Sanctuary In The Reserves: Only On Active Duty

The military sanctuary program protects military members' retirement eligibility and allows them to continue their service until they have earned their retirement. But it's a complicated topic. We work to make it easier to understand.
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The military Sanctuary Program protects servicemembers’ careers by allowing them to remain on active duty long enough to earn retirement benefits. According to, “The Sanctuary Program, as defined by Title 10 of the United States Code, is a federal program designed to protect military service members from being forced to leave military service when they are within two years of attaining enough service to qualify for an active duty retirement.”

For most servicemembers, this means that once you reach 18 years of active duty service, you will be allowed to remain on active duty long enough to get 20 years of active duty service and earn full military retirement benefits.

Sanctuary is an often misunderstood topic, especially when it comes to those serving in the Guard and Reserves. This article will cover the topic of Sanctuary and address many of the myths and misconceptions surrounding this topic.

Table of Contents
  1. Qualifying for Military Sanctuary Retirement
    1. Sanctuary is Only Approved When There is a Great Need
    2. What Happens When You’re Close to Sanctuary
  2. Official Sanctuary Instructions and Policies:
  3. Example 1 – Close to Sanctuary, How Can I Qualify?
  4. Example 2 – Promotions While in Sanctuary
    1. Adding Your Reserve Points to Your Retirement
  5. Example 3 – Promotion While in Sanctuary and Time in Grade Requirements
  6. Reader Questions About Sanctuary Retirement:
    1. Question #1: Getting Close to 18 Years
    2. Question #2 – the 7,200 Point Myth
    3. Question #3 – Required to Sign Sanctuary Waivers:
  7. Sanctuary Policies:

Qualifying for Military Sanctuary Retirement

Sanctuary comes from federal law Title 10 U.S. Code section 12686. It’s deceptively simple: if you’re a Reservist on active duty (not for training!) who goes over 18 years of active duty points (and while on active duty), then you get to stay on active duty until you’re eligible for an active-duty retirement at 20 years.

Yes: Sanctuary only happens when you’re on active duty.

It’s also derived from broader protection of federal law (Title 10 U.S. Code section 1176) regarding involuntary discharge. Every member of the military (on active duty) who’s within two years of retirement is entitled to stay on active duty until they’re eligible for their active-duty pension.

That’s how the urban legends start. People think that they’ll qualify for Sanctuary if they have 18 years of points, or 18 good years, or more than 6574 points, or by being on any kind of Reserve orders. Or maybe they know someone who heard of someone who manipulated the Reserve bureaucracy into issuing orders and then ambushed the chain of command by claiming Sanctuary for an immediate active-duty retirement. Winning!

No. There are no conspiracy theories, either.

I’ll highlight the critical points of Sanctuary in the following few paragraphs, and at the end of this post, I’ll link to your service’s applicable instructions and information sheets.

Sanctuary is Only Approved When There is a Great Need

The most critical aspect of Sanctuary is that it only happens when your service has an urgent need for your skills. It’s not a reward for your years of Reserve duty or mobilizations. It’s because the military needs a trauma surgeon right now or a combat-experienced officer to fill a critical billet on a joint warfare commander’s staff.

Those are servicemembers I know who’ve claimed Sanctuary or who have written me to share what they’ve learned from it.

Another critical aspect of Sanctuary is that it costs your service a lot of money. When you apply for a Reserve retirement, the DoD funds your pension.

However, DoD will not pay the bill for a Sanctuary-related pension. When a service decides that they need to mobilize you into Sanctuary, they have to be willing to fund it with their own money.

When a Reserve or Guard member claims Sanctuary and “upgrades” from a Reserve pension to an active-duty pension, DoD makes the service pay the active-duty pension out of their personnel funds until the retiree reaches age 60. When your service gives you a Sanctuary “sweet deal,” it’s because they’re fixing a crisis.

What Happens When You’re Close to Sanctuary

A side effect of avoiding this expense is that the Reserve and Guard personnel staff spend a lot of time and money tracking your point count. If you go over 16 years of (active duty) points, you’re placed in a special database to ensure that your service doesn’t inadvertently enable you to reach Sanctuary.

Any orders for longer than 29 days require approval at higher levels of the chain of command. Any orders that would put you into Sanctuary status have to be approved by your service’s personnel general or admiral.

A common misconception is that Sanctuary eligibility happens on any type of orders. The reality is that a servicemember has to be mobilized and on active duty when they cross the 18-year line into Sanctuary.

