When you hear the term “military family life,” what comes to mind? Do you think of a father serving with a wife and children, experiencing frequent relocations and deployments, being surrounded by fellow military families living either on or near a military installation? This is what most people think of, which is the typical active-duty military family life. Military-connected families mirror that of their civilian counterparts.
However, when you add the term “Reserve” or “Guard” to the equation, military family life takes on a whole new meaning. Consider the perspective of a Reserve member’s wife, Karen Hughes, who says, “I live in a town where freedom is free and doesn’t bear the jagged scars of its true cost. It is white picket fences and parades, not gold star families and wounded warriors. I envy their naïveté at times; it’s a blissful calm where news reports are just distant problems, a forgettable soundbite at best devoid of the turmoil of the worrying what that might mean for our family. Along the way, I have faced the questions, the confusion and the hilarious antidotes that come with a path that isn’t de rigueur of suburban living.”
Nuances Between Reserve & National Guard
Reserve and Guard Service members and their families live between two worlds and are often hidden in plain sight within the civilian communities in which they live and contribute. They cover down on five fronts of responsibility: personal well-being; family well-being; civilian career/education; military career/education; and community contribution/engagement (e.g., serving as a coach, in a position at church). They actively serve their nation, often training more than the famous adage of “one weekend a month and two weeks a year” with intermittent time away from family, and they may or may not deploy. Reserve and Guard Service members also miss birthdays, anniversaries, soccer tournaments, graduations, band concerts, or any celebration or event that takes place while they’re gone. “Pushing ahead two careers, juggling annual training and reserve weekends against business trips and family life is a veritable three-ring circus at times” (Bitterman, 2021). Even though they do not serve 24/7 and may or may not deploy, the military member and their family’s service are no less significant or less of a sacrifice.
As a snapshot of context, the Army Reserve, for instance, contains nearly half of the Army’s maneuver support and a quarter of its force mobilization capacity at a cost of just 6% of the total Army budget. The Reserve and Guard, “due to disaster relief efforts, homeland defense initiatives, and the global [climate] in a persistent conflict environment, . . . the Reserve finds itself in the process of profound, fundamental change” (Tucker, 2008). Congress and the Department of Defense leverage significant taxpayer savings in cost, infrastructure, and manpower, having the flexibility to draw up or draw down, depending on need, at any given time through their Reserve and Guard components. Hence, the requirement for these components is being in a constant state of personal, family, and mission readiness. There is also taxpayer savings, as Reserve and Guard civilian employers can be a source of ongoing training, education, and experience related to the military member’s Military Occupational Specialty (MOS).
One of the primary differences between the Reserve and Guard lies in command structure. Reserve units are part of the federal armed forces and therefore fall under presidential command. Guard units are organized on the state level and their respective governors can call them to service, as can presidential command. All five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces have reserve components; however, only the Army and Air Force have Guard components. The majority of these Service members hold civilian jobs while serving part-time as a citizen soldier, otherwise known as “TPUs” (Troop Program Units). But there is a smaller group of full-time Active Guard & Reserve (AGR) soldiers that supports the daily functions of running the Reserve or Guard components.
The only other significant and notable difference is in the benefits. Although some members of the Reserve and Guard receive the same federal benefits (pending eligibility criteria), individual states often offer additional benefits for members of the Guard. For example, Oklahoma and Alabama pay the full tuition for Guard members who attend a state university or college. As discussed earlier, the downside to these state-level benefits being only for the Guard is that it diminishes the resources for, and mission readiness of, Reserve members, as often their MOS is tied to their civilian profession, including staying relevant with ongoing education and training (e.g., legal, medical, engineers, law enforcement, intelligence, chemical).
One other downside is that Reserve members live and contribute to those same communities without access to the same benefits, which can lead to Reserve members and their families feeling less valued and supported. This experience for Reserve members can be amplified, with Guard members receiving community and news media attention leading to civilian community awareness, recognition, and the all-important soft benefits that contribute to general wellbeing via wraparound community support.
Life in the Reserves or National Guard
With all that said, you can’t walk through water and not get wet. Which means, in military terms, you cannot be a part of the Reserve and Guard without it affecting you and your family. Effects of military life can be both positive and negative. Therefore, the military is working hard to help military members and their families develop knowledge, skills, and abilities – resilience – to prevent and early intervene in instances where effects of military life can create difficulty. For this to truly happen, it is vital for our civilian communities to understand and embrace their Reserve and Guard neighbors where they live, work, and play.
