Transitioning from Active Duty to Reserves Or National Guard

Putting 20 years of military active duty service is the quickest way to earn retirement benefits, but what if it becomes too much? Going from active duty to the Reserve or National Guard is an option for those who may no longer find active duty challenging and fulfilling but still want a military career and retirement benefits.
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Table of Contents
  1. Can You Really Retire After 20 Years in the Military?
  2. Active Duty or Reserves: What’s Best For You?
  3. Tip #1: Stay on Active Duty Service As Long As It’s Challenging and Fulfilling
  4. Tip #2: Learn About Changing from Active Duty to the Reserves
    1. Compare Active Duty Retirement and Reserve Retirement
  5. Tip #3: Invest and Save More for Retirement
  6. Active Duty vs. Reserve
  7. Final Thoughts

The magic number for military members is 20. For active duty members it’s the number of years  you must serve to get access to your military retirement benefits. Reserve and Guard members also need 20 eligible years for military retirement, the only caveat being that they can’t access their pension until age 60. However, if you need a change of pace, this might be a small price to pay. 

So often, career servicemembers get locked into a single line of thinking that drives them to put their head down and continue their military career until reaching that magic number of 20 years of active duty service, regardless of the cost.

As a retired Navy veteran and author of The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement, I’m here to tell you that if you are struggling with the commitment of serving 20 years on active duty, you have options.

Can You Really Retire After 20 Years in the Military?

Some active duty members want to stay in the military after serving 20 years and qualifying for retirement. 

You can stay in the military or join the Reserves after qualifying for retirement, but if you stay in the service you won’t be able to draw on your pension. 

If you decide to go to the reserves after qualifying for retirement, you essentially “cash in” your retirement for reserve points. This allows you to gain reserve points toward your retirement and potentially earn a higher pension when you do retire.

Now, there is a loophole if you’re a warrant officer. Warrant officers can withdraw retirement while serving in the Reserves. You’re also able to receive promotions. When you retire from the Reserves, the military will re-calculate your retirement, adding the time you served in the Reserves.

However, you don’t have to wait until you’ve served 20 active duty years to move to the Reserves. In fact, you can switch at any point from active duty to Reserves and still continue building toward your retirement and financial independence.

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Active Duty or Reserves: What’s Best For You?

This post gets a bit personal. Let me permit you to think about these questions in your career.

A reader writes:

I’m active duty and coming up on year #9 this May. I have owned your book for a few years and dig into the blog content on occasion. Love it!

My question has to do specifically with one of the closing paragraphs in your last post on the BRS:

‘I should’ve left active duty for the Reserves at the 12-year point (when we started a family and my career priorities changed). The money would’ve worked out about the same, and we would’ve reached financial independence within a year or two of when we did, but our quality of life would’ve been way better.”’

This is what I wrestle with the most. I dread the slog that years 12 through 20 will bring and the separation it will cause from my family. Can you expound on that, or point to a place you have already expounded on these statements?

Specifically: How would the money have worked out the same in the Reserves vs active duty?

This is what I struggle with. Monthly drill pay would hardly prove comparable to my current active duty compensation, and I know little of what other opportunities might be available.”

One of the reasons I write is to help today’s servicemembers avoid my mistakes – or at least anticipate them. Yet, this post wasn’t based on my experience alone but also on 15 years of forum threads and reader e-mails.

Let me start by agreeing that people should stay on active duty as long as they find it challenging and fulfilling. When the fun stops, though, then it’s time to think about leaving active duty for the Reserves or National Guard.

A couple of clarifications:

  • There will be no doubt in your mind when the fun has stopped. It’s different for everyone, but you’ll know it when you see it.
  • Consider going from active duty to the Reserves or the National Guard before going straight to civilian life. The Reserve/Guard is an intermediate step toward work/life balance, with more of the things you enjoy(ed) about the military and less of the not-so-enjoyable parts. Readers tell me it’s easier to go this way than to go total civilian and later try to affiliate with a Reserve/Guard unit. Try a drill billet for a while, and then decide if you want to go civilian.

Tip #1: Stay on Active Duty Service As Long As It’s Challenging and Fulfilling

1990 on USS NEW YORK CITY (SSN 696)

Not everyone should just leave active duty service for the sake of leaving a possibly taxing job. Some still find it challenging and fulfilling. In that case, there’s nothing wrong with staying on active duty. 

Personally, I enjoyed my first 10 years of active duty. After my second submarine, my dual-military spouse and I wanted to stay in Pearl Harbor. I could’ve taken just about any career-enhancing billet (as long as it was Nuclear Power School instructor or BUPERS), but we wanted collocation. There seemed to be plenty of billets in Hawaii, and we weren’t interested in moving thousands of miles just for the job. Again.

I took the first Pearl Harbor vacancy that came up at my rotation date: shore duty on an admiral’s staff. I didn’t appreciate that Ops & Plans was a 60-hour/week deadline-fueled job, and I wouldn’t have cared because, after sea duty, every other billet seems like a paid vacation. But, we were perpetually overwhelmed by real-world crises with submarine missions or by the inevitable paperwork crisis du jour (no PowerPoint back then– only Lotus Freelance). Even message traffic was largely screened by hand and routed in paper.

We also started our family when starting shore duty, which meant we encountered sleep deprivation (in a good parenting way) at home as well as at work. We were overwhelmed on the domestic front too.

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Tip #2: Learn About Changing from Active Duty to the Reserves

Take time to ask about the Reserve component from other service members. I was surrounded by Navy Reserve officers on the staff. Some of them were full-time civil-service employees, while others were contractors, and I’d occasionally see them in uniform for active duty or drill weekends.

One of the Reservists on our staff had even been a shipmate on our first submarine. I asked them a few questions about their billets, pay, and pensions, yet I never really made the time to learn about the system. My spouse was working alongside Reservists too, but we only saw them once a year for their two weeks of active duty.

To be fair, the Reserves were a minority of the staff. Our commands were also filled with active-duty junior servicemembers who were separating at 8-12 years of service and older ones who were retiring at 20-30 years. I identified much more with those groups than the Reservists.

However, take some time to learn more about the service requirements of Reservists. For example, some Guard and Reserve units offer the traditional one weekend a month, two weeks a year, while other units may have more opportunities for picking up extra days or mobilizations.

Compare Active Duty Retirement and Reserve Retirement

It’s also important to understand how the pay retirement benefits work. If I’d made the mental bandwidth to analyze my options then, I would’ve eventually realized that Reserve pensions are based on the pay tables in effect when the pension starts. They’re not based on the pay tables in effect when you apply for retirement.

By federal law 10 U.S. Code section 1407(d)(1)(a), the pension’s length of service would have also been at the maximum pay scale in retirement rank, not just the years of service when a Reserve/Guard member applied to retire. That’s also in the Financial Management Regulation (DoD 7000.14-R) section 030205.A.2.

I didn’t understand any of that at the time.

Surprisingly, those pension facts are not widely understood even among today’s Reserve and Guard servicemembers. Read this article on National Guard and Reserve retirement benefits for a full overview of how retiring from the Guard and Reserves works, how it impacts your pay, which benefits you are eligible for, gray area benefits, and more.

Tip #3: Invest and Save More for Retirement

In today’s military retirement ecosystem, there are options for you to save money. For example, the Blended Retirement System involves TSP accounts and a government matching component. However, if you’re in the Reserves or National Guard working as a full-time civilian, at an installment or as a contractor, you should consider creating a budget that allows you to save additional money beyond your retirement plan. There’s nothing wrong with having a little more money set aside for either a rainy day or, better yet, the golden years of your life. 

When I was younger, I was familiar with inflation and healthcare expenses, but I didn’t make the time to learn how the Reserve pension handled those issues. I thought that if I retired from the Reserves in my 40s, then my pension (at age 60) would’ve been eroded by two decades of inflation.

