Soldier for life: Continuing to serve via the Army Reserve

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Live

 

(DOD graphic by Peggy Frierson, Soldiers Live)

(DOD graphic by Peggy Frierson, Soldiers Live)

You’re thinking about getting out of the active-duty Army. Maybe you want to use your GI Bill benefits and go to college. Maybe your spouse has a good job at your latest duty station. Maybe you don’t want to make your kids change schools for the fifth or sixth time. You love the Army, you love serving, but the lifestyle is no longer the best choice for you or your family.

Maybe you’ve already moved on, found a good civilian job, built a home and a new life for your family. You’re happy, but something’s missing. You don’t have the same sense of purpose you did when you were serving. You miss the camaraderie, the pride and honor. Heck, you even miss going out into the field with your buddies, but after everything your family has sacrificed, you can’t ask them to give more. There’s got to be a compromise, you think, and then you realize the answer is simple, so simple you wonder why you never thought of it before: You’re going to join the Army Reserve.

Sergeant 1st Class Ryan McCaffrey of Company C, 1st Battalion, 321st Infantry Regiment knows the feeling. He loved his time as a military police officer and as a drill sergeant, but after 13 years, it was time to settle down. His stepdaughter was in high school and his wife had a great job: “So it was either, I move, I PCS and my wife loses her job, loses her salary and I have to move my stepdaughter to another school, or I get out and I make the sacrifice. So, for the family, in their best interests, it was better for me to leave.”

After an extensive job search, McCaffrey was able to use his deployment experience in detainee operations to become a corrections officer for the state of South Carolina. His experience as a drill sergeant and trainer meant that he was able to quickly move into an instructor position at the Department of Corrections’ training academy.

“I really attribute the military for allowing me to get where I am. The military just paid off greatly,” he said, adding that getting out was a huge adjustment. Even after a couple of years, “It still feels like it’s an ongoing adjustment. In all honesty, it’s just so different being a part of the military and then not being a part of it, just the camaraderie, the people you’ve worked with, the people who you work for and the people who work for you to me was just so different.”

As he spoke to friends and coworkers, they suggested that he consider one of the reserve components. McCaffrey’s first instinct was to join the National Guard, but he would have had to take a two-grade reduction in rank. He was willing, if reluctant to do it, but then he heard about a local Army Reserve drill sergeant unit. It was perfect, and meant McCaffrey could work toward two retirements, one with military and one with the state. Today, he is actually the Army Reserve Drill Sergeant of the Year.

Command Sgt. Maj. Luther Thomas, command sergeant major of the Army Reserve and himself a former active-duty Soldier, calls continued service in the USAR a “win-win” for the Army and for the Soldier.

“As the active component gets smaller,” he said, and “Soldiers leave the service, we have vacancies and critical positions that we would like to fill with those Soldiers because they have the experiences and the skill sets to fill a lot of those vacancies. They’re already trained. And also, it gives them an opportunity to be a Soldier for life as they transition from active service to Reserve service.”

In transitioning to the Army Reserve, Soldiers can keep their rank (even promotion points transfer), time in service, tuition assistance and access to the PX and commissary, as well as and the option to pay into a Reserve TRICARE for Life insurance program. According to Thomas, many Soldiers say it’s far cheaper than what they’d pay for insurance through their civilian employers.

Those civilian employers can be hard to find, so the USAR also runs an Employer Partnership Office to help Soldiers in their job searches. According to Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, chief of the Army Reserve, “Army Reserve employer partners recognize the skills, training and leadership abilities of the Soldiers they commit to employing. We have relationships with more than 4,000 private employers and private organizations … to assist our Soldiers (in obtaining) the skills and credentials employers seek when hiring for their organizations.”

In many cases, Soldiers will even be able to continue serving in their military occupational specialties, although this depends on openings in local units and the needs of the Army Reserve. The USAR did not make its fiscal year 2013 recruiting numbers and right now as a whole needs more petroleum supply specialists than anything else, followed by motor transport operators, combat engineers, automated logistical specialists and mortuary affairs specialists. The list of openings also includes military police, bridge crewmembers, water treatment specialists, cryptologic linguists and, of course, infantrymen.

The Army Reserve’s biggest shortages in manpower are in the ranks of sergeant through sergeant first class, a critical gap in leadership that Thomas is working hard to fix. According to Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, the director of Army Reserve Human Capital Core Enterprise, the Reserve is also short about 3,000 captains.

“We know that the active Army is looking at doing some force shaping with some of their year groups of captains, so there may be additional captains who will make a decision this year to leave the active Army, and we will have a place for them,” she said, noting that she did just that as a captain when the Army was reshaping in the 90s.

“The wonderful thing about the opportunity for AC to Army Reserve transition is that we’re transitioning experience,” Smith continued. “We are transitioning, in many cases, combat experience and we’re certainly transitioning leadership experience, and all of that is very positive for the Army Reserve and also for the maintenance of benefits that these transitioning Soldiers have earned by virtue of having enlisted in the active Army to begin with.”

There are opportunities for servicemembers leaving other branches of the armed forces as well. In fact, they make up about 10 percent of new Army Reserve Soldiers. If they’re transitioning from the Marine Corps, these new Soldiers don’t have to reattend basic training, said Sgt. Maj. James N. Wells, the G-3 operations Army Reserve sergeant major at Army Recruiting Command. Every Soldier is, first and last an infantryman, he explained, and the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard don’t teach the same tactics and weapons.

The majority of these new Soldiers, he added, are in the grades of E-3 and E-4 and will keep their ranks, although men and women who are E-5s or E-6s and above may have to step down a grade, “but we can do grade-determination waivers depending on the MOS that they go into and the Reserve unit they’re going to. We try to take care of that new future Soldier in helping them to do that because that helps them feel better about themselves and retainability.”

Army career counselors then check if the Soldier’s original MOS converts to an Army MOS. If it doesn’t, or if the Army Reserve doesn’t have any openings for that specialty, the Reserves will retrain the Soldier, just as they would someone transitioning from active duty.

For example, Sgt. Roy DeWeese, operations NCO of the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne), served in Marine Corps aviation in the late 70s and early 80s before leaving the service to become a missionary for his church. He had always wanted to continue his service, especially after 9-11, but thought he was too old. When he learned that he Army had temporarily increased the re-enlistment age in 2007, however, he couldn’t sign up fast enough, and was able to return to the same grade he had when he left the Marines.

Although his wife was furious with DeWeese’s decision, they eventually agreed that he should find a specialty that he could use in the civilian world as well so he could stop working in sales and travelling all the time. When a rare radiology technician position opened, DeWeese jumped at the chance, especially because he has a degree in chemistry and had always been interested in the medical field.

He liked it, so much so that he now works in a civilian radiology job at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., but because he was in a hospital unit, he didn’t spend much time in the field or get to do many of the “Soldiering” activities he had re-enlisted to experience. He switched to civil affairs and loved it. It was a good fit for his personality.

The Army Reserve, DeWeese said, “gave me the best of both worlds. I’ve been able to be active in the military. I feel like I’ve been successful with a lot of the awards that I’ve gotten. It’s enhanced my civilian career. … I don’t think you can go wrong. I think it’s a great way to serve if you don’t want to commit to a full-time Army life, for whatever reason.”