February 05, 2019

A Lack of Support Leaves the Reserves Broken

After spending ten years as an active duty intelligence officer with the Marine Corps, I transitioned to the reserves, specifically the Selected Marine Corps Reserve component, where I have served for the past 15 months as a detachment officer-in-charge (OIC). While the experiences of a reservist vary across component, military branch, unit, and billet, there are a number of issues that are both consistent and pervasive through the reserve force: administrative processes, retention, annual training to name a few. Many of the most pressing, and most frustrating, issues fall under an overarching problem with the reserves: reserve forces have too many requirements with too little support.

The complaint of too many requirements has been echoed across the active duty side as well, to little or no avail. For reservists, however, the issue is not simply being overtasked, it is being overtasked without the means to accomplish such tasking. This is evident in something as simple as checking official email. In most units official email is the preferred method of contact between inspector and instructor (I&I) staff, and the reservist units they support. Often emails with attachments sent from an official USMC email account will not be delivered to a civilian email account. However, in order to access an official email account, a reservist must go through various levels of technological frustration to enable a Common Access Card reader. To add insult to injury, email accounts are frequently deactivated if the owner is unable to log on to an ethernet connected government computer every 30 days – a requirement that is unrealistic for some reservists. While this is one small example of requirements without support, others have a more catastrophic effect.

The monthly flight hours requirement for reservist aviators is impossible to achieve in the current “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” model. As a result, pilots either fall short of their required hours or take time off from their civilian employment to complete military flights. The lack of training combined with an unsustainable deployment rotation have undoubtedly contributed to deadly aircraft mishaps for Marine Corps aviation. This lack of training and true readiness across military occupational specialties (MOS) could have similar injurious or deadly outcomes: an untrained Humvee driver is more likely to be involved in a rollover and an unprepared intelligence analyst can easily provide dangerous operational assessments to a unit commander.

These problems are compounded for deploying service members. Reservists are often attached to deploying active duty units as individual augmentees, existing in an administrative no-man’s-land. The active duty component is limited in its ability to deal pay and administration issues, and the reservist’s home unit is unable to track or address these issues because the member has administratively and operationally left the unit. These service members often return from combat with extraordinary travel claims and missing both pay and drill points.

If the services fail to adequately address and correct the phenomena of requirements without support, the force will continue to lose quality service members and be left with only a few truly dedicated individuals among a sea of folks who have little other options.

One of the core drivers of these problems is an outdated, cumbersome administrative bureaucracy in desperate need of a refresh. This system requires service members to submit paper travel claims, written mostly in administrative code, that rarely get approved on the first submission. The active duty military members supporting these administrative systems are often well-versed in the processes of active duty administration, but novices at navigating the reserve system. The overwhelming number of rules and regulations governing reservists, specifically their pay, points, and travel, make supporting a reservist twice as difficult as supporting an active duty service member.

There is also a cultural problem that amplifies these issues. Reservists are often considered part-time service members, who require part-time support. The opposite is true. This is partly because of the individualized nature of the reserves. Depending on the unit, annual training evolutions, among other travel, is often executed on an individual basis. Reservists must account for every mile, minute, and cent used to accomplish the mission. Oversight is critical, yes, but for reservists that oversight has swung too far to the extreme – causing more administrative nightmares in an already overburdened system. Additionally, reservists do not work in the same building as their I&I or administrative support team, and often do not even live in the same time zone. While this problem may seem inherent and therefore intractable from reserve service, the powers to be can help change, or at least mitigate the negative effects of this culture by changing the institutional processes. Reserve Marines need, on a one-to-one basis, more support that those serving on active duty. Still, even part-time service members espouse the ideals of resourcefulness and mission accomplishment and push through technological and logistical hurdles to accomplish a task. This resourcefulness provides a short-term reward but a long-term risk. In short, our ability to get the job done with little to no support bolsters a culture of no support.

These problems are enduring and have been acceptable as inevitable, but one must be careful in assuming that because a problem is large and longstanding it cannot be fixed. Reservists are often serving in a non-obligated capacity – meaning they can leave service at any time. A reservist’s reason for leaving service can be as diverse as their reason for joining, but many leave because their reserve duties have a net negative effect on their overall life. This is not just an economic decision – reservists often lose money by going to drill – but rather is often a reflection of reserve requirements encroaching on their civilian professional or personal growth and fulfillment. Reservists are often left to complete annual training or administrative requirements on nights and weekends, taking time away from families or personal projects. Units are forced to drill on weekdays throughout the year in order to receive medical support or complete range requirements, which interrupts and negatively affects their civilian careers or schooling to various degrees. These problems persist, in part, because instead of continually fighting these issues, non-obligated reservists simply leave. In short, reservists with successful civilian careers, the exact type of individuals the military should recruit, cultivate, and retain, often leave once the administrative nightmares reach a crescendo. Losing capable leaders hurts both the unit and the force and also allows the problems to persist as the chief complainant is no longer in the military.

