How does the Reservist system work in the USA ?

A lot of Reservists are in Iraq now… curious to know how the system works ?

  • What do they get when not at war or mission ? Worthwhile ?

  • When on a “mission” who pays them ? Only the US govt ?

  • What training and retraining is done ?

  • Do they hold Rank ?

  • What are the legal bounds and limits of the arrangement ?

  • When can a reservist refuse to go on a mission ?

  • What is the time limit for “missions” ?

  • How does american society view reservist “job” ? Is it typical of a certain class level ? Is it a dead-end job like thing ?

  • How do employers view reservists ? It must be a major hassle to have employees getting shipped out to nowhere with little warning. The jobs are guaranteed when they get back ?

    If anyone wants to give an overview of the pros and cons of using so many reservists… it would be interesting.


I am not a reservist, but I’ll answer as many as I can.

  1. Reservists work in regular jobs when they are not deployed, and can be anything from factory workers to business executives. While not deployed, they train with the army about two weeks and several weekends every year. (Thus earning them the nickname, “weekend warriors.”

  2. When deployed, they are paid by the federal government. Some employers also continue to pay reservist employees while they are in the field, though I don’t think this is too common.

  3. See above.

  4. Yes, they hold rank, and include both officers and enlisted personell.

  5. A reservist cannot refuse deployment, unless for medical reasons or other extenuating circumstances. Of course, he must get permission not to go, he can’t just say “I don’t feel like going to Iraq, because I have a cold.”

  6. There is no time limit; reservist units are activated by the President when necessary and sent home when their mission is complete.

  7. Reservists are well respected (as are all military personell) and it is not a dead-end job, as most of the time is spent working at your normal civilian job.

  8. Employers are required to hold jobs for reservists who are deployed.

Reservists get reserve pay when not active. In return, they are expected to train one weekend a month and attend an annual training of a few weeks’ length. This requirement can be increased.

When activated, they are paid just like active-duty military, out of the US military budget.

Basic and specialized training is identical to the regulars. Retraining is done monthly and annually.

Rank is held by reservists.

As far as I know, the only legal limit upon activating the reserves is that it has to be done. They can be called up by unit, as individuals, whenever the military sees a need to do so. It is legal to just put out a call telling all reservists to report as quickly as possible. Reservists are legally obliged to obey. They signed the contract.

Refusing a mission is disobeying orders. They can request different orders, but if the request is denied, then they are subject to military justice. All US reservists are volunteers.

There is no fixed time limit for a reserve mission. There are some principles, but they can be ignored as needed.

Reservists are generally from the “solid backbone” of US society. They are almost always gainfully employed in virtually any job one cares to consider. They include doctors, lawyers, engineers, truck drivers, factory workers, Congress members, etc.

Employers are required by law to provide jobs for returning reservists and not penalize them for being called up. The penalties for violating this law can be severe. In addition, there is a great deal of very negative publicity. Few employers want to be known as a traitor who attack their workers because they are more loyal to the USA than is said employer.

The above information applies to the most commonly-known form of the Reserves, those who make up the permanent drilling units. That also includes the National Guard, which is each State’s militia that under normal circumstances stands by to provide aid during emergencies including natural disasters, but are at the same time reserve units of the Army and Air Force and can be mobilized from Washington (e.g. the Puerto Rico National Guard’s land combat force is the US Army’s 92d Infantry Brigade). When serving the State, they are paid by the State.

These reservists accrue many of the side-benefits such as educational funding and shopping at post stores; plus, upon the appropriate number of years, they qualify for the retired list and may receive a pension. Many of them sign in after serving in the regular forces, or you can actually enlist straight into the Reserves/NG – as said before, Basic and Specialty Training are the same as regular enlistee’s .

Besides them, then there is the “IRR” made up of those persons who have mustered out of regular active duty or Selected Reserve/NG units, but have not completed their nominal 8 year Service Obligation (the regular military enlistment contract is between 2 and 6 years; those who do not re-up usually spend the remainder in IRR). These do have reserve status, and hold their last rank and specialty, but do not conduct regular drills and do not receive pay unless they actually are required to attend any military activity. They are subject to mobilization on the same terms, to either augment an existing unit or to form up entire new units. Myself, I was IRR at the time of Gulf War I and though not mobilized, could have been; instead I was contacted by the appropriate command to ask if I would rather volunteer, apparently the need for people in that billet was so low they first tried checking out if they could fill it w/o actually pressing annyone in. I decided to take my chances on my number coming up, and missed the war entirely.