I didn’t see any value in the Reserves and I certainly wasn’t going to leave my “safe” active-duty career. I was grossly wrong, and if I’d talked with enough Reservists, I would finally have figured out my errors. However, I had my active-duty blinders on and didn’t see any other path.

If I’d joined the Reserves, I would’ve drilled until 20 total Good Years (active combined with  Reserve) to earn the pension. I would have had an inflation-fighting pension (and Tricare) at age 60 instead of at age 41. The Reserve pension would’ve been about 70% of my active-duty pension, and our savings and investments would only have needed to bridge (at worst) a 19-year gap. If I were a drilling Reserve/Guard member today, I would’ve also had Tricare Reserve Select

After that, when I “retired awaiting pay,” I would have bought Tricare Reserve Retired until age 60. Reserve retirement also solves the same issues handled by an active-duty pension, and I would only have had to fill in the financial planning holes with other paid employment.

In retrospect, a “real job” would’ve been straightforward – even easy. I didn’t know it back then, but like many Pearl Harbor submariners, when I showed up at my drill weekends, I would’ve eventually been offered a contractor or civil-service job on that same staff as a tactical development officer. I would’ve had other opportunities to go back on active duty for 30-179 days at the submarine staff or Pacific Fleet headquarters or PACOM.

On the civilian side of it, I would have networked with my shipmates for nuclear work at a shipyard or an electrical utility career at HECO. I could have used my graduate degree to teach at local high schools or colleges and could’ve easily moved into state or federal civil service systems. I’m confident about this because those are the same job offers I received when I retired from active duty, and a lot of the offers came through those same Reservists.

Yet, I was suffering from the “military inferiority complex.” The Cold War had ended and we were all scrambling to keep our jobs during the largest drawdown since WWII. (The staff was rightly concerned that submarine missions would be suspended and the force cut to less than a third of its size.) I thought that I was worthless and weak and that I would never be able to make it in a civilian career. I feared that I’d never get hired by anyone for anything and would end up fixing leaky toilets.

I was not just ignorant about the Reserves and National Guard but also about building a civilian career. At that chronically-fatigued time in my life, the fog of work made it easier to keep dragging my sorry butt into the staff’s classified concrete bunker to either scramble a submarine or write a point paper, or both with bonus points for doing it on Sunday morning.

Today, I know that within five years after leaving active duty, my total compensation (Reserve/Guard drills + civilian earnings) would’ve been higher than my active-duty pay and benefits. The first couple of years would have been a big dip in paychecks and a huge disruption on the homefront, but my wife and I would’ve figured it out. We would’ve kept about the same expenses, eventually recovered our savings rate, and had a much higher quality of life.

Sure, life would have still been complicated. My active-duty spouse might have been sent on an unaccompanied tour to Diego Garcia. I might have been mobilized to support contingency operations in Kosovo or the Middle East, certainly after 9/11. I might have struggled to figure out what I wanted to do with my life as the Navy bounced my spouse from one homeport to another. We might even have had to leave Hawaii for a few years (Guam! Japan!). But would Reserve life have been as stressful as the dual-military active-duty life that we dealt with for another decade?

Active Duty vs. Reserve

How did I (finally) learn all about the Reserves? Why do I know more about the pay and benefits today than most servicemembers?

We learned all of these details when (a year before I retired) my spouse hit a career speedbump and left active duty for the Reserves. Our life immediately got awesome. Better yet, her unit was full of Reserve submariners who happily explained to me the lifestyle that I’d missed out on during the back half of my active-duty career. Then, they offered me jobs with their civilian employers.

Today, I’ve been retired from active duty for over 15 years, and I’m still getting a job offer every year or two – and these offers are coming from outside of my robust network of personal finance bloggers and entrepreneurs.

That’s when I started reading everything I could find about Reserve pensions and benefits. When I realized how the pension actually worked, I knew that gutting it out to 20 on active duty had been a mistake.

My spouse and I also overshot the mark on our finances when we persevered for the active-duty pension. We were saving for financial independence long before those marketing guys wrote The Millionaire Next Door (another classic that took a few years to gain traction during the Internet decade).

That was also years before those researchers at Trinity University replicated Bengen’s results and popularized the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate. I placed too much value on an active-duty pension when a Reserve pension would have accomplished “enough” of the inflation adjustment and the health insurance.

Final Thoughts

With what I know now, I could’ve worked part-time for a few extra years to build up the same investments and continued to drill for a Reserve pension instead of full-time with the 60-hour weeks to get an active-duty pension. We would have reached financial independence (at 25 x expenses) a few years later but at a half-marathon pace instead of a 1,500-meter sprint.

Maybe I wouldn’t have worked those few extra years after all. In the early 2000s (as we were approaching a delayed financial independence), I would’ve learned more about this blogging fad and created a part-time income of $20K/year. We would have lost less money on buying real estate during active duty and might’ve invested in a few dirt-cheap rental properties.

We would’ve had more quality family time together.

But back then, I didn’t see the possibilities, let alone the opportunities. I was too focused on gutting it out to 20 for that cliff-vesting pension. I was clenching my jaw (and grinding my teeth) to deal with the daily pressure (and I have the medical records to prove it).

Today, at age 57, I’d happily trade a million dollars of our net worth to recover the lost time of my 30s spent in overtime.

The Reserves and National Guard offer similar challenges and fulfillment of active duty but with less of the sucky parts of active duty. Work/life balance is still complicated, but there’s less stress (physically, mentally, & emotionally) and there’s less time in the field. There are still deployments, but they’re at a slower cycle, perhaps one out of five instead of every other year. Even that’s negotiable during peacetime, based on your career priorities and federal funding.

If you have a traditional civilian career, then once a month, you’ll work 12 straight days around the drill weekend, but that’s still a lower operating tempo than active duty.

Reserve service members near a four-star staff command might find more opportunities for active-duty orders. Large staffs are chronically short-handed (and on short notice) while you’re a Reservist. Right there. And ready to work. A phone call on Thursday asking if you want a Saturday midwatch? Yeah, we could handle that. I got those calls on active duty anyway.

For some servicemembers, the National Guard might be a better deal than the Reserves. National Guard armories are generally closer to home, especially for drill weekends, and there are opportunities for state-funded orders as well as federal ones. Instead of traveling hundreds of miles to Reserve centers, you might network with local Guard members for civilian contractor gigs or even full-time employment. Some Guard billets work with state civil service and government staff.

When you’re saving for financial independence during active duty (instead of living a consumer lifestyle), then your rising net worth gives you choices. You don’t have to fear unemployment. You’ll have time to network (real life as well as Linkedin) and learn about civilian careers. It’s never been easier to freelance the gig economy or to (eventually) start your own business.

You have skills. You can make the finances work. You don’t have to live in fear.

Now, you should track down those Reserve & Guard members in your area (of any rank) and learn how they do it.

Even if you’re still feeling challenged and fulfilled by active duty today, it’s worth learning about the alternatives now. Someday, you’ll slam into a billet where you’re too overwhelmed (and too exhausted) to figure out your transition. You’ll get the “unrefuseable offer” from the chain of command or your assignment officer. When (not if) that happens, you won’t have a lot of time to figure things out, and you may be too tired to tackle the research.

Better yet, when you’re saving for financial independence, you’ll have choices.

The best time to save for financial independence was yesterday. The second-best time to save is today. 