Here are a few additional things to know about these Service members and their families beyond what has been reviewed (How National Guard and Reserve Families Fare, 2021):
- Geographically dispersed (Guard at the state level and Reserve across the US and Internationally): often live far from military installations and facilities; do not live near their units; and are distant from those with similar lived experiences. This can lead to a sense of isolation from the military community and their civilian community: living between two worlds. “The fact that reserve [and guard] component Service members and their families live in the civilian community, separate from daily contact with the military culture, structure, and support, adds a degree of isolation that can exacerbate both Service members’ and families’ psychological challenges” (Halvorson, 2010, pg. 6).
- Complex transitions if on orders leading to significant periods of separation: addressing changes in income; learning about and accessing military family benefits not available unless in a full-time status; resolving issues with civilian employers; finding affordable childcare and after-school activities for spouse working full-time; transportation needs; single-parents to determine family care plans; etc.
- Return transitions from significant periods of separation: “Challenges are compounded by trying to find a way to fit back into the civilian world where his or her friends and family have little direct experience with the military and little understanding of what the Service member has been through” (Halvorson, 2010, pg. 22). Hughes, a military spouse, shares, “I had to laugh when I found out our sweet, elderly neighbor was telling people around town that she did not understand why I would take my deadbeat husband back after he was absent for a year and left the children and me” (2021).
- Single-Parents: working full-time while also fulfilling military responsibilities; incurring additional childcare costs; consideration of family care plan if mobilized/deployed.
- Military-connected youth: teachers/school counselors/church leadership/coaches/etc. less likely to know or understand their issues; constant adjustment and fluctuation related to changes in military requirements; less likely to have peers with similar lived experiences. “My children have not dealt with changing schools and homes every few years and trying to fit in with a new group of friends, but it is a tough road for them to travel. In the fold of a military community, other children have shared experiences and understand the emotional turmoil; teachers know how it can affect academic performance. Out in the civilian world, it is a foreign concept and the intrinsic support structure is not there for the kids. Devoid of commonality, the kids sometimes feel very isolated. However, it does help them learn to be resilient and flexible” (Hughes, 2021).
Supporting Reserve and National Guard Families
How can you put this knowledge into action? It is imperative that civilian communities, researchers, and providers find ways within their area of capability and expertise to support Reserve and Guard members and their families. They need support to maintain a resilient mission readiness status with their communities supporting their holistic wellbeing and quality of life. Readiness is the state of being prepared to effectively navigate the challenges of daily living experiences in the unique context of military service. Ready military members and families are therefore knowledgeable about the potential challenges, aware of the supportive resources available to them, and make use of the skills and supports in managing such challenges. Military & Family Readiness Programs are teams comprised from all unit levels providing support, information, and training that empowers our partners, like you, through increased knowledge, skills, and abilities to prepare and address Military/Family Life Cycle challenges. Our efforts, in partnership with Commanders; Military members; their Families; volunteers; military units; service organizations; and civilian communities are the path to achieving and sustaining the joint mission of functional Military & Family Readiness: empowerment and self-sufficiency of the military and their families to help each other, develop knowledge and skills, and seek assistance if needed.
Needs to consider within respective macro, meso, and micro systems of capability:
- Social science research for the Reserve and Guard, separating the population research respectively, related to quality-of-life impact and resiliency capability related to military service.
- Quality-of-life demographics within congressional districts, including economic impact of residence vs. drill location for the Reserve and Guard, respectively.
- Legislative advocacy initiative to include Reserve members in state-level resources/benefits by utilizing the following wording: "a member of the U.S. Armed Forces residing within [state]" or "resident Service members in an active, guard, or reserve component of the U.S. Armed Forces."
- Build and maintain a purple coalition with military counterparts; federal and state organizations; civic organizations and leadership; community service organizations, etc., to build a coordinated, collaborative, and interconnected line of effort to fill gaps in services/resources for Reserve and Guard within respective line of capability.
- Reach out to respective Reserve and Guard Military & Family Readiness experts to obtain cultural competency training in working with Reserve and Guard members and their families.
From our Reserve or Guard foxhole to yours, we look forward to moving forward together: Hooah, Hooyah, and Oorah!
- Army Reserve Soldier and Family Programs
- Army National Guard Soldier and Family Readiness: Contact your state’s National Guard Headquarters to contact their respective Family Programs.
- Navy Fleet & Family Support Programs
- Marine Family Programs:
- Air Force Airman and Family Programs
- Air National Guard Airman and Family Programs
- Space Force Family Programs: Currently supported through the Airman and Family Programs
- Coast Guard Family Support