August 26, 2020

The National Guard Interstate Transfer Process Hurts Retention


Even though the National Guard constantly faces retention challenges, it has not addressed a key personnel policy that could go a long way toward solving the problem. Restrictions and lack of information surrounding when and how service members change units during service contribute to otherwise motivated guardsmen leaving. This is a fixable retention problem. Recruitment advertising for the National Guard portrays the commitment as “part-time service with a full-time reward,” involving “a weekend a month and two weeks a year.” While the time commitment can exceed this common recruiting slogan, by definition, guardsmen must juggle their other commitments. One program that disproportionately burdens them is the Interstate Transfer (IST) process, through which guardsmen are transferred to new units across state lines during one enlistment period, thereby fulfilling their service obligation without traveling back and forth on a monthly basis. Although moving residences is a common phenomenon, the variability between Guard units combined with an opaque IST process contributes to people leaving unnecessarily. Transparency, standardization, and flexibility regarding new realities would go a long way toward improving the interstate transfer system.

While guardsmen transferring between states is inconvenient for units and commanders, the necessity of personnel having to change locations is not an unanticipated challenge. Eleven percent of the U.S. population moves every year, and 34 percent of those move to a different county. The 35.5 million Americans who relocate annually include members of the National Guard, who move for the same reasons as non-guardsmen: family, job, cost of living, commute, or a new home. Service members maintain life circumstances outside of their part-time service and frequent job and career changes are much more common than they have been in the past. If retaining talented guardsmen is important to National Guard leadership, the mobile nature of the 21st-century economy and modern, inclusive family structures must be taken into account. The common practice of relocation must be normalized, and the IST process made more accessible.

Transparency, standardization, and flexibility regarding new realities would go a long way toward improving the interstate transfer system.

With 450,100 members of the National Guard spread across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it is only natural that some guardsmen will experience the same situations in their personal lives that cause their civilian counterparts to relocate. A particularly relevant example of how this can be problematic for guardsmen is the National Guard tuition benefit. It enables members to pursue higher education while serving, but the same service that values education and offers generous benefits for it also has in place an opaque interstate transfer system that ignores practical applications of modern careers. Recent graduates—both civilians and guardsmen—often move to pursue career opportunities. But internal IST processes vary significantly by state and unit, and these can dissuade people who are already using the educational benefit from relocating for their civilian career goals. When guardsmen move out of the state in which they serve, often they face a long, complicated process to switch units or, depending on the specific unit and whether their senior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) approve the change, no ability to transfer at all.

Barriers Complicating Interstate Transfers

Due to institutional barriers, the IST process can be intimidating and opaque to members relocating out of state and away from their National Guard units. Since the circumstances behind interstate moves are unique to each individual, there is no standard path for transferring guardsmen. They are very well trained in their occupational specialties, representing an expensive investment for states. Millions of dollars may be spent to train them, which is why reluctance to facilitate guardsmen relocating to another state is a key component of the institutional barriers to IST.

Some units are more accommodating than others in terms of allowing split location trainings and drill weekends. In such a case, during the months-long process to complete IST, the transferring guardsman returns to the original state a few times a year instead of monthly, and drills in the second state while remaining officially a member of the original National Guard unit. Short-term circumstances in which a guardsman completes drills in a different unit or state do not require the same military occupational specialty (MOS) availability as does a permanent transfer, because the temporary change in unit for drilling purposes does not significantly impact operational capacity or job-specific tasks being completed.

Currently, the available information regarding the resources and processes for IST is confusing and circuitous. The administrative burden placed on transferring guardsmen is high, and is challenging to communicate to the National Guard community at large. Message boards dedicated to members of the Guard constantly contain process and accessibility questions regarding IST. Due to the highly individualized nature of applications for IST, situations are unique, and previous experiences may not be remotely relevant to future guardsmen. Documentation required for each IST request includes almost the entirety of a member’s personnel administrative file: the initial enlistment contract, the medical protection system report, the personal qualifications report for administrative data, an enlisted record brief, a conditional release from the losing state, Department of the Army (DA) Form 7187 (or the equivalent for Air National Guardsmen), performance evaluations, and a letter of acceptance from the gaining state. Each state employs an IST coordinator whose primary responsibility is to assist in the IST process, especially identifying possible units available for transfer into depending on MOS. Message boards indicate that it is more effective to physically go to the state IST office to process paperwork in a timely manner, but this is not workable for many without the ability to travel to the state capital. A web-based IST Help Desk is also available for coordination and questions.

The available information regarding the resources and processes for IST is confusing and circuitous.