Military Guide to Financial Independence

This book provides servicemembers, veterans, and their families with a critical roadmap for becoming financially independent. Topics include:

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  1. LJ says

    Doug – I’ve listened to a few podcasts that you’ve done, I love your insight to financial independence as it applies to service members! BLUF: I was an E in USMC for 11 years – with a mix of active and reserve time – and now I am an O in the Navy coming up on 19 (37 Years Old (YO)) total years. The only part of the reserves I enjoyed was getting active orders. I did the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” thing for about 12 months and dreaded it. I would tell most that the “one foot in” commitment is even harder to balance civilian work, life, and part-time service as opposed to full time Mil. I’ll be up for O4 at my 19 year mark and hopefully pin at my 20 year mark. If I take the promotion, I have to go to 23 years (42 YO) before I can retire. If I put in the infamous don’t pick me letter, I can retire as an O3E at 21 years (39 YO). The numbers roughly crunch out to an extra 18k in the first year of retirement. My question, would you stick around for the extra two and half years to pin and retire as an O4? For more context, I have a four and a one year old and my desire to serve is starting to wane.

    • Ryan Guina says

      LJ, I can’t speak for Doug, but his article above clearly expresses his feelings about only serving while you feel fulfilled. This is a huge personal decision, so it’s not one to make lightly. But no one can fault you if you feel fulfilled by the service you have given and you are ready to move on. Doug will agree there is more to life than padding your bankroll.

      That said, this isn’t necessarily a binary decision. You can always take the promotion regardless of whether you plan to stick around for another three years. The Navy may say you have a three-year service commitment, but would they really prevent you from dropping your retirement paperwork or transferring to the IRR to complete the three years? Probably not. If you fall short of the three years, you will retire as an O3E. But the time served as an O4 would still factor into your High-36 calculations. So, if you serve one year as an O4, your High-36 would be based on one year at O4 and two years at O3E. If three years as an O4 earns you an additional $18k, then one year should earn you roughly $6k.

      In the meantime, you get to try out life as an O4, gather another year of points and benefits, and increase your retirement pay. You may also look into other career options, such as becoming an Individual Mobilized Augmentee (IMA), which may allow you to serve your entire year’s service in one combined stretch instead of the monthly drills.

      Either way, you are in a great spot with many options. Take some time to think through where you are in life and your career. If you want to retire, you can do so with honor, knowing you gave everything that was required of you and more. If you want to stick around a while longer and try out the promotion and look at other career opportunities, you have that option.

      Whatever you choose, I wish you and your family the best!

  2. Tom Wahl says

    Great post Doug, I’ll share this with my kids starting their AF career.

    I would just add a comment based on being a spouse who worked for 13 years in the corp world (including stops at Seattle, NYC, DC) before marrying an AF officer and becoming a trailing spouse.

    I’ve met a lot of officers who are itching to get in a corp job but don’t realize the change in culture and lifestyle. In my experience being married into the military, and I know it’s limited, the military can easily be a “work to live” culture – 4 weeks vacation, 3-day holidays turned into 4-day, a lot of coming home when the workday was over, etc.

    The business world (not federal jobs) however can many times be a “live to work” culture with 2 weeks vacation (and people not expected to take all the days and/or to be available during their holiday), 60-80 hour work weeks, and a relentless push to bring results. A couple of examples:

    -My AF daughter’s classmates took jobs at Apple paying $130k out of college. This sounds great. But they are working long weeks with limited time off, their pay is impacted by health care and not realizing that $130k in CA is the same as $70k in Denver with a better lifestyle 🙂 But they get great discounts on Apple products.

    -Or a good friend who retired as a fighter pilot and interviewed with a well known global consulting firm – great pay, travel all over the world, but their idea of being a family friendly employer was being able to return from business trips on a Friday and fly out on Sunday nights. He went to the airlines.

    My big takeaway from being in a milfam is that the pension at 20 years can be very helpful toward being able to choose a location to live and then a job, as opposed to the job determining where to live. We sacrificed some dollars but up[on retirement we chose where to live and I was able to take a job that didn’t pay much but allowed me to do things like coach my kids, drive school team buses, etc.

    But as you write, as long as you enjoy the career, know all of the options and aspects of those options, what one wants in life, save, and be debt free then you’re good. 🙂 For my kids, we’ve always emphasized work to live, watch the debt, and set up auto investments. So far they’re listening to me (and your advice that I send a long).

    Hope this made sense. 🙂

    P.S. I do realize my impressions are not standard for everything – e.g., there are military careers that are 60-80 hour weeks and there are corporate jobs that are very worker/family friendly.

  3. Glen says

    I will say with Guard cut backs, many soldiers are given multiple jobs on AGR. I currently work 2 different positions duties. My last 2 positions we were also understaffed and worked 50 to 60 hour weeks. Yes, the plus is being closer to family, but I am getting burt out now at age 50. I have a few years left before I get 20 active years, but have my 20 year letter for guard. It’s tough thinking about sticking it out to 57.
    These are thing to think about for 2022 in the AGR program.

  4. Ian Stewart says

    Things may be different now, but back in the 80s, I knew a guy who was a National Guard Special Forces operator. When he joined the Guard, his unit was located a few miles from home and all was well. Then he received a job promotion which required him relocating to a town several hundred miles away from his unit. There was another NG Special Forces unit near his new home so he requested a transfer. The request was denied and he ended up having to drive for hours to attend his drills….not fun.

    The grass may seem greener on the other side of the fence, but unless one does some research, one may find a bunch of weeds instead of grass.

  5. Gio says


    I am currently an active duty Marine that’s been in for 10 years. Just recently got married and currently stationed in Okinawa. This is my third enlistment but I’ve realized I am getting more weary and weary as time goes by.

    The being separated from family, the being blamed for others wrongdoing, the not really enjoying my job, early morning PT, the phone calls I get during the weekends. It’s been taking a toll on me, mentally.

    That being said, seeing this blog definitely helped me out in the sense of seeing it from a different perspective.

    The questions I did have for you is:

    How did you cope with the stress during your time? I would assume some sort of hobby after work of some sort?

    Is me getting weary and weary the sign you were referring to when you mentioned ”I’ll know when the fun has stopped”?

    I’m interested in building my family life with my wife, but I also feel as if the military takes care of us tremendously because of the housing, medical, dental and the pay/entitlements. This being on active duty. I would assume these benefits wouldn’t be the same as reserves..

    This is a great website by the way! Thank you for helping young service members like myself to figure out if this is something I want to keep doing!

    • Doug Nordman says

      Sure, Brendan, post your questions here or send them to me at NordsNords at Gmail! I’ve known plenty of people who’ve gone to the Reserves or Guard in the latter years of their 20.

      If the assignment officer plays hardball because they think you’re staying until 20, then it makes sense for you to explore all of your other options now.

  6. Brendan says

    Hey Doug!

    I have no idea is this thread is still active but I would love to pick your brain a bit. Navy Officer here (SWO turned FAO) and I think I have some remaining OBLISERV after my current tour which will put me at 14ish years AD.

    I’ve benefitted a lot from what I have done so far but have hit a wall and feel very tempted to explore opportunities outside AD life.

    Most people think I would be crazy to consider an exit less than 6 years short of retirement… but I can’t stop trying to decide.

    And I know it’s still a ways out (3 years from now) … but I’ll have to negotiate for my next billet this month and the choice will depend on some long term planning.

    Thanks, in advance, for the thoughts!

    • Doug Nordman says

      We get that question a lot, Joshua!

      When you serve for at least 20 years of active duty, the pension starts the minute you retire from active duty.

      When you do at least 20 good years of active duty and Reserve duty (a combined total of at least 20 good years) then for most retirees the pension starts at age 60. For Reserve/Guard servicemembers who are mobilized after 28 January 2008 the pension can start three months earlier for every 90 days in a combat zone, a natural disaster, or a national emergency. There are more caveats to that Reserve early-retirement legislation, and you can read the details at:

      Your Reserve pension is based on the number of points that you accumulate during your service. You’d have 12 years of points for your active duty, and you’d have at least an additional 400 points for eight good years of Reserve duty. That would work out to roughly two-thirds of an active-duty pension, and it would start at age 60. That pension is adjusted to generally keep up with inflation by the time you start it, so the Reserve pension has about the same buying power at age 60 as it would have in today’s dollars. You can estimate the amount of a Reserve pension at this post:

      • Doug Nordman says

        You’re welcome, Keegan, I’m trying to give people permission to think about their exit strategy!

