mobilize a state’s National Guard without prior consent of the governor. For example, the president can order governors to activate guardsmen to help communities affected by natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. Most recently, guardsmen nationwide were activated to help local communities and hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. When a governor activates the National Guard, those orders fall under a specific subset of Title 32.

In reporting to the state and federal government, members of the National Guard can hold a myriad of different statuses, which can make calculating federal benefits challenging. However, serving in the National Guard does give guardsman access to additional state benefits. One of the most appealing of those benefits is state education benefits. For example, members of the Maine Army and Air National Guard are eligible to receive up to 100% of their tuition covered at the University of Maine and Maine Community College Systems, as well as Maine Maritime Academy. Most states offer members of the National Guard unique education benefits, tax benefits, and other state-sponsored benefits.

A National Guard base can have personnel deployed overseas, activated locally, and traditional Guardsman maintaining day-to-day operations at any given time. It is essential for both the National Guard and Reserves to stay sufficiently trained to ensure they stay mission-ready at any given time to backfill and support their active-duty counterparts. 

While there are additional benefits that guardsman can take advantage of, serving two missions can also present unique challenges. For example, guard bases must have enough personnel to support local missions and missions abroad. Guard bases can have personnel deployed overseas, activated locally and personnel maintaining day-to-day operations at any given time. It is essential for both National Guard and Reserve service members to remain sufficiently trained to ensure they are mission-ready at any given time to backfill and support their active-duty counterparts. In addition to their military job, guardsmen often complete temporary assignments that are outside of their specific military career field such as helping states during local emergencies.

All three components of the military have a unique function of equal importance. The U.S. military has operated as an all-volunteer force since the 1970s, allowing those interested in joining to select which branch and component works best for their lifestyle and career.

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