Should I join the reserves?
August 10, 2015 2:49 AM   Subscribe

I already have a career, but I want to "serve my country" (USA). Should I join the reserves?

I'm an early 30-something with spouse + child(ren) living in the Northeast USA. We both have careers and can imagine staying in them long-term. I considered joining the military several years ago, but the timing wasn't right and I didn't want to give up my freedom of choice on where I live. I keep feeling a call to "serve my country", and wonder if the reserves might be a good way to scratch that itch in the next few years (assume I will join before I hit the age ceiling). I feel like I would always partially regret not doing this.

I have a college degree + masters degree (think business/administration skills), so I imagine I could go in as an officer- but what would I do? Do they really need me? Will the work be interesting? I can handle boring work, but I'd at least like to know it's supporting something important. I don't really need any of the offered benefits, so that's not really a draw, unless you think it should be.

My current employer has policies in place to support leave for military purposes (salary continuation, etc); I'd be especially curious to hear from people who were on reserves while juggling other careers and how that went.

Comments, challenges, anecdotes, personal experience welcome.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can handle boring work, but I'd at least like to know it's supporting something important.

Realize that you could be mobilized to "serve your country" anywhere, and at anytime--it will be up to politicians at the national and state level, not you. I'm going off of a small, younger sample size, but I know two different people who were in the Guard (one already a vet, one not) to pay for college and had to withdraw on extremely short notice from studies (which they returned to) in order to:

1) Help evacuate/police New Orleans and surronding areas after Katrina;
2) Refuel vehicles in Iraq at the ramp up on Gulf War II.

Be sure you're OK with serving for cause #2 as well as cause #1 because you won't get a choice. The one advantage to this kind of service (as opposed to "freelance" volunteer work) is that, as you said, your employer is supposed to be cooperative and supportive with time off.
posted by blue suede stockings at 4:00 AM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was active duty but I know so many reservists who wound up gone for 18 months. You have a family. You could get called up when the next thing happens. Don't do this. Once you have kids you have to let this fantasy go. They need you home in one piece.

And how are you ever going to know if you are supporting something important? You won't. Years later, the lies will unravel and you will just be another chump like me.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:04 AM on August 10, 2015 [32 favorites]

you could also bear in mind that useful, dedicated, people-oriented volunteering in a homeless shelter or old people's home is 100% serving your country...
posted by runincircles at 4:32 AM on August 10, 2015 [40 favorites]

What's your career? I work in public health/healthcare administration, and there are a surprising number of emergency medical/preparation/logistics volunteer corps. Like corps I had never ever heard about. I worked with a guy who was a former paramedic, and he flew to Boston before a massive snowstorm to help in the regional emergency medical response command center. My old boss the veterinarian was an officer in the US Public Health Service and was mobilized to vaccinate animals during outbreaks or natural disasters. Another guy was an environmental health inspector (restaurants and swimming pools) and was sent to Japan after the nuclear power plant meltdown to investigate contamination. Maybe there are similar hidden opportunities in your field that wouldn't involve joining the military?
posted by Maarika at 4:42 AM on August 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

Also, my nurse colleague was in the army reserves, deployed to Iraq three times while a parent of three kids, and had to give up a weekend a month and had almost quarterly training exercises that were week-long. He loved it, despite the PTSD, but he was pretty high ranking. I always wondered what his wife really thought about being left behind with all those kids (now they have way more than 3).
posted by Maarika at 4:57 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a twenty-something year long Reservist, I say, don't do it. This world has enough soldiers. If, at the end of all this advice you decide you still want to do it, go into a medical unit.

If I were you, I'd start volunteering for the Red Cross.

P.S., I was deployed to Afghanistan, which not only screwed up my career, but was one of the most miserable times of my life. As in, I really don't even like to think about it.

As Mr. Yuck so accurately observes, don't be a chump. Don't put your life in the hands of people who won't care about it.
posted by atchafalaya at 5:14 AM on August 10, 2015 [25 favorites]

My husband is in the reserves and he loves it but they definitely don't love us back. In the last 4 years he's been gone for 17 months altogether (6 months, 4 months, 7 months) and he leaves this fall for a one year deployment. We have a 3 year old and a 2.5 month old and it's awful every time he leaves. Single parenting + worry adds a lot of stress to our daily lives and when he's home we have to really focus on our marriage because we both get set in our ways with him being gone. It's also hard on kids (where's Daddy? Can we call him? Why isn't Daddy tucking me in?) and it only gets worse with age, a three year old is a lot more forgiving than a seven or ten year old. These are things every military family struggles with that no one tells you about until you're going through it, so please think about these things before you subject your family to them.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 6:30 AM on August 10, 2015 [10 favorites]

What you'd be doing if you decided to go in as an officer in the USAR/USANG is the OCS Enlistement. Assuming you're under 35, and you meet the physical requirements, and you're a US citizen, you have the degree you need.

