There are many ways to join the military, but the most common option is to serve in the active duty ranks where you are a full-time military member of one of several branches of service.
Once you leave active duty, it's generally understood that that's it—your military days are over, and a life in the civilian world awaits you. But what if some major world event happened? Could you be recalled back into active duty service?
To answer this question, it's important to understand a few things about how military service works.
The Categories of Military Service
Military service is divided into the following four categories:
When in active duty, you are a full-time employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. You get paid a salary and work the hours the military requires (and go wherever the military requires you to work). You also have access to all the benefits of medical, dental, vacation, and reduced costs of living to name a few of the benefits.
When in the Reserves, a service member can work as a civilian in another profession, but must train for a salary at regular intervals throughout the year. Being called up is possible, depending upon the job your unit does.
The National Guard is maintained by the individual states, but it's also available for federal use when needed. Calling up the National Guard is common depending upon the mission of the unit. The governors of the states will often call on the National Guard to response to natural disasters within the United States.
Also known as an Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), an inactive reservist receives no pay and does not spend any time doing anything within the military—so no drilling or training, and consequently no benefits of service. However, you still can be called for service by the president.
A Long-Term Commitment
All enlistments in the United States military incur a minimum eight-year service obligation. Any time which is not spent on active duty—or in the active (drilling) Reserves or National Guard—must be spent in the IRR.
Before signing an enlistment contract, think of it like any other employment commitment; besides swearing the oath of enlistment, you're signing a legal, binding document when you join the military.
Be sure to read your enlistment contract carefully, and know the pertinent details about pay and other terms and conditions. These are lengthy, detailed contracts, so raise any questions you have with your recruitment officer before you sign on the dotted line.
Active Duty Enlistment
To understand how all this works, it's important to consider a few scenarios.
If one enlists for four years of active duty in the Army, and then gets out, they are placed in the IRR and is subject to recall to active duty for four more years (total of eight years military obligation).
If one enlists in the active (drilling) National Guard or Reserves for six years, and then gets out, they are placed in the IRR for two years and are subject to possible recall during that time.
These provisions are spelled out pretty clearly in the enlistment contract. Paragraph 10a of the enlistment contract states:
FOR ALL ENLISTEES: If this is my initial enlistment, I must serve a total of eight (8) years. Any part of that service not served on active duty must be served in a Reserve Component unless I am sooner discharged.
The traditional enlistment contract calls for four years of active duty, but this can vary depending on a few factors. Some Army enlistment contracts have active-duty components of two, three, or six years. These depend on what kind of training the recruit is receiving; some programs require more active duty commitment than others. The Navy also has shorter-term active duty commitments based on the nature of the training received.
What Is Stop Loss?
It's also important to be familiar with the rules of stop-loss—that is, how military personnel can be required to stay past an agreed-upon date of separation in the event of a national emergency. Created after the Vietnam War, stop-loss, or involuntary extension of an enlistment contract, is a controversial provision. The military has put it into effect in recent years in several conflicts, including following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Rules for Military Retirees
Retirees (those who spend at least 20 years in the military and draw retired pay) can be recalled to active duty for life. However, the policy established in "DoD Instruction 1352.01 - Management of Regular and Reserve Retired Military Members" makes the recall to active duty unlikely for those who have been retired for more than five years, and those over age 60.
Before enlisting, know the specific rules for the job you want to do in the military, and what the expectations are for your term of service.
How Does Being Recalled Work?
The president of the United States has “Presidential Reserve Call Up Authority.” This means that, when needed, the president can recall individuals to military service to support military operations. Typically, this is done with a state of emergency.
In a state of emergency, the president can recall members for an indefinite period of time. If there is no state of emergency, the president is limited to call less than 200,000 Reserves and IRR members for a period of less than 365 days.