Operational Reserve on Burnout

Increased Requirements and the Army National Guard


When I first told my mother I wanted to join the Army National Guard (way back in 2007), she asked me why I intended to join an organization where they get leftover equipment and no training. My mind immediately leaped to the stereotypical depiction of the National Guardsmen that went into the hills after John Rambo in “Rambo: First Blood (1982).” These buffoons were hillbillies of the highest order; admittedly, hillbillies with M-60 machine guns and rocket launchers. Likewise, her remembrances of the Guard came from the 1960s and 1970s.

However, the concerns my mother expressed were founded on a kernel of truth: equipment and training were a shadow of what the Active component had. The Guard was truthfully billed as an “Operational Reserve.” President Johnson’s decision not to mobilize the National Guard during Vietnam had actually been a detriment to the force. Training suffered, equipment was deteriorating, and recruiting was stoked less by a desire to serve the country than the offer of free college.

Desert Storm was when the “Operational Reserve” was activated and both combat and combat sustainment units served alongside the Active component. An estimated 39,000 Guard Soldiers served in Southwest Asia. That was the beginning of a decade of escalating Guard deployments and engagement around the world: Kosovo, Bosnia, Latin America. But the Guard was still that annoying younger brother, the one with the hand-me down trucks, who called two-week Annual Training, “Summer Camp,” and who had an alarming number of unreported alcohol-induced accidents.

Then came 9/11. Then the invasion of Iraq. And just like that, the National Guard was included in regular rotations of deployments.

Then came 9/11. Then the invasion of Iraq. And just like that, the National Guard was included in regular rotations of deployments. Not just combat support or combat sustainment support, but combat troops. And not just companies and battalions, but brigade and group headquarters. Like their Active duty brothers and sisters, they welded armor onto their humvees and trucks when presented with substandard equipment. They adapted to their situations and overcame. They fought and bled alongside Active and Reserve component Soldiers. And they deployed. Again, and again, and again. To the point where states began to worry that they were running out of troops to respond to domestic emergencies. So much for being an “Operational Reserve.”

  A U.S. Army 5-ton cargo truck with improvised armor on the doors, rear gunner’s box, and an improved bumper. (Photograph taken by Jeff McFall at LSA Adder, Iraq)

A U.S. Army 5-ton cargo truck with improvised armor on the doors, rear gunner’s box, and an improved bumper. (Photograph taken by Jeff McFall at LSA Adder, Iraq)

With constant deployments came an upgrade to the Guard: same training, same equipment, same systems as the Active component. Standardization had come to the Guard’s warfighting capabilities, and with it, standardization to EVERYTHING Active duty had to offer: training plans, risk assessments, sexual assault prevention programs, equal opportunity briefings, resiliency training, command supply discipline programs, the Army deployment cycle, unit status reporting, even National Training Center rotations. In this time of increased tempo, the Guard still responded to national disasters and crises: Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Haiti Earthquake response, and the Boston Marathon Bombing, to name a few. Put simply, the Guard was incredibly busy.

However, throughout this time, the Guard was still operating on the one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer model. This wasn't a problem during the days of the unrivaled largess from the Department of Defense, when money flowed like a river into National Guard Bureau’s headquarters. But then the dreaded sequestration struck, the river dried up, and the Guard was left with the same requirements, less funding, and still only one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer to accomplish all its tasks.

Company leadership gets so tied up in paperwork and requirements that they are barely able to get out and see how their company trains. This is precisely the opposite of how it is supposed to be.

I've reached the point in my career where many of my friends are starting to take command, and so I've been able to get a perspective on how busy they are. And without an exception, they’re overwhelmed with the requirements of being a commander and holding down a civilian job. National Guard drills are divided up into Multiple Unit Training Assemblies (MUTAs), where two MUTAs constitutes one day. A typical drill weekend is four MUTAs (2 days). There are a few six MUTA drills authorized (3 days) but most of the time, all business needs to be concluded in two days. That includes evaluations, mandatory briefings, mission essential training, vehicle and equipment maintenance, inventories, officer and non-commissioned officer professional development, and planning for the coming months. While all National Guard units have a small full-time staff for planning and handling day-to-day functions like armory maintenance, the commander and first sergeant, as well as platoon leadership, are the ones who drive future planning. Company leadership gets so tied up in paperwork and requirements that they are barely able to get out and see how their company trains. This is precisely the opposite of how it is supposed to be.

This hits commanders the hardest. Commanders have to spend at least twenty to thirty hours a week engaged in National Guard business, and that’s on top of their normal job requirements. Obviously, this is not sustainable. Guard units are still deploying, as much as this is not highlighted on the news. Mobilization tempo has dropped, but not disappeared. Guard leaders are still as busy as ever, doing more with less.

As the Army After Action Report says, pointing out an issue without a solution is just pointless griping. So here are a few possible fixes:

  1. Authorize additional MUTAs for the National Guard, making standard drill weekends three days long.
  2. To offset the impact to employers, offer a tax break for the number of National Guard members they employ.
  3. Authorize, at a minimum, another seven Annual Training days for commanders and senior leaders in order to accomplish all requirements before drill; this will allow them to focus on training.
  4. Finally, cut drills in the winter months to maximize the training time in the summer months.

Obviously, much of this is tied into the larger debate about the future of the National Guard that is going on in Congress. The results of the Congressional commission will drive the way in which the Guard is structured and how it is used (i.e. will the Guard get to keep BCTs?). Until then, it would behoove Army leaders to begin thinking about ways in which to retain the Guard’s capability while establishing realistic requirements for its leaders.


Angry Staff Officer is a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. He has done one tour in Afghanistan as part of U.S. and Coalition retrograde operations. With a BA and an MA in history, he currently serves as a full-time Army Historian. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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