Active Duty vs. Reserve or National Guard: What’s the Difference

Updated: May 3, 2023
In this Article

    What is the difference between military service on Active Duty, as a member of the National Guard, or as a Reservist?

    There are many nuances, and those new to the recruiting process soon learn there are multiple options for a career in uniform; not all involve a full-time commitment to the military.

    Active Duty Military Service

    Active Duty is what most people think of when they consider joining a branch of the military. Active duty service is possible in the following branches:

    • Army
    • Navy
    • Air Force
    • Marine Corps
    • Coast Guard
    • Space Force

    Each branch of the service has its own unique requirements for active-duty recruits. Some branches require far more in the physical departments than others (the Marine Corps is the best example) but all branches have some form of required physical discipline. All branches of active duty service require some form of basic training, which helps new recruits come up to the physical standards while learning military order and discipline.

    Active duty military service is a full-time, 24-7 job and the Department of Defense may assign its active duty forces anywhere in the world. Joining as an active duty member means signing a legally binding contract that obligates the member to a minimum service commitment defined by the individual branch of service.

    Active duty service members can be stationed stateside or overseas, they get full military benefits after meeting minimum time-in-service and training requirements, and are eligible for the full range of education benefits offered to them when they have served long enough. Active duty service members are eligible for:

    …just to name a few.

    In short, joining as an active duty military member means going into the “regular Army”, the full time Air Force, etc. Active duty military service is a career, or potentially a career for any new recruit who joins to do full-time uniformed service.

    Those who want to join the military but want to serve part-time have two basic options in what are commonly known as the “reserve components”, the National Guard and the Reserve.

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    Reserve Components: The National Guard And Reserve

    The phrase “reserve components” can include both the Reserve and the Guard. The DoD has a group of reserve components including:

    The Guard and Reserve both have their origins in early American militia groups formed at the beginning of American colonization–more than one National Guard unit has its origins in such militias.

    National Guard

    Described as a “joint activity” of the Department of Defense between the Army and Air Force, both Army and Air Force Guard operations fall under the jurisdiction of state governors but can also operate under Federal authorization when conditions warrant.

    Most members of the Guard hold civilian jobs while serving part-time; but there is a smaller group of full-time Active Guard & Reserve troops.

    The National Guard Commitment: How Long You Will Initially Serve

    The first question many have is, “How long am I committed when I join the National Guard”? Depending on the branch of service, and current mission requirements, that answer may be different but examples of past commitment requirements can tell you a lot.

    In the past, the Army National Guard has informed its new recruits “You can enlist for as few as three years, with an additional commitment to the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). IRR Soldiers don’t train with a unit, but can still be called up in the event of an emergency.”

    That’s according to the Army official site. National Guard troops may do monthly drills, musters, or require other training or activities. They may be deployed by the state Governor in times of emergency or unrest, etc. The schedule of your individual National Guard unit will determine your individual time commitment each month.

    Some join the Guard and serve part-time for their entire military career; others join after serving on Active Duty and may have an easier time getting placed due to being prior military. Regardless of how you join, the benefits of National Guard service include VA benefits–two of which are the most asked-about:

    VA Home Loan Benefits For National Guard Members

    Those who join the National Guard and meet minimum time-in-service requirements are eligible to apply for VA home loan benefits. Those minimum requirements were expanded in 2021 with the Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act. Under the Act, the following changes should be noted–the Act modified Section 3701(b) of title 38, United States Code to add a paragraph to the end of the section that states:

    …The term ‘veteran’ also includes, for purposes of home loans, an individual who performed full-time National Guard duty (as that term is defined in section 101 of title 10) for a period—

    (A) of not less than 90 cumulative days; and
    (B) that includes 30 consecutive days” (emphasis ours)

    Note that only 30 consecutive days are required under the Act. But, this legislation also includes a retroactive feature to include full-time National Guard duty “performed before, on, or after the date of the enactment of this Act.”

    VA Education Benefits (GI Bill) For National Guard Members

    Those who join the Guard and serve the minimum time required may be eligible to apply for GI Bill benefits. For members of the National Guard, GI Bill payments are not as high as for active duty veterans. The Army National Guard official site includes discussion of the benefits for Guard members; a monthly expense allowance of up to $384, for more than $13,500 total over a four year college career.

    Army Guard members have the option to apply for a kicker that can help add more education funds; up to $350 per month in living expenses for qualifying applicants.