They would give you a bunch of tests, and they'd look to see if you'd fit a role they want. If you did, they offer you the slot. If you accept, this would be your lot in the life.

BCT: 9 weeks. Welcome to Basic. DROP AND GIVE ME TWENTY. Welcome, also, to 9 weeks of E-1 pay.

OCS: 9 weeks, full time, or 14 months, part time: Officer Candidate School. Here, the pay is E-6, same as a staff sergeant, and there's less yelling. After this you're commissioned in your branch, and your pay graded becomes O-1. Hello, butterbar!

After that, you need to take the BOLC, the Basic Officer Leadership Course within 18 months.

The current commitment is six years -- you cannot voluntarily separate until that interval passes.

What this means -- for six years, the US Army owns you. If they say you go to Bezerkistan, you go. After six years, you may resign your commission and separate. After 20 years, you may retire. At certain points, if you fail to promote, you may be forced to retire/separate, this is the "up or out" policy that ensures that the people below you have a chance to promote, though in the USAR/USANG, this is much less harsh than in the active Army -- of course, there are a lot less people at general rank.

The USAR/USANG is currently much more active that is has historically been. If you had signed up six years ago, you would have spent at least a year overseas and a year on active duty preparing for that, and probably closer to three years on active duty. You would, of course, have been paid for that time, etc., but you not have been doing "one weekend a month, two weeks a year."

You have a family. This is something you need to discuss with the family, because this is something that most certainly will affect them. This will almost certainly involve you be gone for extended periods of time.

And, let's be very clear. This is something that could very possibly kill you. Military service is dangerous. There's a reason we have Memorial Day. USAR/USANG get called into war zones. If you join up, given the current geopolitical climate, there's a real chance you will be in a war zone. You have to factor that reality in. War zones for US soldiers are, in fact, a lot less deadly than they were in the past, but that doesn't mean they not still deadly, and there's still a lot of less than fatal issues.

This is not a walk in the park. This isn't camping. This is war. The US Army and its reserve components fight wars. You will be there to help them do that. You will be fighting wars. So you need to be ready for that, and your family *needs to be ready for you to do that*, and if you and they aren't good with that, you really need to not do this.

If you are, though, go talk to your local recruiter. Make sure that you let them know it's Officer or Nothing, and let them know what your degree is in and what you do. If you do something that they really want, there may be recruitment bonuses to sweeten the pot.

Or they may say "Meh, we have lots of those. Infantry or nothing."

If you want to help others in the US without the military risk. If you like flying, consider the Civil Air Patrol, which helps with Search and Rescue, if you're more the water based type, the Coast Guard Auxiliary may be your thing.

Indeed, finding out who the volunteer SAR groups in your area are and working with them is a great way to help out your community. It may well scratch that itch you have perfectly.
posted by eriko at 6:52 AM on August 10, 2015 [19 favorites]

Consider becoming a volunteer EMT or firefighter. Both would enable you to provide critical help to your community in times of need, and would not require being away from your family for long stretches. Plus you'd have the autonomy to choose what you are working on.

Rural areas in particular absolutely rely on volunteers for these services, though I think there are opportunities everywhere.
posted by veery at 6:54 AM on August 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

Depending on what exactly you do, you might also want to consider trying to get a job with the federal government, especially the Department of Veteran Affairs. My boyfriend (an Air Force vet) is in the medical field and went from working in private practice to working at a VA hospital. He gets tons of satisfaction out of working directly with the vets and really feels like he's giving back to his country.
posted by jabes at 8:17 AM on August 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

How about working for FEMA? I know they had a lot of bad press, and probably still have a lot of structural issues, but that's a very hands-on way to serve your country.
posted by chocotaco at 9:46 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would second the suggestions above to try volunteer firefighting or EMS. All of the adrenaline with much less risk of being killed.