These orders are not AT or ADT or any sort of training orders. (This was the subject of at least one Sanctuary lawsuit.) The servicemember also has to agree to stay on active duty until they’re eligible for a regular active-duty retirement, and they are issued a new set of orders to take them to that date. They can’t be extended past 20 years for any other reason– unless they leave their Reserve/Guard status and apply for permanent active-duty status.

A final misconception is that the military has to approve Sanctuary. Even if mobilization orders are approved, you could still be required to sign a waiver of “your” Sanctuary rights. No waiver, then no orders… and no Sanctuary.

Waiving your right to Sanctuary is also controversial, but it’s in federal law (for mobilizations less than 180 days), and it has been upheld in court. You might still want the mobilization orders for a compelling mission and the experience and the boost to your career (and maybe even the pay)– but you won’t reach Sanctuary.

During your Reserve/Guard career, you can rack up more than 20 good years or go over 6574 points. (It’s not easy, but it can be done.) You could do all the drill weekends and training orders you want, even if your “training” is flying an Air National Guard tanker mission for active-duty aircraft. But unless you’re mobilized on active-duty orders of more than 29 days, you won’t make Sanctuary or be eligible for an active-duty retirement. Even when you meet all of the conditions, your service may ask you to waive your right to Sanctuary.

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Official Sanctuary Instructions and Policies:

  • The Marine Corps Sanctuary instruction
  • The Air Force Sanctuary instruction
  • Example 1 – Close to Sanctuary, How Can I Qualify?

    A reader writes:

    “I’m currently deployed to Afghanistan. I am very close to Sanctuary and may reach it during the end of my leave after my deployment is over. If I don’t reach Sanctuary by the end of this deployment, I will return to the Reserves with no less than 17 years and 11 months of “active federal” time. If I remain in the Reserves and get orders to perform duty over 30 days, that will put me well over 18 years.

    I’m wondering if I have to be mobilized to apply for Sanctuary or if I can be on “active duty” orders to reach my 18 years and achieve Sanctuary. Because of my MOS, I am constantly on orders longer than 30 days at a given time.”

    If you cross over 18 years of service on a set of active-duty orders, whether you’re on duty or leave, then you’ve reached Sanctuary status. The only thing that matters is being on those orders as you cross over 18 years. If you’ve demobilized and returned to Reserve status before 18 years, then you’ll only reach Sanctuary if you go back on active-duty orders and cross over 18 years while on those orders.

    The key to “active-duty orders” is a set of orders longer than 29 days, which means that you’re receiving active-duty benefits and you’re no longer considered to be “in training.” AT or ADT orders do not count because they’re 29 days or less. If you’re on active duty orders for longer than 29 days when you cross 18 years, whether those orders are ADSW or a full-blown mobilization, then you’re in Sanctuary.

    Your service will track your active-duty time and will know when a set of orders would put you in Sanctuary, because your service has to pay the difference in pension before DoD takes over that funding.

    Remaining in Reserve status can be risky. You could miss out on hundreds of thousands of dollars from an active duty pension should policies change, budgets decrease, or you are otherwise unable to be placed on active duty orders to reach Sanctuary.

    If I were in your situation (with a heightened awareness of abrupt policy changes), then first, I’d determine exactly when I’d go over 18 years of active duty. I’d try to extend the current mobilization so that I’d cross over 18 on that set of orders before demobilizing. If that didn’t work, then I’d get back on any set of active-duty orders as soon as I demobilized so that I was getting to 18 as quickly as possible.

    Once you’re in Sanctuary, you can apply for integration into your service’s active-duty forces and then request to stay on active duty until you’re promoted and reach at least two years’ time in grade.

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    Example 2 – Promotions While in Sanctuary

    Here’s a reader question from a servicemember who is currently in Sanctuary:

    “You seem to have a pretty good handle on the Reserve military retirement system, and I would like to ask your opinion on my situation. I’m in the Reserves. I’ve been mobilized, and I am currently in Sanctuary (18 years, nine months of active-duty service) with a mandatory active-duty retirement date of May 2014. I’ve just been selected for promotion. Since I will not have the opportunity for time in grade to retire at that rank before May 2014, is there a waiver process or any system that will allow me to continue past the mandatory date? Or, will my retirement be based on the High Three average in May 2014, and that is it?

    One last question, do you know if the inactive points count towards a Sanctuary retirement, or is it the straight 20 years of active time (assuming retirement at that point)?  Thanks!”

    Congratulations on your promotion! You’ve won the game in the third quarter, and now the question is how far you get to run up the score.