    The qualifications for joining will vary depending on whether you are exploring your Air National Guard or Army Guard options. For example, the criteria for joining the Army National Guard include being at least 17 years old and all recruits must take and pass the ASVAB. Some recruits may have the option to attend basic training between their Junior and Senior year in high school depending on circumstances and current policy.

    Those who wish to join the National Guard with prior military service will discuss their options with a Prior Service recruiter.

    Why do some people join the Guard instead of becoming a Reservist? Guard units are often closer to home than the nearest military reserve unit. Serving part-time means doing monthly drill and other requirements and the proximity of your home to the nearest unit could make the difference between joining one or the other.

    Joining The Reserve

    Serving in the Reserve forces carries versions of the same benefits as serving in the National Guard–the GI Bill requirements are similar and there are minimum time in service requirements for members of both the Guard and Reserve for VA Home Loan program options.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs says of Reserve component benefits, “Generally, all National Guard and Reserve members discharged or released under conditions that are not dishonorable are eligible for some VA benefits.” The duration of your military commitment, the status, whether you were activated for full time service, and other variables will affect the specific military benefits you qualify for as a Reservist.

    For example, VA mortgage benefits for Reservists include the following requirements:

    • Six years of service in the Selected Reserve, AND
    • Honorably discharged, OR
    • Placed on the retired list, OR
    • Served for 90 days or more on active duty (Title 10) during a wartime period, OR
    • Discharged or released from active duty for a service-connected disability
    • Were transferred to the Standby Reserve or an element of the Ready Reserve other than the Selected Reserve after service characterized as honorable, OR
    • Continues to serve in the Selected Reserve longer than six years

    Joining the Reserve is similar to joining the National Guard in that each branch of service has its own benefits and requirements for becoming a Reservist-no two Reserve programs are exactly alike.

    Army Reserve members have different requirements than Air Force Reservists, for example, and you may find that some branches of service have smaller Reserve “footprints” than others. One year’s count found more than 38,000 Marine Corps Reserve members; compare that to the Air Force’s numbers which are roughly double.

    The Main Difference Between The Guard And Reserve

    The major differences between the Guard and Reserve have to do with the nature of duty–Reserve members operate under the jurisdiction of the DoD and may be called up to serve in times of war, in expeditionary campaigns, for humanitarian relief, and any other mission-essential function.

    National Guard troops can be activated by the state Governor, and they may also be called up by the President of the United States. In many cases a reserve member may be filling in for an active duty soldier, airman, Marine, etc. who has deployed. In other cases reserve members may be called upon to deploy themselves.

    Reserve troops may be activated by the President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, but time limits apply depending on circumstances. Reserve Troops are subject to some or all of the following different kinds of activations where appropriate:

    • The President, Congress, and Secretary of Defense may involuntarily activate Reserve units
    • Congress may authorize a full mobilization of Reserve units with no time limit until six months following a conflict
    • The President of the United States can order a partial mobilization of reservists for up to two years
    • Presidential Reserve Call-Up authority allows the president to order two hundred thousand reserve members and an additional smaller number of Ready Reserve members to be active for up to one year
    • Disaster Response rules allow state governors to call up Reserve units and individuals to help with domestic emergencies
    • Special missions that fall under “Assured Access Authority” allow the call-up of Reserve units in times that don’t include war or emergency “in support of an active duty combatant command”
    • Reserve members may have the option to volunteer to activate; volunteering for active duty is one way some units augment their numbers when needed

    Things To Remember About Joining The Military

    Joining the active service, National Guard, or Reserve is a personal choice. If you want to serve but don’t want the full time commitment, a Guard or Reserve slot can be just what you need. The important thing to remember is to judge your needs and goals compared to the type of service you are contemplating. Do you want to help your state out in times of natural disaster?

    If you prefer your military service closer to home, the Guard may be a better option. There are no guarantees how close to home you might serve, but in general your options are better with a Guard unit in these cases.

    Reservists often travel around the globe depending on the unit, the mission, and other concerns. If you want to serve with the option of travel, a Reserve job may be a better fit for you than a National Guard option though again, your experience may vary.

    Active duty service is very tempting for those who want both the maximum amount of military benefits offered and the potential for travel and relocation. The best thing to do is to speak to an active duty recruiter plus those recruiting for Guard and Reserve counterparts–learn what the most current demands are and what jobs might be right for you.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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