You can make far more of an impact in your local community as a volunteer than you can as part of the military.
posted by scrump at 9:47 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Don't be a chump. Don't put your life in the hands of people who won't care about it.

I also endorse this.

There are many other, smarter, ways for an educated man with a family to serve his country and community.
posted by MrJM at 3:25 PM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can't tell from the quotes you place around it whether your impetus is actually to better your country, to play soldier, or perhaps more likely a combination.

If it's the first, join the Red Cross, volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, become a mentor, work at a soup kitchen, or whatever. Vanishingly little about the military is doing anything for any but the very richest Americans, and perhaps least of all its soldiers and their families.

If the second, play paintball. Or maybe meditate a little and figure out why you think active perpetuation of violence and machismo will be a good thing for this country or for a family.

If it's the third, and you really must risk the life of your children's father and your wife's husband, become a volunteer firefighter.

The military sucks in people without options. You have options. You have an education you'd be wasting and a family you'd be hurting. Come on, man.
posted by cmoj at 4:16 PM on August 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

If only military service will do, then definitely go down to the recruiting station. Couldn't hurt; it's just talk until you sign the contract. I think the commenters above have good reasons not to, but we're not you. Double check everything the recruiters say before signing up.

DoD civilians, and for that matter all the federal agencies, serve the country too you know. We're definitely not in this for the money or the fame. Drawback - probably no return rights to your current job.

What about getting CERT qualified and standing by to assist in domestic emergencies like Katrina (or heaven forbid, the Tohoku disaster)? You can pick up a temporary job at FEMA for specific events, and they also have a reserve corps. Plus, the training would be valuable all the time. Maybe even in your current job in unexpected ways.
posted by ctmf at 7:39 PM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Does the military really need you? No. Does your family really need you? Yes. What you seem to have is a fantasy where you think you're going to be doing easy or boring work as a part-time officer. The reality is that the military uses reservists for both fill-in assignments and combat positions. You can't really know where you'll be stationed when you're activated. There's zero guarantee that you'll be posted anywhere near your family or that you'll even be stationed stateside. You stand a very good chance of being deployed to an active war zone, even if you're only there as part of the support personnel.

Have you considered all the ramifications of your desire to join the military? There is a possibility that you'll be killed in action. Have you made a will? Will your family be able to carry on without your familial presence and monetary support if you die? What does your wife think about your desire to serve? Would she accept being left behind as the sole caretaker for your children while you're gone? How would you cope if you became permanently disabled due to being wounded in action? Would you be able to cope with PTSD? Are you personally prepared to experience killing other human beings and to both experience and perpetrate extreme violence, trauma and terror? These are very real things that you need to think long and hard about.

Being a reservist will also not save you from the common pitfalls of being on active duty. Even if you're not deployed overseas, you will still miss many of your family's important life events because the military doesn't care about your schedule, only theirs. You also need to accept that you may not be able to keep your job when you come back. While it's technically illegal to fire someone for being a reservist, it's also possible that your employer will find some other way to let you go if your training schedule disrupts your employment too much. Or they may wait the required 180 days and then let you go. You wouldn't be the first reservist to lose a job due to absences for training and deployment. Are you prepared to take your employer to court if necessary?

You're also approaching the idea of serving your country with a very narrow perspective. There are hundreds of different things you could do without joining the military to serve the country and make it stronger. As mentioned above, there are many non-military organizations in need of help. Strengthening your local communities or shoring up the infrastructure of your country is a better way to balance your desire to serve with the needs of the people who already depend on you. When you serve your community (and by extension, your family), you are serving your country.
posted by i feel possessed at 2:11 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Really it depends huge on details - officer (hopefully) or enlisted, what branch, what job in branch, how much you volunteer, etc.

I'm active duty, naval officer (11 years) and I've seen the reserves treat people great, but also get jerked around. You really have to be proactive and understand what's open.

I wouldn't worry so much about "death", but more aspects of time and travel commitments. its worth taking to recruiter to see what's open. With cuts in many branches, it may be full of active soldiers/marines/sailors transitioning.

Good luck... And go navy ;)
posted by aggienfo at 8:08 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Other than FEMA, although they're the ones who get most of the work, you could sign up with your state's Disaster Reservist program. Some Indian reservations have them, as well, if that's relevant to you.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:10 PM on August 11, 2015

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