        I’ll e-mail you my contact info, and if you’re inport Pearl Harbor we can just get together for a cup of coffee near you.

        If you’re looking into the Health Services Collegiate Program then I’d also recommend the website Vet2MD.ORG.

  7. Michael says

    Hello, I’m 24 years old with a BA and recent MA, and looking to get into the PA National Guard while I’m still trying to get into a police department in PA. I met with my recruiter and qualified for OCS. So, as an officer in the national guard, what are the benefits like for retirement and how long would I have to stay in for? My first contract would be for 6 years. Any advice would be great! Appreciate it!!

  8. Dan says

    I’d like to say that although the face value of having “more control over your career” as a reservist/national guard, this is only somewhat true. Revolving your life around a yearly drill schedule doesn’t feel like much control of your life. Also balancing both military and civilian careers with a family and hobbies is taxing, time consuming and one will suffer for the gain of the other. During the high OP tempo years of the Guard, we were involuntarily deployed ISO contingency operations every three years. As someone who’s supposed to be a part-time soldier, that’s the same frequency as our active component counterparts in the Army.

    With National Guard 4.0+ being implemented, I would error on the side of caution in seeking the Guard as a choice for leaving active duty to seek a life with more “time”. The reserves and national guard are no longer the strategic reserves of the past. The current state of operations will have Army Guard BCTs deploying almost every for years. If not deployed, 55+ UTAs plus JRTC on the available year.

    I would personally rather gut out a 20 yr pension than keep the same op tempo only to wait to age 60. This is all pending the machine is able to be sustained at the rate it’s going. I have many soldiers in my unit who are on their 5-6th deployment, all service time spent in the national guard. I’m on deployment 3 in 15 years in the Guard and have just as many deployments with a lot of my active-duty peers.

    Keep in mind, when you’re looking into the reserves/guard, you may not get the freedom or time you had imagined.

  9. Brandon Parker says

    Doug, another great article. I’m 6yr AD Air Force, going on my 3rd deployment soon. Like you said, “It’s getting to that point”. I’ve been talking to a couple people who transitioned to the Guard and they’ve had nothing but good things to say about: getting more control of their careers/time while still serving, keeping the benefits, etc. One old co-worker even said it was the best decision he ever made. Half of them are Traditional Guard, the others are Active Guard. Come November of next year, I know where I’ll be headed. Thanks for your service!

  10. Youngnotdumb says

    Stay 20 this opportunity only comes once now…don’t be that civilian who says I should have stayed 20! Yes and if you want to wait till 60 to start getting paid join the Guard or Reserves… I’m 42 stayed 23 and I’m the youngest civilian in my job who can retire now and still make more than most if I quit tomorrow. Don’t fall for the wolf in sheepskin! Just sayin’….

    • Doug Nordman says

      This is way outside my circle of competence, ThatMom.

      If you’re not getting any help from the VA then I’d suggest contacting a Veteran Service Officer from a local chapter of your Disabled American Veterans, or the American Legion, or the VFW, or even MOAA. Their VSO services are free and they’re typically used in filing VA disability claims, but they might be able to help with the Navy Reserve pension as well. They’ll want to review all of the Navy records & paperwork you have for your father, even if it’s only the letter. If you’re not near one of those chapters then you could also contact your state Veteran Services office to meet with one of their staff.

      As a long-shot possibility, you could contact Navy BUPERS about his 20-year Notification Of Eligibility letter to see whether you’re able to obtain a set of retirement orders and process the application for the pension:

      If your father is within the low-income limits then he might also be entitled to a VA “Aid and Attendance” pension. (The VA calls it a pension, but it’s actually a stipend.) That’s completely separate from the Navy and DFAS.

      • Avee says

        Hey Doug,

        First off all, I’d just like to thank you for this valuable insight that I’ve been seeking out for a while now. I’m nearing my 11 year mark as an active duty WO in the Army with 3 years left in my contract. Short background: enlisted out of high school, did a few years in signal, another few years as an EOD technician, and then switched to the warrant officer world and became a Blackhawk pilot. My entire career had been driven by a need for a sense of fulfillment/purpose, and after all this time I just don’t think I’ve really achieved it, minus getting a dinky associate’s degree. Outside looking in, my jobs got “cooler” and more “exciting” but at the end of the day, I’m still in the Army and it’s just not as cool, fulfilling, or purposeful as I hoped. Finding like-minded individuals is very rare and your perspective helps me justify my own train of thought. I’m finally breaking away from that pension-tunnel vision because I know I can accomplish so much more without the Army constantly sucking the joy out of my life.

        I’m slowly working on my bachelors degree out of pocket so as not not incur any more years on my ADSO, living on a strict budget, and ensuring my retirement and savings funds are solid before I tap into the GI bill after I ETS. As a woman I’ve seen my coworkers, who are mothers, struggle to keep the work/life balance and I’ve seen many families fall apart. I’ve been through one divorce myself already, and it was simply a matter of distance. On top of my personal career goals I just want to make sure I can offer my future family a good, healthy life with a parent who is present and not constantly in the field/on TDY/deployed.

        Again, thank you for this article. I’ll be sure to share it with my friends who have the same doubts.

      • A says

        It seems you didn’t find the AD life too overwhelming, fatiguing or exhausting. Humor me: on a Painful scale of 1-10, where did Active Duty life fall for you? Bc right now, it’s at least a 7 for me, if not 8, so I can’t imagine doing 12 more years.

  11. Randall Carlson says

    I left active duty at the 9-year mark, and embarked on a part-time career in the Guard and Reserve. As it worked out, I left active duty in the massive draw-down of the early to mid 1990’s, and by the turn of the century, had received no fewer than three offers to return to active duty, all sins forgiven. The Army is notoriously bad in planning and executing drawdowns, and it showed.

    What happened after 9-11 is well known, but what isn’t as well known is that Reservists have considerably more control over their careers than their active-duty counterparts. Don’t like a tour with that particular HQ? Don’t accept it. There’s no penalty for turning down a tour. If you find yourself on active duty in a rotten billet with a miserable boss (like I did once) just let the orders run out and REFRAD. My contemporaries from my early career that were still on active duty were furious when they realized just how much control I had as a Reservist. While they were at the mercy of their Branch Assignments Officer, I was free to pick and choose.

    A job as a DA Civilian helped immensely. You are a protected class in those jobs; they must retain your job for you while you are on tour. There are some limits (five years total active service) but few if any agencies take the time to figure those rules out. You can use that institutional ignorance to your advantage.

    The result is a full military career of 33 years (20 active duty and 13 Reserve/Guard) early payment of retirement benefits (early age drop), buy-back of active duty time into the OPM retirement system, and subsequent early retirement from the civil service. It worked out far better than I could have hoped.

    Do your homework and learn the rules! There are going to be many times where you are going to go up against people who don’t know the rules of the agency or the process they are in charge of. You have to be the expert. It isn’t that hard: get the regulations and read them. I am continually astonished at how few people do that.

    And a note to those with military-acquired disabilities: the VA is an independent organization. Their disability ratings have nothing to do with your ability to serve. The individual service has to make a determination on your fitness. It is theoretically possible to be 100% VA disabled and on active duty (although I expect it wouldn’t be common). I personally maintained a 30% disability rating (payment suspended while on active duty of course) and completed the majority of my military career in that status. If you are like many, and leave the service without a disability rating from the service and later apply to the VA and receive a disability pension, the service knows and cares nothing about it.

