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Who Stays and Who Goes: Army Enlisted Reserve and National Guard Retention

Authored by Dr. Clayton K. S. Chun. | July 2005

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Today, USAR and ARNG personnel serving with their active components are a common sight and are transparent in many areas of operation. Army reserve components have actively participated in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and for homeland security. Reserve and National Guard units provide specialist and augmentation support for active forces. In some cases, active forces could not sustain field operations without reserve component support. National leadership increasingly has called upon these reserve components to replace operational active Army units as commitments grow in breadth and scope. Force commitments around the globe will ensure future mobilizations of U.S. Army Reserve (USAR) and Army National Guard (ARNG) personnel in areas away from home and under conditions not foreseen just a few years ago.

Frequent and large mobilizations of units and individuals to supplement and support active forces come at a cost, not only financially, but in terms of readiness and perhaps retention. Like their active duty counterparts, USAR and ARNG forces rely strictly on volunteers to fill their ranks. If conditions become intolerable for potential recruits and existing members, these organizations may find personnel refusing to consider participation in the reserves. Perhaps a first step in determining whether the Army faces such a problem is to determine if it faces retention concerns among its forces.

This monograph examines trends in USAR and ARNG enlisted members? retention. Its primary objective is to create a baseline to compare future USAR and ARNG retention and concentrates on the period from 1995 to 2002. The author compares demographic factors, such as race and martial status, to examine who stays and who leaves their respective components. These trends should provide the basis for further study and policy recommendations. The USAR and ARNG face many of the same problems as the active Army, but their situation is more complex. They face problems with their members balancing civilian and military careers, family concerns, and other challenges that can force them to leave service before the completion of a full reserve career.

Three groups are examined: enlisted members with 4-7 years, 8- 10 years, and 19 years of service. These groups represent relatively junior, middle grade, and senior military members. If the junior members start to leave, the reserve component needs to work harder to recruit more soldiers. Middle grade enlisted members serve as the backbone of the reserve force and affect future senior enlisted leadership capability. If soldiers start to retire, lack of senior leadership can affect unit readiness and capabilities by forcing junior and middle grade enlisted members to take over positions and work assignments earlier than they might otherwise. This could also affect their retention.

Several notable differences have occurred between the groups. Overall, the Army Reserve had a higher retention rate than the National Guard. Within all of the three enlisted groups, USAR groups had a higher retention rate than comparable ARNG ones. Retention actually increased in almost all groups over the period, despite lowered unemployment rates. During some periods of decreased unemployment, some retention rates among junior enlisted members increased, while in other cases high unemployment corresponded with lower retention.

Other demographic trends include married members having higher retention rates than single members whether the person was in the USAR or ARNG. However, if one examines individuals who indicate how many dependents that member claims, the observation changes. Single members with dependents normally have greater retention rates than married members with the same number of dependents, up to a point. These observations could have significant policy implications to improve retention among particular groups, like providing health insurance or childcare that could affect retention.

Retention rates regarding males and females also differ. In the 4- 7 year group, female retention was generally greater than male rates. The other groups indicate males staying in the military at greater rates. One could wonder if this is a new trend where females seek a career with the USAR and ARNG; this will create new challenges. Conversely, as the reserve female members gain experience, they tend to leave at greater rates. This may signal new areas for research on why they leave.

Curiously, deployments did not affect retention in this period. Members with one or two deployments had better retention rates than those who had none. Perhaps those members who were not deployed faced more work, did not get a chance to practice their skills, faced the loss of a career opportunity, or felt left out of their unit, which affected their behavior.

Race was the last major demographic factor examined. White members had lower retention rates than nonwhites. Given the changing national demographics and potential impact on future recruitment, nonwhites must play a larger role in the reserve components. This will affect a host of leadership, training, and other policy issues in recruitment and retention of our enlisted forces.

These observations are general and indicate further study is needed to examine policy changes that improve retention. Today, Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM have placed additional stress on the reserve components. While one does not know what retention rates will be found in the reserve components, certainly these events will change perceptions about a reserve career. This monograph may provide the basis to compare retention rates between the continued mobilizations of reserve components and the period where selected deployments were the norm. If the United States returns to a period where reserve components are used in less routine deployments, retention may return to its previous rates. The reserve components face problems they must solve to retain soldiers. Policy options, like bonuses, have been implemented to improve retention. Perhaps other options, based on who stays or goes, might be more effective. Personnel policies to sustain retention rates might not be motivated solely by monetary rewards.


Retention is a potential concern among active and reserve components in all branches of service. Keeping a quality soldier in uniform not only improves force capability, but is cost effective as well. Although retention seems to have stayed relatively constant from 1995 to 2002, one might not find the same results today. Changing conditions from a periodic reliance on reserve component use to a routine one may solve current force structure problems, but may create problems in the future.

This monograph examined a slice of history for the USAR and the ARNG. My intent was to use the data as a basis to compare future retention studies with a relatively stable period where the United States did not use the reserve components as frequently as today. Only a sustained comparison of reserve components in the future can shed light on the impact of increased and scheduled use of USAR and ARNG units on retention.

Future examination might focus on the effect on reserve component members who were mobilized for active duty and those who were not. This could answer questions about the effect of mobilization on decisions to separate or retire. Unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War that was relatively short, future mobilizations may last more than a year, and members might face the possibility of repeated deployments just like active military members. This type of analysis could yield valuable insight in viewing options for using the reserve components immediately compared to longer-term impacts. Small, infrequent mobilizations during this period did not seem to affect retention. However, future mobilizations in conflicts that are relatively long, extensive, and unpopular at home may have other results.

Perhaps future reserve component leadership will view the period before 2002 as a ?golden? one in terms of retention. The challenge for the future is two-fold. First, recruit the type of personnel that, in the past, have been willing to stay in the reserve components. However, this action is no guarantee. Certain conditions affecting retention may change rapidly depending on a conflict or future deployments. Changing conditions of reserve duty can have unexpected consequences. Second, trying to use ?one size fits all? incentives for retention may not work or may become counterproductive. Individuals continue in the USAR and ARNG for various reasons, from job training, to patriotism, to future annuities. Simplifying the retention study to demographic groups was a start to examine where particular groups stayed or left.A concentrated focus on a particular group might offer insight into what types of incentives may encourage future retention.