    Let me start with the Reserves background to your question and explain how a different set of rules applies to your active-duty retirement.

    There are waivers of time in grade for Reserve retirements. DoD lets the individual Reserve services decide how to handle their waivers (down to two years’ TIG). The services generously approve the waivers during drawdowns, although I don’t know how far below two years they would be willing to go. The approvals I’ve seen were for those who will reach a minimum of two years’ TIG, but the only way you’ll find out your service’s limit is to request the waiver.

    In your case, your promotion resets the clock on your retirement date and restarts your active-duty career. When you’re promoted during active duty in Sanctuary, your retirement orders are canceled, and you stay on active duty for a whole new ballgame. You get to serve whatever minimum TIG your service will allow, or you could continue your career with follow-on orders. You’ve rebooted your career, and you’re competitive for more promotions, should you choose to consider that lifestyle.

    I’m going to speculate that the reason your chain of command hasn’t discussed the rules is that your promotion is not yet final. When you’re promoted (not just selected), the active-duty personnel staff will note your Sanctuary retirement date and modify your promotion orders to cancel the retirement. You may also be asked to extend your current orders to give you a full two years’ TIG.

    If you want to do as little time in your new rank as possible, then I’d apply for approval of either:

    • A new retirement date to give you two years’ time in grade at your new rank, or
    • A TIG waiver to retire in May ’14 with however many months you have at that grade.

    Hopefully, you could discuss this ahead of time with your chain of command and HQ staff. If you apply for the waiver as an either/or option, then the approval staff should consider it in those terms.

    Adding Your Reserve Points to Your Retirement

    Your Reserve “good years” clock was ticking before you were mobilized, and now it’s continuing to track the longevity of your rank for your pay scale. Right now, you have 18 years and a few months of active service, but your pay scale longevity is probably at the >20 years, >22, or even higher column. That’s based on your date of initial entry into military service (DIEMS).

    To manually determine your pension amount, you’ll also need your years of service. The DoD has already conveniently determined this for you: you’ll reach 20 years on 1 May 2014. If you remain on active duty longer (at your higher rank), then your years of service will count up from there.

    The good news is your inactive Reserve points will count toward your retirement pension after you reach 20 years of active duty service. These points are calculated by adding them together and dividing them by 360. The value of those points will be converted to months and added to your active duty time when you retire, boosting your retirement pay accordingly. You can learn more in this article about calculating the value of a Reserve retirement.

    To manually calculate your monthly High Three pension amount, you’ll take that average 36 months’ base pay for those ranks at their longevity columns, multiply it by your years of service (calculated to three decimals), multiply that by 2.5%, and round it down to the nearest dollar.

    Example 3 – Promotion While in Sanctuary and Time in Grade Requirements

    A reader writes:

    “My spouse was selected for promotion before reaching Sanctuary. He was promoted after issued Sanctuary orders but before his deployment. We were completely unaware of the “promotion during active duty in Sanctuary” rule that would cancel his retirement orders and allow him to stay on active duty for his promotion time in grade. The military has NOT canceled his retirement orders and told him to submit a time-in-grade waiver request. He was then informed his Sanctuary orders could not be extended. However, he didn’t tell them he was recently promoted – would that make a difference? No one at the G1 Pentagon has notified him, nor were his promotion orders modified to cancel his retirement.

    His Date of Initial Entry on Military Service is May 198. He was issued Sanctuary orders in September 2012, he was promoted to O-6 on 1 December 2012, and the Sanctuary orders end in May 2014. Can you please clarify or point me to the regulation regarding the “promotion during active duty in Sanctuary” rule? Thank you for your help.

    P.S. The information on calculating his pay was very helpful and good news because we thought the annuity calculation would be based on 20 years of service, and not consider his longevity which will be close to 26 years. So that was very good news if I am reading that correctly!!”

    After some questions, we came up with the following chronology:

    • May 1987: DIEMS.
    • June 1999: Separated from active duty for drilling Reserve. Completed “good years” of Reserve points each year.
    • 2006: Placed on active-duty contingency orders through 2012.

      • This was nearly continuous active service, including a deployment.

    • November 2011: Selected for promotion.
    • 1 June 2012: Reached 18 years of active duty orders (Sanctuary).
    • September 2012: Received Sanctuary orders
    • 1 December 2012: Promoted to O-6
    • March 2013: Deployed for one year
    • 1 June 2014: Sanctuary orders end at 20 years of service.