Do reservists get a “extra” when NOT deployed ? Is it reasonable money ? I would imagine most arent reservists only for patriotic fervour…

Also reservists are usually mixed into regular Division soldiers or are there Reservist Divisions ? I would suppose it would be good to have professional NCOs working with these “weekend warriors” as to keep levels high.

When you sign into the reservists… is it a fixed period like 5 years ? 10 years ? How are officers promotions dealt with… after all they have way less time “in service”.

I know americans are all patriotic and so… but it still seems that being a reserve nowadays would be a major hassle due to time of service abroad. Is being a reservist becoming a “bad choice” ?

I’m not sure what you mean by “an Extra.” Reservists draw the same pay as regulars. If you are on duty for training for two days you draw two days pay at the same rate as a regular soldier in the same pay grade.

Reservists serve in units of various sizes. When I was still in the reserves I was in the headquarters company of a three battalion engineer group made up of three reservists battalions. At least one of those battalions is now on active duty in Iraq, but my old headquarters company was not mobilized, yet. I am not aware of any big reserve units on the order of divisions. For the most part reservists are in combat support battalions and companies–things like engineer battalions, transportation companies, aviation battalions, MP companies and the like. When called to active duty reserve units tend to be integrated into existing regular army formations. For instance, my old outfit, the engineer HHQ company, would become part of a corps level engineer command and control structure.

The national guard, on the other hand has large formations. The NG units in the Upper Midwest are elements of the 36th Infantry Division (the Red Bull) and could be put in the field as a NG division right along side a regular army division. That is just what happened in WWII.

There are regular army officers and NCOs scattered into reserve units. These guys are full timers. They are intergrial members of the unit, usually in administrative and technical slots or as “advisors” to the commander.

In the old days a soldier had a six year obligation. The first three years was served on active duty (two years in the case of a draftee). If the soldier did not reenlist then he was transferred to the reserve and released from active duty. The three or four years the soldier had left on his obligation was served in the reserve component. He then had the choice of signing up for another reserve tour or taking his discharge and going home.

The active army’s growing dependence on the reserve component to reenforce the active army is undoubtedly going to have an adverse effect on retention in the reserves.

About the “something extra.” After twenty years service a reservist is entitled to retirement pay. Thus three years on active duty and 17 years of one weekend a month plus two weeks every year gets the soldier retirement pay based on the highest pay grade held. Regulars get their retirement pay right away, maybe at age 38. Reservists don’t draw retirement pay until age 60. It is an inducement to stick around, although the Army doesn’t allow you to just sit there for 17 years. There are promotion requirements and qualifications for promotion requirements that must be met in order to remain.

I’ll try to answer Rashak Mani’s questions one at a time.

Disclaimer: I was in the Air Force Reserves, flying as a pilot. We had currency requirements that exceeded the “normal” Reservist role. We were required to do a minimum of 6 days/month in addition to the 2 weeks/year. Most guys did MORE than this.

In my job, we only got paid if we came to work. When working, we got paid a daily rate equal to 1/30th of what an active duty person with the same rank and time in grade earned. Some other units may have different rules, though.

The Air Force Reserve has complete units that deploy, comprised entirely of Reservists. I came to my Reserve unit after leaving active duty; many AF Reservists do this. As a result, Air Force Reserve units have some of the most experienced pilots, engineers and maintenance people around. My unit shared airplanes with an active duty unit. Experience-wise, the Reservists had more flight time in the aircraft and overall than 90% of the active duty people. So in flying units, the Reserve unit will usually be more experienced than a comparable active-duty unit. This also applies to Air National Guard, Navy and Marine Corps Reserve flying units.

Like I said, I can’t speak for ground units on this.

Normally you only sign a contract with a time commitment if the unit is going to train you. When I joined my Reserve unit I was already current and qualified on the aircraft, so they spent nothing training me. As a result, I could have walked at any time (barring anything like 9/11 which caused the military to stop-loss everyone).

To compare, someone that a Reserve/Guard unit hires off the street and then sends through pilot training may require a 6 or 8-year commitment. Transition to a new aircraft is usually a 2 or 3-year contract.

Officer promotion boards are completely separate for active duty, Reserve and National Guard. The Reserves are similar to active duty in that they are federal, but the timelines are different (ie longer). I made Captain on time while on active duty (4 years), but a friend who was a Reservist didn’t make Captain until 6 years after commissioning. The National Guard works differently in that there are only a certain number of slots allocated for each rank. In order for you to get promoted, an available slot must open up. This can be from somone quitting or retiring who is senior to you, thus creating a “flow-down” promotion effect. Air National Guard guys can spend a VERY long time in rank if their unit is well-populated and popular.

