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The theory behind the National Guard and the whole “one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer” thing is that you maintain a baseline level of readiness and training such that when invited by Uncle Sam to join The War, you can rapidly train up to the level you need for effective support to the collective effort.

So with only 39 training days per year, you focus on the universal tasks that everyone needs (shoot, move, communicate, don’t sexually harass anyone) and as many of the specialty tasks for your particular job as you can make time for, with the expectation that once Big Army calls, your unit will suddenly have additional money to pay for training days and schools and whatnot.  Once that happens, you will now be balancing your regular job or school, training for your Army deployment, and spending time with your family/friends/dog prior to being absent for some duration of time between nine months and eternity.

This can be somewhat stressful. On the one hand, your job wants you to wrap up some projects before you go and isn’t happy about you being gone for nine months, let alone additional weeks or months beforehand.  Your kids want to spend time with you.  Your spouse wants to spend time with you.  Your dog wants to spend time with you.

On the other hand, you need the training.  It might be in stuff you haven’t done in the decade(s) since your initial entry training.  It might be in something you’ve never done, either because it’s specific to your mission this time, or because it’s new since last you had training, or perhaps because you could never get into the school before (because people deploying have priority).  You may not (probably don’t) know exactly what you will be doing downrange, but you want all of the training you can possibly get before you go, to increase your odds of success when friendly lives may be riding on your competence.

On the gripping hand, you simply may not be able to afford it.

In my first deployment, we had three straight months of federal active duty training time before we arrived at The War in early 2006.  There was a bunch of individual everybody-must-do-this training during that period, but also six or eight weeks of training we spent TDY in various places for special schools and familiarization with different tasks, depending on our specialty and function.  Between that mobilization period and the war and demob, we were on active duty (with full-time benefits) for fifteen straight months.

This is expensive.  As the wars wound down (this is the narrative we plan around, even if no one believes it), the Army changed the mobilization model substantially–several times, in fact.  Now, we have about a month of federal training time before we actually hit theater, and almost all of that is collective training, trying to function as a cohesive unit with our unit mission.  The individual training happens on an individual basis before you “go federal.”

There are still schools to go to, but now you have to fit it in somehow before you leave home, whenever it happens to be available.  So perhaps you work your job for two weeks, train for two weeks, work a week, train two more weeks, work five weeks, train a week, etc., etc.  Employers (and families) LOVE this.

Best of all, from the Army’s perspective, since you’re only on orders for a week or two at a time, you only get your base pay (and maybe some travel offsets and per diem if you’re away from home).  Active duty longer than 29 days means you are getting your tax-free basic allowances for housing (maybe 30-50% of your total pay depending on prevailing rental rates where you live) and subsistence (food).  You’re also getting access to active duty medical coverage for your family, and active duty resources like child care on base.  (And if you’re overseas at The War, you may also be collecting family separation pay, combat zone tax exclusion, hazardous duty pay, and possibly a few others.)

So in our upcoming war, for example, the proposed pre-mobilization training plan has NINE STRAIGHT WEEKS of training, a three-week break, and then federal active duty time.  Those nine weeks?  5 days at a time.  The clear intent is that my soldiers will be on full-time duty status for two months, but they will only be paid for 45 days of base pay, without any benefits. From my limited experience in the unit S3 and from talking to other people, this is standard operating procedure in the Washington National Guard.

RUMINT (rumor intelligence; our primary source of useful intel) suggests that the state was quite happy to get the training funds from Big Army, but is now skeptical about our alleged training “needs” for the mobilization.  Funds we don’t use can be reallocated, so there is push-back on anything not deemed critical.  The problem we are having is somewhat specific to my field; we can’t do hardly any preparation at all outside of secure facilities, and you don’t exactly get to wander in there without a specific purpose and authorization.  Also, no one outside really gets what we do or why we should need weeks and weeks of prerequisite training before we can start learning how to do it.

All of my small section initially wanted to do as much of the training as we could get, particularly since we are coming from three different units and don’t even know the exact nature of our mission downrange.  But how does it play out when they do the math?

  • One staff sergeant (E6) was initially willing to take the pay cut from his civilian corporate career to train, in part so he wouldn’t have to balance the hassle of going back and forth between the two.  Even full-time orders when we mobilize are going to be a pay cut; he can’t afford to do it on base pay alone.
  • Another staff sergeant with 14 years of time in service did the math.  With base pay, he would be getting about $15.31 an hour, assuming 40-hour work weeks (which may be charitable).  He can’t afford the pay cut from his job as a security guard, even though he desperately wants the training because he has very little experience in this field (having reclassified from another job late in his career). He is contemplating working weekends at his job to make up some of the difference.
  • My other sergeant first class (E7) is willing to take the pay cut, but because she’s not working her regular job she won’t be able to put her kid in the work childcare, and since the orders are less than 29 days, she can’t get in the Army’s reduced cost options.  She would spend about 40% of her Army pay just on childcare.

In short, we need the training, we want the training, and we can get the training–but we can’t afford the training.  So right now the plan is that we’ll do the few weeks that we can afford that we really can’t do without and learn the rest in the war zone while supporting a very high profile mission with a critically high operations tempo.  I’m sure that will go well.

Every one of them would be willing to drop their civilian jobs entirely and go full-time active duty early to be better prepared, were that only an option.

I was much more sanguine about this problem earlier because a) my people are all terribly clever and b) I’m both very good at my job and an excellent instructor.  But some of this is going to be new to me as well, and the more I learn about our mission, the more concerned I am that we be as prepared as we can possibly be.  Every time we get new information, the expectations on us have increased substantially.

I have been severely annoyed at times by some of the well-meaning people who cite military base pay to argue that our military is drastically underpaid.  Base pay is important, but those tax-free allowances and other benefits really add up.  Even if an E1 spends all his base pay on hookers and blow, he is still going to be housed and fed and will get medical and dental care and access to a gym and lots of other facilities, not to mention 30 days of paid leave per year.

But those benefits only hold true if you use the military pay and orders system the way they are meant to be used–salaried.  None of it is structured to handle short-term orders, work weeks, or the like.  When they intentionally abuse the pay system to be fiscally responsible, they are doing it by taking money out of the soldiers’ pockets and they are harming our ability to train for the fight when we need it most.