    This question addresses a slightly different situation in which a servicemember was selected for promotion before they reached Sanctuary and then promoted after the Sanctuary orders were released.

    Sanctuary is expensive. The servicemember is not usually allowed to continue on active duty past the 20-year retirement eligibility unless they integrate with the active-duty service.

    I’ve heard of several servicemembers reaching Sanctuary, but I’ve only heard of one who continued past 20 years of service. In that situation, while he was on his Sanctuary orders, he was selected for promotion. When the selection list was approved (and he was on the promotion schedule), he applied for integration with his active-duty service. He stayed on active duty long enough to serve the minimum time-in-grade of his higher rank. Then he retired on an active-duty pension.

    This reader’s spouse has a slightly different situation. He’d already been selected for promotion before he reached Sanctuary. He was promoted shortly after his Sanctuary orders were issued.

    DoD Instruction 1235.12 allows servicemembers to continue on active duty if their service secretary approves. A Department of the Army memorandum says:

    “Sanctuary orders are not authorized to be amended to reflect a period beyond the end of the month in which the Soldier attains 20 years of active service. In cases of approved Active Duty for Operational Support service beyond 20 years of active service, the Soldier will be placed on a new set of orders, and the Sanctuary provisions of 10 USC 12686 will no longer apply.”

    How does that happen? A few paragraphs later, the memo says:

    “Officers in Sanctuary status may apply for Regular Army integration through the Call to Active Duty Program, and enlisted Soldiers in Sanctuary status may apply for Regular Army enlistment through the Reserve Component to Active Component Program. Officers in Sanctuary status should be advised that the CAD Program is a competitive accession program based upon the needs of the Army; there is no guarantee of approval. […] If approved and accessed into the Regular Army, the Soldier is subject to world-wide assignment based on the needs of the Army.”

    Those are the rules, but Sanctuary is a unique program, and most personnel staffs aren’t familiar with it. Each service’s headquarters personnel staff has a Sanctuary program manager, usually a senior civil servant who’s had years to become familiar with the details. In this case, the servicemember needs to speak with the program manager to ensure they understand how the servicemember got to Sanctuary and when they were selected for promotion. They need to do that even though they’re on deployment, or else they’re going to waste a lot of time hearing different interpretations from lower levels of the chain of command. The program manager will be required to investigate this integration request anyway, so they might as well discuss the situation with the servicemember before the official application reaches their desk.

    This servicemember will reach 20 years of service after only 18 months in the O-6 paygrade. Title 10 U.S. Code Section 1370 requires higher-ranking officers to serve three years in that grade to retire at that grade, but each service has the waiver authority to reduce that time to two years. Anything less than two years Time in Grade requires approval by SECDEF and Congress, which essentially means “Don’t even ask about it.” (SECDEF does not want to explain to interested Congressional committees why some officers don’t have to serve their minimum two years’ TIG.)

    The only way for this Sanctuary servicemember to reach TIG in their higher rank is to apply for integration into the Regular Army. After that approval, they could hope for a new set of orders to remain in their current assignment for at least another six months (while applying for a TIG waiver down to two years when they retire), or they could receive a new set of orders to another duty station.

    Will this servicemember be allowed to integrate into the Regular Army and gain at least six more months of active duty to retire at their higher grade? That’s hard to predict. A few years ago, they might have been eagerly integrated and issued new orders, especially for deployment.

    Now that the drawdown has started, the Army could be reluctant to integrate anyone else into the Regular Army (let alone give them more time on active duty) if they initially reached retirement orders on Sanctuary. The timing is very awkward for the service because it would require staying on active duty past the end of a fiscal year. An additional six months of active duty would need that officer to count against end-of-year personnel strength. It’s going to be tough enough to comply with the drawdown requirements, and personnel staff will be reluctant to issue new orders to anyone without a mission-critical reason. A general officer could intervene with Army G-1 to plead this case, but general officers in a drawdown are only issued a few silver bullets.

    The “worst-case scenario” is the servicemember reaches 20 years of active-duty service in May 2014 and will be required to retire on 1 June 2014 as an O-5 instead of an O-6. Their DD-214 and their retiree ID would reflect an O-5 rank.

    Because the officer is retiring from active duty on the High Three system, his retired rank doesn’t matter for the pension calculation. The only thing that counts is years of service and the average of the highest 36 months of pay.

