Every organization wants the best talent. But how to get it? This has been the conversation within the U.S. military at large for some years now, as the economic outlook for potential recruits has gotten brighter. It is a topic that is especially dear to the Reserve Component (National Guard and Reserves) these days, as we struggle to fill the boots for a part-time force.
There are a lot of reasons that recruiting might be struggling and we could list them out ad nauseam – but that’s not the point of this. Instead, I’d like to point at one of the key reasons that it is getting harder and harder to get key talent into the Reserve Component: the benefits have gone largely unchanged in the past twenty years, while the mission has continuously increased.
Now, I know: people should just join for love of country. But let’s be honest: it’s a lot easier to love your country if your family is being taken care of and you’re financially secure. So let’s take a look at the benefits currently offered versus those offered in, say, 1990. If you join the National Guard you get life insurance for you and your spouse, health care (Tricare Reserve Select), the GI Bill, eligibility to pay into a retirement plan (TSP), become eligible for the VA Home Loan, and – if you deploy – a slew of other veteran benefits.
1990 to 1999
Between 1990 and 1999, there were some big changes that were made to the benefits packages – mainly based on the experience of mobilizing the Guard and Reserve for Desert Storm. Congress passed laws authorizing Reservists to have access to the VA Home Loan, expands access to the Montgomery GI Bill, authorizes imminent danger pay comparable to that of the Active Component, open the TSP for Reservists, and provides access to Tricare Dental.
Now, that was a lot – mainly all stuff based on giving Reservists access to the same benefits provided to their Active Duty peers. Which is all well and good, but as we know, Active and Reserve Soldiers face different struggles and different lives. So let’s take a look at what happens after 9/11, with that event being a watershed moment for the Reserve Component.
9/11 happens, we invade Afghanistan in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003 and suddenly the Guard is mobilizing more troops than it has since World War II. You can kiss the “one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer” mantra goodbye forever as the Guard becomes the Army’s operational reserve. This is a big deal, you would say, and you’d be right. So what was done to compensate Guard Soldiers after this paradigm shift?
Between 2001 and 2019, Congress provides early Tricare access to mobilizing Guard members, streamlines healthcare access and develops Tricare Reserve Select (TRS), creates the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and develops the blended retirement system (a 401K modeled retirement plan). While those are good – especially TRS – are you actually kidding me, Congress? Let me put it to you this way: imagine you’re working for a company that has had the same business model for about fifty years. And the business is doing pretty well; employees are more or less satisfied. Then, overnight, the commitment the company demands triples. Suddenly, you need to work longer hours, in more hazardous environments, for the same pay and benefits. This business would go the way of the dodo – or ENRON. Same thing, I guess. Suffice to say, I think we can all see the issue here.
Most of the new benefits provided to the Reserve Component since 9/11 have mainly been designed to bring service members into a parity with that their Active Component counterparts receive. Which is – frankly – absurd that we even have to fight for those, given all the chanting of “one team, one fight” in the Total Force environment which we currently inhabit. But that’s not even the real problem.
Different Force, Different Challenges
The real problem is treating the service members of the Reserve Component as if they have the same challenges and concerns as Active Duty troops. As a National Guard company commander, I can safely say that nothing could be further from the truth. My Soldiers attempt to balance civilian careers at all levels of development (new, transitioning, management) with the ever-increasing demands of military education (structured self development, commissioned and non-commissioned officer education, specialty schools) while also attempting to fit in their family life – families who do not have the stability offered by housing allowances, moving assistance, or access to good schools. And in the middle of all this, these Soldiers need to be ready to deploy in defense of the Nation or in the service to their State.
So now we go back and look at the benefits available to these Soldiers, and we begin to see why so many decide to leave the service: it’s simply too much for too little in return. Sure, the healthcare benefit is good, as is the Montgomery/Post-9/11 GI Bill – but with a growing economy and job market, civilian companies can match this or even do better. If we want to retain talent, we have to treat that talent the way everyone else does: as a commodity that we’re willing to drop some cash on.
For the National Guard, it falls to the States to fill this gap. Some States have tuition waivers for State universities; others have tax breaks/credits for employers. Some offer generous military leave for State employees that are drilling Guard members.
What’s the Fix?
These are all steps in the right direction, but if we want to truly change the way that we look at recruiting, we need to do all of these at the National level, and we need to broaden our horizons. We need to provide greater flexibility in drill schedules for traditional Guard members. We must provide unparalleled benefits to attract literally the finest talent – not just those that we can get. We need to rebuild our links with the community – links that were lost after 9/11 due to our desire for more operational security – and build relationships with employers to put trained and qualified Guard members in the pipeline for well-paying jobs on the civilian side. We need to provide benefits to employers and families, to show them that we truly value them beyond just paying lip service. We need to show how serving in the National Guard will further your career, rather than inhibit it.
If we can do all this – and I believe that we can – we will have Soldiers that are not only happier, but are more than willing to train longer and deploy more. Since the world has forced us to adapt our operational tempo and our “deliverables” as it were, we need to adapt how we compensate our Guard Soldiers. It’s what we need to do to create an adaptive force for the future, and it’s the right thing for our Soldiers.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.
“We are raising our readiness,” Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said during visits with Guard members in South Korea, May 1-4, 2018. “It’s our job.” (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill) Source: https://www.army.mil/article/204877/the_national_guard_in_south_korea_10_things_you_need_to_know