    Remember that you are dealing with a vast bureaucracy that has little idea of what it is doing on a day-to-day basis. use this “Left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” to your advantage. Stay within the law and stay within the rules, but leverage your knowledge to your maximum advantage. I know of far too many comrades who have told me “If I had only known”.

    • Doug Nordman says

      Thanks for listening, Joe, I enjoyed guesting on Brandon’s podcast!

      Congratulations on your commission, and let me know if you have any questions on the posts.

      • Doug Nordman says

        It’s a tough decision, Troy.

        When you reach 18 years of service, federal law guarantees that you’ll be allowed to continue on active duty until 20. If you leave active duty for the Reserves or National Guard you’ll still be able to serve up to at least 20 good years, but you may also have a six-year commitment to the unit. (Talk with your Reserve recruiter to verify this.) You’ll also want to know that you have a Reserve/Guard unit near you, and that you can get a drill billet.

        If you have more than 16 years of active duty when you transfer to the Reserves or National Guard, then your service’s sanctuary policies will limit the active duty which you can take.

        You’ll also want to reassess your financial situation. If you’re near financial independence then you have a lot more flexibility. (Your savings/investments only have to cover the gap between leaving active duty and starting your Reserve/Guard pension at age 60.) If you’re still pursuing FI then you’ll have to consider the employment prospects for you and your spouse. A Reserve/Guard career offers more of what you enjoy about the military and less of the not-so-good parts, but you’ll still have to focus on work-life balance.

        If you still feel challenged & fulfilled by active duty, then maybe your goal is finding a billet in a location where your family can thrive– while knowing that you’d move back to your current area in a few years. That’s not an easy decision either, and you’ll have to have lots of long discussions with your family.

  12. Keegan says

    Thanks for the great content Doug. I have been waffling on my decision to leave after 8 years of active duty in the sub force (USS Louisville) but am happy to find out that my thinking lines up roughly with your rear-view thoughts. The Reserve is another beast and I feel I still have a ton to figure out. Currently I’m in hot standby waiting for approval of my application as a CANREC recruiter, which I’ll use as a 2-5 year bridge career before transitioning to a civilian career or the HSCP program. Would really appreciate an opportunity to chat personally if you have the time. Best, Keegan.

  13. That mom says

    Can you help me? My dad retired from the Navy in 1988. I have his 20 year letter but he moved and never changed his address. I’m standing in the VA office where we are being told it is a possibility that even though he served 12 years active duty in the Navy as a Master Chief petty officer and then spent ten years in the reserves again as a mcpo. h he retired completely in 1988. I search all over and see he is entitledy to his pay and can’t get any help. He is 71 and didn’t get his check when he turned 55 or 60. I’m tired of having to be pushy and so tired of figuring this out since he just had a stroke and I’m also working full time, raising an autistic child all as a single mother. This is the only represent that my dad has hopes of since my mom took all of the other accounts when she left. Thank you for anything.

    • Troy says

      Thank you very much, Doug. Your words of advice are important to me. Your work and blog is vital to the men and women in the service. Keep it up! Yes, lots to talk about, but I believe we are leaning towards the twenty and out. We are almost there. I am sure many jobs will be available. I guess it is the unknown future that makes me stay awake at night. Many blessings, Troy

      • Doug Nordman says

        You’re welcome, Derek!

        Military servicemembers, vets, and families are welcome to send a guest post anytime. If it helps with your writing, we have guidelines here:

        By the way, I know that many of the time-in-grade rules are different in the Coast Guard. However federal law for the other branches requires officer retirees to have at least 10 years’ commissioned service. That sounds like a different timeline than your plan for your final five years as an O-3E, so just make sure that you’ll still be able to draw a pension from the O-3E row of the pay tables.

  14. average joe says

    Thanks for this blog. I heard you on Mad Fientist podcast and came right over to check out your articles. I am being commissioned this Fall in the AF in the Healthcare field after almost 10 years working as a civilian with the VA. I am already wishing I would’ve joined after college in my 20’s but oh well. This is very insightful as I’m worried I won’t enjoy the military lifestyle but will enjoy the perks(free healthcare, housing allowance, etc). I hadn’t thought about the reserves and will definitely keep that option in mind down the road. My goal is to retire in my 40’s like you. I will be checking out the rest of your posts.

  15. Troy says

    Dear Doug, I am so happy to find your blog today. I am in a giant transitional phase in my life. I have nearly seventeen years active duty with one more to go at my current assignment. I love what I do, but this is coming to an end soon. We love the area in which we live. Our family is close, our children are happy. What happens when I want to leave active duty at 18 years and move to the reserves and continue to serve for another 12-15 years and make it to COL if I can. Is this crazy? Is it crazy to be only 24 months away from active duty retirement and then bail? I have asked to extend my current assignment, the answer was no! What is your advice?

  16. DEREK says


    First, thank you for this site/blog. I saw you on a MMM comment thread, clicked over, and with the whole military and Hawaii thing I was instantly intrigued. I am from Hawaii, in my 30’s, a Coast Guard Reservist (12 good years in April 6active/6reserve), and working towards financial independence.

    One thing that struck me was that you said something to the effect of “I would give up a million dollars of my net worth to get back overtime hours worked in my 30’s.” I am currently struggling with this work-life balance. In 2017 we had our second son and the provider instinct kicked in. I work a full time job (with an unfortunate long commute) at Stanford in California, I was going to school full time collecting San Francisco BAH, and drilling. I even tacked on a second part-time school to learn MRI imaging during all of that. I was so overwhelmed that I began to get sick and my overall health was diminishing. I am currently on a break from that and working to get Voc Rehab for my Master’s so I can quit full time and work part time or per diem. Working full time and School (SF BAH) allowed me to save 5k/mo but it was at the expense of my health.

    I could potentially provide a guest post or just share stories about leaving active duty in 2012. I actually had a colleague in the Coast Guard ask me what I was going to eat and where I was going to live. Seriously!? It is good that a socialist system like the CG exists for someone like him who enjoys being institutionalized and “comfortable.” I had a plan though. I carried out my plan, exceeding my expectations, and now my overall compensation 5 years off of active duty = $165k/yr pretax and including benefits.

    I also really appreciate the point of “when the fun is over you need to consider a change.” I may be ambitious or I may be arrogant but whatever you call it, I was not going to be one of the many people I worked around who spent their days talking, googling, and dreaming about life after the Coast Guard. I did the math (both numerically and mentally; math to calculate the value of my soul in my 30’s), and I could not stay. It was not the right thing for me or for the CG. I was no longer a great Coastie. I was maybe shooting par and I knew I had much more potential. My current career as a Clinical Instructor in Pediatric Radiology is so fulfilling and I pour my heart into it willingly. I am also a better part time Coastie. It was the better option for tons of reasons and now I am consider becoming an officer to close out the last 5 years or so. I will retire as an O-3E which will double my pension and free up my current dollars for real estate and other investments as opposed to having to attack a 401k so aggressively.

    Again, thanks for all of this. I have been brainstorming a similar blog idea to help people realize the reality of their decisions. This is another one I like to throw out there: Let’s say you know at 6 years (like I did) that you aren’t enjoying active duty anymore and want geographic stability and all of the other things you can achieve as a reservist with a more fulfilling and suiting career. If you stay in for the remaining 14 years, googling, talking about, and dreaming about what you really want to do with your life, you will have spent 16.5% of your life (assuming you live 0-85) in a soul sucking situation with no stability and maybe even a divorce….we could go on and on. The other option would be to take that 16.5% of your life and use the GI Bill, any disability rating you get, stability, reserves, maybe a GS position…..and create an amazing life.

    Cheers. Would love to chat more. [email protected]

    • Doug Nordman says

      It’s a tough decision, Michael, but when one spouse retires from active duty (and you’re financially independent) then the other spouse has more choices.