    Their pension has to be calculated manually because of their Reserve pay scales and active-duty years of service. Since his DIEMS is May 1987 and he’s had a “good year” every year in the Reserves, he went over 24 years of service in June 2011 (the start of this 36-month period) and over 26 years of service in June 2013. The 18 months of O-5 pay is at the O-5>24 columns of the pay tables. The 18 months of O-6 pay is at the O-6>24 and O-6>26 columns.

    Reader Questions About Sanctuary Retirement:

    Here are a few questions from readers about whether or not they might qualify for Sanctuary:

    Question #1: Getting Close to 18 Years

    I currently have 30 years of service (13 active and 17 reserves) with 6405 points. I’m considering applying for Sanctuary next year. I’d like to know which scenario would benefit me more financially if I retire as active duty with 20 years (if I get Sanctuary status) or as a gray area reservist.

    Reader #1 could request mobilization, but he’s already being tracked for Sanctuary status (and he was probably added to that database when he crossed 5840 active-duty points). Even if he has a unique skill in high demand, he’ll only be mobilized if there’s a critical mission– and then he’ll be asked to sign a waiver for 179-day orders. He’ll go over 18 years of points, but no Sanctuary. He’ll eventually apply for a Reserve retirement.

    Question #2 – the 7,200 Point Myth

    I understand that Reservists who’ve earned at least 7200 retirement points by their last day of Reserve duty become eligible for an immediate active duty retirement. If so, will they immediately receive retirement pay for BOTH the accumulated active duty points AND the inactive duty points, or must they wait through the “grey area” for the inactive duty points?

    Does accumulating 7300 total points of inactive duty points and active duty time and over 20 satisfactory years warrant an active duty retirement right away, or does the member still collect at age 60?

    I have gotten mixed reviews on this one and have wondered about it. I’ve talked to folks in D.C., and even they say 7300 points is the magic number to hit, no matter the combination of Active and Reserve time you have.

    Reader #2 is now more knowledgeable on federal law and the DoD Sanctuary system. He knows where to look it up in the references and in his service’s instructions instead of relying on the tribal lore of “the folks in DC.” He also understands that it’s doubtful that he’ll ever reach Sanctuary, and he’s expecting a Reserve pension instead of an active-duty one.

    Question #3 – Required to Sign Sanctuary Waivers:

    I was reading your blog about Reserve retirements. I see that someone asked a question about a Reservist accumulating 20 active years and figuring out their retirement pay. I fall into that category too. I would love to correspond with you to help me understand what retirement pay I will be entitled to after my 20 active years and 24 years of good service total.

    Between my seven years of regular active duty and my slew of Reserve voluntary active duty orders at other commands, I will have 20 actual active years of service in a few months.

    Ever since I was close to 16 years of active service, I have been required to sign a Sanctuary waiver to be allowed to come on orders. That was so I would not claim Sanctuary after 18 years of active service.

    However, I have been blessed enough to achieve the 20 active years!

    At the beginning of next year, I will have 7629 points.

    Reader #3 loves what she does, and she gets a lot of short-term active-duty orders. Her Sanctuary status was tracked as soon as she crossed 16 years of points, and she’s all too familiar with the Sanctuary waivers.

    Sanctuary Policies:

    As a reminder, here are the links to the official Sanctuary policies.

  • The Marine Corps sanctuary instruction
  • The Air Force Sanctuary instruction

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      With reference to Sanctuary, I signed up for a transfer of eligible GI Bill Benefits requiring a 4 year extension in March 2013. In September of 2013, I was a reservist on active duty and became eligible for Sanctuary after reaching 18 years of active duty time. I applied for Sanctuary, was accepted, and the AF cut my active duty orders so that I would retire from active duty 2 years later in September 2015 with 20 years of active duty. I asked for an extension but was denied and had to retire in Sep 2015. Now, because I did not finish 4 years of duty for the GI Bill transfer benefit, although I volunteered to extend, the VA is saying I am not eligible to transfer my GI Bill benefit. Is this right, or should I be getting a waiver to the 4 years due to the rules of Sanctuary?

      • Ryan Guina says

        Antonio, This is a great question, and I don’t have a good answer for you. The VA is generally the authority on this topic. The usual requirement is to serve four years after transferring benefits. However, there may be situations in which your transfer can still be completed if you are forced from the military before completing the four-year requirement. I recommend filing an appeal and asking the VA to provide a reference for your situation. I would also try a benefits ombudsman, if one is available at your local VA center, or a Veterans Service Organization, such as the DAV, AMVETS, American Legion, etc. They frequently offer free benefits claims assistance and may have someone to help you. Finally, you may also seek legal counsel, which may be expensive.

        Best wishes!

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