The process for interstate transfer varies widely depending on the state and unit—and, most significantly, on vacancies. Appropriate vacancies in the desired unit are not guaranteed. After administrative boxes are checked, the Readiness NCO coordinates between the two units involved to identify vacancies and determine how the transferring guardsman’s skills and experiences fit into the new unit. Guardsmen with higher rank, specialized jobs, and/or more years of experience may face increased difficulty finding acceptable vacancies due to fewer positions available at higher ranks. When job slots at the current rank are lacking, the National Guard presents the option of administrative reduction, although this is usually undesirable to both guardsmen and states, because it is effectively a demotion.

IST Stressors and Retention

Members nearing the end of their contracts with their original state National Guard have the option of letting those contracts lapse and joining the desired state Guard. This option depends on timing and available positions, but it cuts out the process and paperwork. An additional alternative to interstate transfer within the National Guard is the often-forgotten Selected Reserve of the Army, which has fewer location restrictions than the state-specific National Guard and allows members to remain part of the military community.

Traveling back and forth between states for National Guard duty stresses both civilian employment and family relationships, sometimes leading to a point at which Guard service is no longer feasible. While the standard commitment of the National Guard should be no more than 39 days per year on active-duty status for training, readiness requirements have ensured that some units have to spend 45–60 days a year training. This does not include overseas deployments, travel time, or the increased time stateside in operational roles.

If part-time Guard service is incompatible with the civilian job that provides the primary income for an individual or a family, reenlistment becomes a financial liability instead of a secondary source of income, leading to a preventable crisis of retention. Service to one’s state and country is undoubtedly a motivating factor for continuing, but it is naïve to assume that no other considerations enter the picture. Finding balance between a civilian job, family responsibilities, and National Guard commitments is difficult enough to juggle within the same state; traveling across state lines increases the stress and decreases the available opportunities in guardsmen’s lives, in both their civilian careers and their family responsibilities.


While it is understandable that National Guard units prioritize keeping talent and investment in-state, the inability to support transferring guardsmen ultimately will not retain members. The many administrative and training burdens of the Guard, further compounded by cross-state service for drills, are bound to prompt a reevaluation of the feasibility of Guard service. Some will undoubtedly separate rather than remain in an untenable situation. Individuals who are taking the initiative to go through an interstate transfer are committed to serving in the National Guard; losing them to bureaucratic hassles is a loss for the overall force.

The inability to support transferring guardsmen ultimately will not retain members.

A first step to solving location-specific retention problems is to increase transparency of the IST process through National Guard human resources. This will be instrumental in the process becoming more accessible. The difficulty in tracking down IST information is unnecessary in the modern era, with people relocating for a wide variety of reasons and more often than in previous eras.

Second, a standardization of the IST process will lay the groundwork for consistency across planning, communication, and training purposes when troops change their state of residence. Across-the-board policies will make the process less opaque. Leaders will become familiar with this standardized process, and hence less inclined to deter guardsmen from undertaking an unknown route. More service members will share experiences that are similar, rather than tailored to specific units or states.

Modern problems require modern solutions. National guardsmen attempting interstate transfers may be battling outdated expectations of service that were laid out more than a century ago, when those serving had long-term careers at the same company in the same city and state. The common expectation then was that the (male) guardsman’s career would be the only one in the family, which would also be local. Today, dual-career families increasingly are the norm, and people move much more frequently for their jobs. Their extended families may live far away. Previous expectations are no longer relevant in today’s world. To adapt to the changing economy and environment, the National Guard must make an effort to retain individuals across state lines.


The National Guard has a dual purpose: to serve both federal and state authorities. This state-specific function involves regulations and circumstances that are not present in either the active-duty force or the reserve component. Part of these unique circumstances includes the part-time mission alongside an individual’s civilian career and personal responsibilities. The unique characteristics of the National Guard mission and commitment to the state lead to a situation where state Guard leaders do not communicate with one other, because their day-to-day tasks and activities are largely separate. This lack of communication, and of a consistent process of retention and standardization of internal processes, leads to a set of circumstances where a guardsman transferring to another state is effectively removing an investment from the losing unit—and the incentive for the losing state to implement effective IST policies.

Why should units make it easier for guardsmen to leave? This failure to examine a “whole of National Guard” approach isolates individual states and units and skips over any intentionality of keeping guardsmen, no matter in which state. While it is vital to maintain the state mission inherent in National Guard service, the role of Guard troops in modern conflicts under federal orders cannot be understated. As long as guardsmen are relied upon to fill gaps in personnel, their potential service as federal military members cannot be forgotten. When qualified and experienced guardsmen elect to leave the Guard entirely due to problems with interstate transfer, the force as a whole loses the time and investment spent to train them. Retention across the National Guard organization should be of prime importance, and interstate transfer should be simplified, standardized, and made flexible to keep motivated guardsmen serving their country and communities—even when they change locations.

Nathalie Grogan is a Research Assistant in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at CNAS.

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

Military, Veterans & Society

Supporting the Military Community

About this commentary series As the environments in which the U.S. military operates increase in complexity, the need to attract and retain top talent becomes increasingly app...

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