      The Reserve difference is just like any other community: the availability of billets and the promotion opportunity. Assuming she’s still feeling challenged & fulfilled (and especially if active duty has the higher probability of promotion & retention) then she’d stay with active duty. If she’s ready to go Reserve/Guard now, then some billets are more scarce at the senior ranks or might even require competitive selection. Not being in a pay billet can make it difficult to get enough points to meet the requirements for a good year, and correspondence courses are no longer an option for earning points. It might make more sense to get into a Reserve billet now so that she’s more competitive for other Reserve billets later.

      If she goes to the Reserves at 14 years then there’s the possibility of being mobilized for a deployment during the next six years. If she goes to the Reserves at 17 years that would be less likely (but still possible).

      You’d have to talk with other Reservists in her community (and with a Reserve recruiter) to parse the billets at each year (and at each prospective rank).

      I don’t think that the discussion is selfish– it just reflects that she has more options. Challenge and fulfillment are the entering arguments. There’s certainly no mathematical reason to raise your net worth from “enough” to “way more than enough”, but the extra margin of financial security (and behavioral financial psychology) might help her sleep better at night. How does she want to balance career, family, and quality of life? How will she feel 20 years from now when she looks back on her decision?

      For those readers with very long memories, there is no longer any requirement to finish a 20-year Reserve career with 6-8 years in a Reserve unit.

    • Michael says

      A little over two years has passed since this post and my comment, and boy have things changed.

      I am the one trying to gut it out. The military has kept us separated ever since, and I have about 9 months until I can retire and cry “freedom!” In the meantime, it really is grueling living alone and doing very little meaningful work—all for a monthly check at the end.

      • Doug Nordman says

        Carl, it’s possible but that policy varies with each service (and with retention).

        You’d have to talk with the Army’s AGR branch to see what billets are available for your rank, MOS, and years of service.

      • Joshua Guelo says

        If I do 12 years active duty and 8 years reserve, and joined at 20, what age would I be eligible for pension? Would it be the same in dollar amount if I did 20 yr active? Thank you

  17. Michael says


    I have a different twist but a similar dilemma. I have been in for 17 years and will absolutely continue on to 20 and retire at age 44. It’s really not “time” for me yet and I expect the next three years will go by quick enough.

    My spouse is the same age and has been in for 14. The first 10 were rough for her but I convinced her to press ahead. With a little more rank, she actually enjoys it now. However, we have long since passed FI status and I see little financial reason for her to continue. While she enjoys it, we have big plans to drive around the country, spend our summers in the Rocky mountains, and take the occasional overseas vacation.

    Her options could be to (1) stay to 20, (2) join the reserves now, (3) join the reserves in three years when I hit 20, or (4) get out completely. The closer she gets to 20, the harder I foresee it being to pass up the full 20-year pension.

    I really struggle with this and would like to discuss it more with her. But first, is there much difference in joining the reserves at 14 years vs. 15 years vs. 17 years? I also wonder if I’m being selfish by either pushing her to get to 20 or by pushing her to get out at some point before 20.

  18. Gary W says

    Great article and thoughtful comments. As always, “your mileage may vary.” I had a great experience with 8 years AD followed by 30 in the USNR. I had zero regrets leaving AD and was able to juggle career, family, and reserves to the point where I retired at 60 with a retirement check. I was fortunate to work with understanding organizations (public utility, pharma and state university) and have a supportive wife. By far the biggest benefit was to continue to serve and model my values for my three daughters who also serve, 2 on AD and the oldest now in reserves. Keep up the great work.

  19. warner25 says

    Even though I’ve read your story several times over the past decade, I appreciate when you bring it up again. I think it’s a unique perspective that you offer. But… I don’t know… Is drilling for 12 more years really less of a “slog” than staying on active duty? Is life in the Reserves/Guard really less stressful? Is there really more quality time with family? I remain deeply skeptical. It seems that experiences vary widely, and there are a lot of implementation details that make-or-break this idea.

    I’m a mid-career active duty Army officer. One of my best friends is a mid-career NCO in the Army Reserves, and another is a mid-career Army National Guard officer, and I wouldn’t trade places even if the money worked out better for them (and I really don’t think it will). My time on active duty has been luxurious compared to what they describe.

    The life of my Reservist friend is absolutely brutal as he tries running his own small business while driving several hours one-way for drill each month, and being away from home about 25% of the time on orders (plus small children and wife who works full-time because the small business income and Reserve pay definitely don’t cut it). The last time he deployed, his fledgling business totally collapsed and he had to start from scratch when he came home.

    So you could argue that entrepreneurship and the Reserves don’t mix well. How about my other friend, the ARNG officer? He struggled for years to find stable employment in the private sector due to coming up on orders repeatedly for training and deployments. For a while, he found that his best option was to just seek orders as much as possible and grit his teeth through the inevitable bouts of unemployment. Eventually he got a civilian job like you describe, working in the same place, doing roughly the same thing he did on drill weekends. But it pays less than he’d be earning as an active duty O-3, and to be honest I think the hours and stress are just as bad because of the ARNG work (often unpaid, which sounds like a simple fact of life for officers and NCOs) on nights and non-drill weekends on top of the full-time civilian job.

    Maybe the other services treat their Reservists better, but I think Army Guardsmen/Reservists have been abused over the past 15 years like contract/temp labor in the corporate world. Many of them deployed nearly as often as those on active duty, but they were unemployed in between and will end up earning a fraction of the pay and benefits. And I think we’ve seen a paradigm shift. The National Guard now has its own seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and senior leaders seem eager to have their folks in the game proving that they’re equals with the active duty force, and the active duty force has learned to be dependent on the Guard/Reserve to meets its mission.

    Obviously, active duty experiences vary widely too. Special operations folks, Air Force cargo plane crews, and Navy submarine crews seem to deal with an exceptional amount of family separation. I have an infantry officer friend who seems to be in the field 50%+ of the time when he’s NOT deployed, and calls himself an absentee father. But at least he earns enough for his wife to stay at home with the kids and live comfortably, and his next assignment will be full-time graduate school for a couple years – an incredibly generous opportunity (and one of many, in my experience) that is well beyond anything that folks in the Guard/Reserves have available to them.

    If I were to leave active duty, I think the best option would be a federal civilian position (maybe even as a DoD/Army Civilian, working in the same places and doing the same things) but WITHOUT continuing in the Guard/Reserves, just rolling my active duty years into FERS instead.

    • Doug Nordman says

      I appreciate your insights, DK2055, and let me know if I can help with any of the details in your plan!

      The higher your savings rate (both cutting expenses and raising income) the faster it happens.

      • Doug Nordman says

        Good points, Peter, and I think the Reserves and active-duty counterparts are much better integrated since 9/11.

        I hear you on the senior ranks in the Navy Volunteer Training Unit for all the wrong reasons. Many many senior enlisted and senior officer Reserve/National Guard servicemembers think that they have to continue drilling for the longevity raises. As you know, federal law guarantees that Reserves/Guard who “retire awaiting pay” will have their longevity continue to accrue (just as if they were on active duty) up to the start of their pension.

        Once those O-5s/O-6s reach time in grade (three years by law, two years with a waiver) they can apply to retire awaiting pay and they don’t have to drill for the longevity.

  20. peter gregory says

    In my times in Iraq and Bosnia earlier I worked with many Guard/Reserve and had no idea they were, unless they told me. At the time I thought the Guard/Reserve option was a bad deal. They were the only class/group of Federal employees I knew who “retired” at age X and had to wait until 60 to collect any pay or benefits of service under the old legacy cliff vesting system. In another tour at The Navy Yard DC I ran into many Navy VTU types, folks who would drive all the way at times as far as away as Kentucky, to drill weekends with zero compensation, save “retirement” points. Mostly 0-5,0-6 not in pay billets and filling out 28,30 year careers. Allot of JAG,SC,CEC, CHCs did this.