While coding the last quote I hit submit, so here’s the rest of it:

Well, looking at Reserve participation during a war may make it seem like a “bad choice”. But that is the risk that you take by being in the unit in the first place. You must balance the long deployment against all of the years that you worked a few days a month and got paid while earning a pension.

Hope this (limited) info helps!

Spavined: Actually, a drilling Reservist gets one day’s pay for one drill period. A drill period equals four hours of drill; thus, a drill weekend is composed of four drills which garners the Reservist four days pay.

Thanks… quite informative.

Are there set plans or rules for major emergencies as regards calling back to duty people who have left the military and the reserves ? Major emergencies meaning a real war or invasion of mainland USA. I suppose even in last ditch defense efforts its better to get trained ex-militaries.

Legally speaking can the draft be brought back ? (non voluntary army) 

The National Guard is more oriented to defend the USA than the reserves ? Except in extreme cases I suppose. The NG is just a different reservist “formation” ? Or separate from the reservists ? Why is there diferetiation between NG and Reservists…

Don’t forget one of the duties of the National Guard is to provide security and assistance during other sorts of emergencies than war, such as earthquakes or hurricaines or riots.

Yes, of course. In fact, males between 18 and 25 are required to register with the selective service, which is essentially the agency that would run a draft. But since the 1970’s the US has seen an all-volunteer force as desirable. Since the military spent much of the 80’s and 90’s encouraging folks to retire early and really, except in certain specialties, having more volunteers than job slots, it would be a little silly to bring back the draft at this point.

The National Guard is the state militia, of which we have 50. So… you have “National Guard of Illinois”, which is under control of the State of Illinois governor. If there’s a natural disaster in Illinois or some other emergency the NG of Illinois may be activated by the governor to maintain order, lend assistance to civilians, prevent looting, assist in evacuations, etc. During the 1960’s the various NG’s were used to control riots (with mixed success). After 9/11/01 extra airport security was provided by the various NG’s. So, in that sense, the NG is more oriented towards domestic defense, but NG units can and do fight abroad. Regular military - active duty and reservists - would likely only get involved in the event of fighting on American soil. The Federal military is prohibited by law from providing policing services (looting prevention, for example) on American territory - which is why it was the NG at the airports and not the Army or Marines.

See above. A very rough analogy would be comparing the armies of Germany or France with the NATO troops. Each State in the US has an army/air force/etc. controlled by the governor, it’s a State militia. Reservist would be a Federal military person. State militias can provide domestic policing services, Federal can not. Remember that many of the States in the US either started as separate and discreet colonies with a high degree of soverignity, or were actual separate nations (Texas, Hawaii) prior to joining the union. When Texas joined the Union, their national army became the Texas National Guard, or State militia.

All of this makes a military coup a little difficult to pull off. First of all, the Federal army knows they aren’t supposed to be soldiering on US soil. Even if the President (or some other official) convinced the Federal forces to follow him - which would violate everyone’s service oath* anyway - he’d be facing 50 State militias he’d have to convince to surrender or join up. As pilot141 pointed out, NG personnel may be more experienced than regular troops. They all have the same weapons. This could get really, really messy**

  • US military personal do not swear an oath to an individual person or even a particular office - they swear to defend the Constitution. It’s an oath to uphold our framework of government and the rule of law, not a particular person, political party, or administration

** The U.S. Civil War was very nasty. More people died in the the Civil War than in all the other wars American has ever fought combined. During that war, we also invented the machine gun, landmine, trench warfare, concentration camps, and submarine warfare - and that’s just off the top of my head. Nobody wants to do that again.

I have been on Active Duty, In the Select Marine Corps Reserve, and am now in the Individual Ready Reserve. Right now I do not participate in any weekend drill or any two week training periods. I do not need to maintain grooming standards (although I pretty much do). I do carry a military ID Card, and my name IS in a filing cabinet for callup, as are retired members under a certain age, probably just before they start calling up draftees.

BroomstickA caveat/correction to the US Forces serving stateside: Local civilian government can request assistance during a state of emergency from active duty or reserve forces. The Military has the right to extract payment for these services. During a huge snowstorm in NC in 1989 over Christmas, we had Active Marines running around towns in their HWMMVs providing civilian services, and as part of my training in a reserve unit in Maine, we went through the procedures for using Reservists to provide security from looters, for instance, so other workers could do search and rescue. I do not recall the specific rules for these “extra-curricular” activities on US soil, but I have seen it in action and been trained in the procedures to do it.