If the services fail to adequately address and correct the phenomena of requirements without support, the force will continue to lose quality service members and be left with only a few truly dedicated individuals among a sea of folks who have little other options. This problem already exists. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at the mid- to senior field-grade level, officers in the Marine Corps are actively avoiding command. The physical, financial, and mental requirements of leading are too overwhelming for even the most capable and dedicated leader to step up.

These problems affect not only the reserve component, but the active duty component as well. Reservists who spend an entire drill weekend completing annual requirements often leave behind vehicles and aircraft with severe maintenance issues. Without dedicated technological, administrative, or medical support over a drill weekend, reservists must flood the help desks and branch clinics on Monday to try and maintain readiness.

Any solution needs to start with a realistic and comprehensive study of the annual requirements of a reservist. Each service needs to conduct a study to determine the projected time required for all annual training. This study should also look at the cohesiveness of the requirements, determining if there are overlaps or gaps in the training. There is a general consensus among military members that training requirements, much like administrative regulations, are piecemeal and reactive in nature. Each new training is developed and required as a result of previous bad behavior and independent of existing training – making for a disjointed and wholly ineffective training curriculum; instead, each training course should be part of a holistic program designed to ensure readiness. The study should also redefine the definition of “readiness.” Among the chief complaints of reservists is the severe lack of MOS training and deployment readiness. This undertraining is a direct result of the prioritization of administrative and general “green side” training over that of MOS specific training. The military branches need to be realistic in their tasking. Time is finite, and for reservists time is concentrated in two days per month. For Marines, the governing document strictly prohibits commanders from directing Marines to complete requirements outside of drill weekend. As discussed, off-hours tasking happens more as a rule than an exception. The study should also evaluate the accessibility of this training. While most annual requirements are available through online portals, the technological limitations discussed previously often block Marines from completing their requirements. Finally, the study should evaluate the effectiveness of these courses. Has tobacco cessation training resulted in a drop in tobacco use? Has the cartoon version of Uncle Sam and his operational security brief actually reduced incidents of loose lips sinking ships?

Once the military has an accurate picture of the time requirements and technology necessary for reservists to fulfill their duties, and it has reevaluated and prioritized requirements, the branches need to seriously consider allowing reservists to telework. Most of the arguments against telework are based on a severe lack of trust. While in-person training certainly has tangible and intangible benefits that cannot be replicated with technology or teleworking, in-person training also has its drawbacks, especially when it comes to annual training. It is expensive and inefficient (for either the individual Marine or the unit) for Marines to travel to a drill site just to sit at individual computers to conduct annual training. Drills are often cancelled for weather or other unforeseen incidents, wasting the mileage, money, and time of our Marines and further contributing to morale and retention issues. Shifting these requirements to remote work frees drill weekends up for training on both Training and Readiness and unit Mission Essential Tasks. Allowing Marines to telework, with required deliverables, is an efficient and economical way for units to maintain true readiness –that is to be ready by the current standards of medical, annual training, and administrative requirements – and to be truly proficient in their trade.

The services must also look at how they support their reservist units. For the Marine Corps, each SMCR unit has an I&I support staff to both guide reservists and to hold them accountable for training. This primary mission, however, has become a secondary or even tertiary task, falling behind a barrage of task to include funeral duties, Toys for Tots, and other community relations responsibilities. The idea of part-time Marines requiring part-time support not only hurts the supported units, but also the supporting units. Active duty support staff should be appropriately tasked in order to fully support the reserve component.

Another solution is to convene an advisory council for each branch. The Marine Corps currently has a Marine Corps Policy Review Board that serves this function, but the board does not convene regularly and the members serve as an additional duty. If the services are truly serious about supporting reserves, they need to convene an advisory council of the best and brightest in their services, give them the singular task of advisors, and then actively seek to integrate their solutions into policy.

The problems across the reserves are diverse, and most would agree that they are plenty. The overwhelming nature of the work that must be done, however, should not dissuade attempts to fix a clearly broken system. The mission of the reserve force is inherent in its name – to serve as a ready reserve in times of a national security crisis. As it currently exists, the reserves are equipped to provide under-trained and underpaid military members with all their immunizations and training certificates but little to no true military readiness. Unless component commanders, legislators, and supporting civilians take immediate action to identify, analyze, and correct these deficiencies by implementing practical solutions, these problems will result a drastic decrease in the lethality, morale, and readiness of our military forces. Without a proactive plan, by the time we recognize the deadliness of this problem, it will be too late.

Maggie Seymour is an intelligence officer with the Marine Corps Reserve and an Adjunct Research Associate in the CNAS Military, Veterans, and Society program. She holds a PhD in International Studies from Old Dominion University and is currently a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Military Community" commentary series.

Image Credit: U.S. Marine Corps/2nd Lt. Joshua W. Larson

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