    There was a time I think the lines or walls of demarcation between AC and Guard/Reserve were hardened to the point that one was always forces to choose one path, against an other and never the twain meet. I sense the services evolving into a more fluid and elastic force structure were one can go AC to Reserve/Guard and back AC and back again. Far healthier for the service-member and families involved. How does all this play into FI or those plans. Again, military service is not about FI per se, or even a path to it. It can be AC or Reserve, but FI is a result of a set or learned and adaptive behaviors with money and how one relates to it. A retired CPO can be a Vanguard or Fidelity millionaire while the retired 0-6 lives paycheck to paycheck, its all about choices made, and not.

  21. DK2055 says

    Wonderful article and now I have something to reference when I tell my AD friends that there is more than one path. Quick background: I was prepared to get out after 12 years of AD because I was burnt out as well. As a single parent I feared what “sucking up” the last 8 years of AD would truly mean. I always told myself that I won’t always be in the Army, but I will always be a mom and that was more important than anything. After reading/following/listening to many of your work as well as Ryan’s, I submitted the paperwork, found a great GS job and was ready to get out and until the Army said “um, we are going to need you to stay since we aren’t drawing down anymore and that ADSO waiver you submitted, that won’t get approved.” I had used tuition assistance, incurred an ADSO, asked for a waiver, said I was going to join the reserves and they said no. Fast forward a full year later, the Army moved me somewhere that I feel reinvigorated for my service AND now I’m promotable. But now I’m 6 years, 2 months and 2 weeks away from AD retirement (who’s counting?) and I’m back to your blog and others because I do NOT want to work another full time job. I want to achieve FI, so I’m trying to educate myself on where to put that extra money.

    Anyway, I still have one more move before that time and although I’m happy now, I already decided that if the Army decides to send me somewhere that isn’t aligned with my personal goals that I will have no problem getting out and going reserves/guard largely based on the information you put out. I appreciate your work and look forward to learning how to achieve FI in 6 years so I can be there for my son during those important middle/high school years!

    Thank you again for the great work!

    • Doug Nordman says

      Thanks, Ryan!

      For anyone else who’s curious, Ryan is my blogging mentor and a good friend. (Not necessarily in that order.) TheMilitaryWallet is another outstanding resource for the details of pay & benefits.

  22. Ryan Guina says

    Doug, this is the article I wish I could have read when I was on active duty. You know my story, and we’ve had many discussions about my situation. And your book was the eye-opener I needed to understand that the Guard / Reserves was a still an option for me.

    For anyone reading this comment who is curious – I served 6.5 years on active duty, and I was completely burned out. I knew it was time for me to go. No regrets getting out when I did. But I didn’t want to immediately transition into the Guard or Reserves because I needed a break. After a few years, I thought the door was closed forever. But I read Doug’s book and did a lot of research on my own and realized it may still be an option.

    8.5 years after leaving active duty, I swore into my Guard unit. I’m now just over 10 years of service. 10 more to go before I’ll be eligible for retirement. But I don’t regret leaving active duty, or my time off in between. The quality of life changes were immediate and amazing. Now I get to balance wearing the uniform with running a business. It’s been fun.

    The only thing that might have changed was joining the Guard a couple years sooner, and not having such a long break in service. But I’m not second guessing. It’s all worked out well.

    Great article, Doug. I hope it helps others make their decision!

  23. Findependentone says

    Much respect ?. Opening with a negative review of your work. You can’t please everyone.I think you will get more readership for it. Sharing this with my brother. I am sure he wii find this useful.

    • Doug Nordman says

      Thanks for the editorial feedback, Mike. Military servicemembers, veterans, and families are welcome to submit a guest post to The-Military-Guide to share your side of the story as you’d like to see it. Perhaps I’d benefit from the constructive criticism of another perspective, especially when it’s written better than my post.

      I think those who’ve dealt with injuries & wounds should also stay on active duty as long as they’re feeling challenged & fulfilled. I appreciate that not everyone can get the approval of the MEB/PEB process to do that. However I’ve also seen many stories of veterans who’ve been forced out of uniform and have gone on to even greater careers, entrepreneurialism, volunteerism, and public service. They’ve improved on the hand they were dealt.

      I think that anyone who’s gutting it out to 20 is not only risking their own health but possibly weakening the team by poisoning its morale and affecting everyone’s safety. I served with a few of those people who were simply charming company as well as facilitating a hostile workplace environment.

      You also raise a good point. To those of you who are worried about leaving active duty with physical or medical problems, the Reserves and National Guard are still recruiting servicemembers who have a VA disability rating. I know servicemembers as high as 30% who are in drill billets, and that’s just my limited experience. If you’re hoping to get through 20 years without further injury, then I’d encourage you to find a Guard/Reserve mentor who can show you how to make the transition.

  24. Mike McAvoy says

    Your article was poorly written and didn’t factor in those individuals who have suffered through training injuries and combat wounds that couldn’t make it to 20 years.

  25. peter gregory says

    Close to retirement in 2008 I did a rough day to day calculation of the actual nights spent away from home during my 23 years of active duty, deployments, work ups, short-long ops, that year in Okinawa and Guam, 300 days in Iraq, unaccompanied. It came to about 10 1/2 years of actual away time in that 23. Now, 10 years out, do I regret those times? Missing kids birthdays, anniversaries, family life? Yes. At at any point in my career, my own decisions to stay vs. get out, vs USNR was driven not by monetary. pay, retirement issues, but by matters of job satisfaction, career issues, and that concept, “fun”. I accepted an Iraq tour thinking that I would set my self up for 0-6. When that did not happen and they wanted to send me back again, that was the day I filed the retirement paperwork. No emotion, no regret. But in hindsight I went and accepted that tour for the wrong reasons. But even if I could take a time machine back to 1985 and saw my career arc play out as is did, I would still have raised by hand at MEPs Pittsburgh.

    And that is the point. Military service at the end of the day is not about your personal happiness or joy. Or even if it is a path to FI or some sort or retirement plan. We all take an oath, and implied in that is out own death, if need be in national service. 60% of the casualties in my units in Iraq were not active duty, but Guard, Reserve. Active or Guard ,reserve, 20 years plus, or just one enlistment, sure the money can be very good, and sure there is fun and adventure, but if you ever have any doubts about the call or sacrifice required, or if you for whatever reason that work-life balance no longer can be worked out. Yes, do not “grind” out 1, 2, 3 tours to some magic 20. You will pay a price for that in some means, personally and professionally. In your heart, you will know what is the right thing to do.

      • Doug Nordman says

        Ha! You never know when you’ll run into another surfer!

        White Plains Beach is my favorite. Let me know when you have the time to paddle out… the winter has been pretty good and I’m really optimistic about south shore summer.

        Brandon’s at least 6’4″ and yeah, he makes a 10’0″ look like a toothpick. I think he’s surfing a used 9’6″ or 9’4″ that he just bought from Kimo’s Surf Hut. Kimo (James Moore) is a retired Marine and he takes good care of military surfers.

      • Doug Nordman says

        You’re welcome, Gio, I’m glad the site is helping!

        Your weariness is exactly what I’m describing with “You’ll know when the fun has stopped.”

        The hardest part of my active duty was the final 10 years before retirement, when we’d started our family and I wanted to spend more time watching our baby grow up.

        Hobbies helped a little. We’ve always been interested in home improvement and I have plenty of handyman skills. I also kept up with exercise, especially bicycling to/from work. However the hardest part was the chronic fatigue (lack of sleep) and the interruptions of recovering from frequent respiratory infections while I had a stressed-out immune system. If I picked up a cold at work (or at daycare/school) then I was constantly dealing with ear infections, bronchitis, and even a couple cases of pneumonia.