Well, it WOULD be silly to not use the Marines if you need help and they’re available… There are some sort of rules and limits to what the Federal forces can do domestically. And a local, civilian government requesting assistance is different than having it imposed from outside.

I think part of of the rationale for the “citizen soldier” is to keep the country from dividing permanently into civilian and military moieties. Soldiers are not some alien species dressed in khaki - they’re Joe at the next desk in the accounting department, or Sally the nurse at the local clinic, or Ted the guy who works on your car. Likewise, Sally, Joe, and Ted are, most days, just ordinary citizens, they don’t see civilians as “other”. This is in keeping with the idea that primary purpose of the military is to protect and defend the country, not rule it.

It would also make invading the US really difficult, given that so many ordinary civilians have had military training at one point or another and there’s no real way to distinguish between them and those who have never served in the military unless the soldiers are active duty and in uniform - but most of the time, the reservists are not in uniform. That was also some of the reasoning behind the 2nd Ammendment, our “right to bear arms”. Invading the US is not just a matter of defeating the formal military - the population at large is well armed, with a significant number being trained fighters.

I think it also has other effects on the population. Since so much of our military is “citizen soldiers” and “weekend warriors”, even those of us who do not have military experience do not automatically see them as “other” - they’re just fellow citizens with specialized training. In an emergency, civilians might well follow military personnel direction because there isn’t an underlying, hostile divide between the two groups. The military structure as a whole uses a large number of civilian contractors (my sister used to be one of them), because civilians are seen as not inherently different (we just didn’t get the training the military guys did) but rather fellow citizens with a different skill set. Although there is a clear division in some ways between military and civilian, in other ways there is a blurring of the lines between them. As an example, the Pentagon is a building built by and for the military, but employs large numbers of civilian contractors in jobs that don’t require military training, such as office support staff. That’s why on 9/11/01 a significant number of those killed and wounded at the Pentagon were civilians - the Pentagon has always used civilian as well as military labor.

For that matter, the place I currently work used to do some work for the Department of Defense. Not one of us in my department has ever seen military service, yet some of our income came from the military. I don’t remember if the nice men with the crewcuts and the crisp white shirts who showed up from time to time to audit our records were official military or not - but really, it didn’t mattter. We were all just doing our job.

By the way - I should state clearly that I have never been a member of the military at any level. What I know I picked up from family and friends (a lot of whom have been in the military at one level or another), so if I got something wrong I’m sure someone will be along to correct me (thanks, UncleBill)

Thanks guys… good to learn a bit…

The Posse Comitatus Act ( is what I think you mean Broomstick.

Glad to be informative.

Just a few more things: the current smaller volunteer military requires much more use of reservists/National Guard in order to deploy to combat on short notice than it did in the draft age – but that’s what was the case historically; until WW2 the US traditionally had a numerically small (relative to population) non-conscripted Regular Army, relying on a call-up of State Militia and mustering of short-term “volunteers” for fast mobilization and using the draft only during major wars.

Right now the occupation force in Iraq consists of regulars plus reserves plus* National Guard units. Plus many guardsmen/reservists have been mustered to “fill in” the usual garrison duties of regular units that are now deployed to the front. The SDMB’s own Airman Doors is a Pennsylvania National Guardsman, who enlisted “off the street” and whose active duty with the US Air Force (I want to say for 2 years, but now I’m unsure) included service in the war. Here in Puerto Rico we have both Reserve and National Guard units deployed in Iraq (and alas, elements of both have taken fatalities: it’s real soldiering) and have had units of both types deployed to the Balkans for peacekeeping since the 90s. (every US jurisdiction with the population to support it, not just the 50 states, has a National Guard. This includes the District of Columbia, PR, the Virgin Islands, Guam, etc. In fact the only combat-armed US land forces permanently “garrisoned” in PR ARE the local reservists and NGs)

The states also have a “State Guard” attached to their NG, which is a small force of volunteer (meaning unpaid) former regular and NG members who take over some support and emergency duties when the “proper” NG units are deployed out-of-state.

Just to add something I’ve been reading lately…The reason so many Reservists are required now is that the regular Army spun off some very important functions into the Reserves and Guard after Vietnam.

So in a sense every US action of any reasonable size is impossible without reservists ?

What about high levels of “Latinos” in the armed forces… has then been the case in the reservists too ?

The statistics I’ve seen describing various percentages of ethnic groups in the “armed forces” have not, as a rule, distinguished between regular active duty personnel and reserve personnel. The term “armed forces” or “military” may or may not include reservists. If you can’t determine that difference from context you will have to ask in order to be sure whether the statistic is inclusive of reservists or not.