        Although I was trying to keep up with my health, by the time I retired I had borderline high blood pressure (145/85) and I was overweight. During my first year of retirement my blood pressure dropped to 120/70 and I dropped 20 pounds (without really trying). 19 years later (age 60) I’ve added surfing muscles (with lower bodyfat) and my BP is usually around 110/60.

        During that final 10 years of my career, my mental health was pretty crappy too. By the end of the workday everything was in my face, too loud, and just too much to deal with. Today my (adult) daughter tells me that most days at dinnertime she knew I was on edge… and I still had to stay awake until her bedtime.

        Looking back on those years, I got through them a day at a time. I didn’t cope with the stress very well, but nothing really bad happened. The sad part is that all of that stress and the risks to my health were unnecessary.

        The best way to cope with the stress would have been leaving active duty. My immune system would have recovered from my fatigue and I would have had a better work-life balance… even with a full-time civilian job and a Reserve career.

        In the Reserves, you’ll have Tricare Reserve Select as long as you’re in a drill billet. It’s currently $228.27/month for families, and it’s competitive with employer’s insurance. If you accumulate another 10 good years in the Reserves to go with your 10 years of active duty, you’ll have a Reserve pension (starting at age 60) that’s about a third of your current base pay in today’s dollars. That pension at age 60 is adjusted (by the years of inflation) to have the same buying power then that it has today, and at age 60 you’d also be eligible for full Tricare along with the rest of the military retiree benefits.

        In other words, leaving active duty for the Reserves means that you only have to bridge the gap between today’s pay/benefits and age 60. You’d do that with a combination of Reserve drills, a civilian career, and your savings/investments.

        In the Reserves, you’d have to handle your own dental insurance and your own housing. However you have tremendous human capital from your military leadership skills and you’d figure out your own career to make it happen. Take a look at Linkedin’s Veteran Mentor Network ( and talk with other vets of your background.

        Go talk with a Reserve recruiter. Once you know the details, you’ll be able to make an informed decision.

        Talk with David Joseph Pere of From Military To Millionaire, too. ( He’ll give you the straight story, one Marine to another.

  26. Linda says

    Sure wish this kind of info was avail when I was making the switch over to the civilian side. I tried the reserves and like you mentioned later opted for a closer National Guard unit. Loved it and actually did several years of ADSW assignments back to back. Ended up with 11 yrs active time, but was also going back for a second degree in nursing. Too many CA riots, fires, and potential deployments to contend with. Had just started having kids and well you know the amount of sleep deprived pressure one faces. Something had to give so I resigned my commission. For the record, now at 54, it sure would be nice to have had another income stream to look forward to. Thank you for providing a forum for those that need to make informed choices. I was stationed at TAMC for a while.

  27. Military Dollar says

    Thanks for directing me to this post, Nords. While today was annoying with having to work on a Sunday, in general I still love being active duty. I’m not quite ready to hang it up! But I definitely agree that people need to be more aware of their options. I know quite a few of those “gritting teeth, gutting it out” types in my friend set…some that have had a daily countdown to retirement since they hit 10 years! I’m not at that point, but if I ever end up there I know who to talk to.

    And I’ll admit – I didn’t know the Reserve pension was based on the pay table at pension start either!

    • Doug Nordman says

      Thanks, Military Dollar!

      The Reserve/Guard pension system is probably one of the world’s most complicated. I regularly have to quote the federal law and the CFPs from the military-association websites.

      • Godwin says

        Doug, hope you also get comments like mine once in awhile:

        I enlisted at 20, served 4 years active duty plus 2 in the Reserves. Got out, completed college, was out for 15 years, then decided at age 41 to go back to the Reserves. 15 years later I am sitting on 21 years with a 20 year letter. I thank God every single day that I made it back. I am 56 years old and I am getting a little tired, but I have 4,780 points and would like to finish above 5,000. I am wrapping up my 5th deployment which will put me well over 4,850 points, and I have a very robust TSP account. As a civilian I work at financial services company and I get the heartbreaking calls from individuals in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s who have little to nothing in retirement. Doug, please tell your readers that staying 20 years Active Duty or Reserves might be hard, but retiring without a decent retirement is 100 times harder.

      • DEREK says


        I saw you were teaching some of the Bigger Pockets guys how to surf. I grew up at Barbers from the mid/late 90’s into the mid 2000’s when I left for the Coast Guard. I went to Campbell and was on the surf team in my last year when a lot of the rippers graduated (mainly Venton Siliado, one of the best underground long boarders in the world).

        Anyways I didn’t realize you were a BPL (Barbers Point Local) haha. I’ll be back home in June for a visit and maybe staying for good. We go surf!



        P.S. Brandon is like 6’6″ or something yea? Looked like he needed a bigger board or maybe he just makes a 10’0″ look small.

        Much aloha!

      • Doug Nordman says

        Sorry to read that, Michael. I know the feeling… stay as safe and as healthy as you can.

        I appreciate your update for the benefit of everyone else who’s reading the comments!

  28. ARCPT says

    Wow, this is your best post! It should be required reading all active duty military who are burnt out on the full time grind.

    What you write on the Reserves/NG is spot on. I re-joined the NG some 12 years after I left active duty, partly out of a desire to serve again, but also for the retirement benefits. It was hard to juggle my civilian career with the NG/Reserves, but now that I have my 20 year letter, it’s all been worth it.

    Thanks for all you do!

  29. Doug Nordman says

    Good points, Warner25 and GaryW!

    I think the best conclusion from everyone’s data is that the Reserves and National Guard offer far more ways to achieve work/life balance than being on active duty.

    Of course the apocryphal joke is that you know you’ve achieved the work/life balance when your family, your civilian employer, and your Reserve/Guard unit are all equally annoyed with your time-management skills…

  30. Robert says

    Well you know you could always go AGR with Title 10 or NGB Title 32. I myself put in 40 years, retired going on 3 years. Now that I am 60 I am loving it. Feel free to write me whizbang720

  31. Doug Nordman says

    Michael, it looks like you’re joining the Guard directly, and this post discusses the transition to the Guard from active duty.

    You can serve your entire military career in the Guard, reach 20 “good years” of part-time service for retirement, and start your pension at age 60. It’d be mostly “one weekend a month and two weeks a year” with a mobilization for active duty of 6-12 months every 3-5 years. Depending on your skills and your assignments, you might mobilize more often or less often.

    You can learn more about your military pension & benefits from this post:
    and I’d recommend starting the blog from the top:

    Let us know if you have more questions!

  32. Doug Nordman says

    A, personally I’d suggest that it’s time for you to explore your opportunities in the Guard or Reserves.

    It’s an intensely personal decision, and I was always frustrated to hear people say “Just take the money until you can take the pension!”

  33. payyourselffirst0123 says

    My husband’s active duty and barely worked half of 2020 with covid restrictions. They had them work 1 week, off 3 weeks. Now it’s work 1 week, off 1 week. It’s been a cake walk 2020 as far as his job which I should note it’s a high stress job at a major command. So why has 2020 in the military so stressful?

  34. Michael says

    You should try that schedule while separated from each other by two states and cannot travel between the two. Sit around at watch Tiger King episodes all day because you cannot go to work because you are supposed to tele”work”, cannot go home because all travel was cancelled, and cannot go anywhere locally because either the governor shut them down or the military prohibits it.

    For two months I didn’t even have legal access to a washing machine.

    Yay Air Force in 2020!

  35. Carl says

    I just completed 20 years last August and still serving, 6 years active and 14 federal reserves. First, I love soldiers and will miss working with some of the best people I’ve ever known. The cons is that it’s challenging to balance 2 jobs (being good at both) and family life (being present and being a good husband and father). Many times I wished I had just one job to focus on. Military life and civilian full time work is demanding of me but I’ve met the challenge although not as successful as I would like to be in the reserves. It’s hard to take off my civilian hat and switch over to a military mindset.

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