From the Homefront: Things we should know about the Coast Guard Reserve

Consider it the team behind the team. Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the Coast Guard Reserve, so we thought it would be a perfect time to explain how the Reserve works and to dispel some misconceptions.

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Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

U.S. Coast Guard graphic.
U.S. Coast Guard graphic.

Consider it the team behind the team. Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the Coast Guard Reserve, so we thought it would be a perfect time to explain how the reserve works and to dispel some misconceptions.

The reserve is almost everywhere. If there is active duty Coast Guard, there is probably reserve. Sometimes, like in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it is the sole maritime security force, according to Adm. Kurt Hinrichs, the director of the Coast Guard Reserve and Military Personnel.

“There are reservists standing the watch at any given sector, training center, major headquarters, or ongoing operation that the Coast Guard is conducting today,” he said. “At home or abroad, everywhere the Coast Guard operates, the reserve is used.”

The reserve has been involved in just about every crisis since 1941, Hinrichs said. It has been there for Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, Superstorm Sandy, 9/11, Exxon Valdez and even the Mariel Boat Lift. However, though the pace of operations is greater than it was 40 years ago, Hinrichs said, the reserve force is smaller than it has been since the Korean War. That means that surge capability is limited.

“If two disasters were to fall upon this nation at the same time, we would be at great risk,” Hinrichs said. “The requirements for what the Coast Guard does are growing. We need to look for opportunities to grow our surge capability. The Coast Guard is a great value to this nation, and the reserve is a critical part.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Lowell Belany, a reserve boatswain's mate out of Coast Guard Station Vallejo, Calif., takes the helm while navigating waypoints along the Columbia River during the Reserve Coxswain College in Portland, Ore., Aug 28, 2015. Students attending the college were required to plot out and navigate to waypoints using different on land reference points along the Columbia River. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Lowell Belany, a reserve boatswain’s mate out of Coast Guard Station Vallejo, Calif., takes the helm while navigating waypoints along the Columbia River during the Reserve Coxswain College in Portland, Ore., Aug 28, 2015. Students attending the college were required to plot out and navigate to waypoints using different on land reference points along the Columbia River. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

In fact, when disasters and crises hit, it is the reserve that provides the extra people and resources necessary to augment active duty response. Meaning, when there is an event like Superstorm Sandy, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or 9/11, it is the reserve members in those areas who are integral to providing additional support.

“The vast majority of reservists train and hone their skills in the same communities where they work and live,” Hinrichs said. “They are often among the first to respond and provide a level of local knowledge which is priceless during times of crisis response and recovery. They are an invaluable resource to successful Coast Guard operations.”

Working side-by-side with active duty members has never been more effective than it is now, said Master Chief Petty Officer Eric Johnson, the reserve force master chief. He has been in the Coast Guard since 1980 and a reservist since 1989.

“I have never seen a stronger bond between the active duty component and the reserve component than exists right now,” Johnson said. “It is very healthy. It is not an “us-and-them” relationship. I just see that we are mutually beneficial to each other.”

Deciding whether to join

Jennifer Thompson is a member of the in-service transfer team at the Coast Guard Recruiting Command, so she spends a lot of time helping Coasties figure out what to do for the next step of their careers. That could mean reenlisting, leaving the Coast Guard, or that may mean helping active duty members determine if the reserve is a good fit, and then helping them find a billet.

“We are truly a judgment-free zone,” she said. “Most members we talk to just need an impartial sounding board to try and figure out what the right next step is for themselves and their families.”

She said she and the rest of the team often encourage those who are considering leaving the Coast Guard to join the reserve.

“At the heart of it, if a member is leaving active duty, we really do want them to join the reserve, continue on with their careers, and keep their affiliation with the Coast Guard,” Thompson said. “We find most people who get out really enjoy revisiting their Coast Guard roots during their drills, and the medical and retirement benefits really are great things to keep for life.”

Jennifer Greenwood made just that decision when she left active duty and joined the reserve. Her decision came down to the needs of her family. She and her husband, also active duty Coast Guard, were having trouble finding affordable childcare. She was working as a watch stander, which required 12-hour shifts. He was a duty-standing pilot, which also required long hours. The decision for her to transition into the reserve was the answer.

“I wanted to stay a part of the Coast Guard, and there happened to be a signing bonus for my rate and rank, so it worked out well,” Greenwood said. “It has allowed me to earn some money each year while working to have money at retirement, which is hard to do while moving around with an active duty spouse. I now have enough time in to transfer my GI bill to our kids.”

That was six years ago. She is now working in the commandant’s situation room at Coast Guard headquarters. In these six years, each time her husband has received orders, she has been able to find a billet in the new location. She attributes that to the help from others in the Coast Guard who have made sure they could all move together.

“My favorite thing about the Coast Guard is how shipmates help each other,” Greenwood said. “I have been blessed to be collocated four times now.”

Finding a billet is one of the greater challenges, Thompson said. reserve billets are available in 41 states, as well as in Washington, D.C, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Some rates or geographic areas are easier to fill than others, Thompson said, so the in-service transfer team helps map out and predict what might be available in particular locations.

“A lot of people call us, and they think the reserve is a guarantee, and it’s not,” Thompson said. “The reserve is such a great program, but it can be very selective.”

Brooke Cowan entered the reserve almost 14 years ago. She wanted to be part of the Coast Guard while she went to college, but she wanted to get her four-year degree uninterrupted on a traditional campus. Being a reservist allowed her to do that. She eventually married an active duty member of the Coast Guard, and remaining a reservist has made it easier to collocate, she said.

She said one of the strengths of the reserve is the fact that members are very connected with the communities in which they live and maintain full-time civilian jobs.

“Being a reservist you have to be quite adaptable and flexible, whilst, not taking home a lot of money if you are lower enlisted,” she said. “It’s a desire to be part of something greater, using your skills for something bigger than you, and hopefully one day retiring from the service just as many active duty do.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Bradley Walker, a member of Coast Guard Port Security Unit 308, picks up his two-year-old son, Anderson, after returning home to Kiln, Miss., from a nine-month deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Sept. 30, 2015. Walker was a tactical coxswain for the unit while they helped maintain a continuous maritime anti-terrorism force protection presence in the Naval Defensive Sea Area of Guantanamo Bay directly supporting the commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay Naval reservation and adjoining waters. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Lally.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Bradley Walker, a member of Coast Guard Port Security Unit 308, picks up his two-year-old son, Anderson, after returning home to Kiln, Miss., from a nine-month deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Sept. 30, 2015. Walker was a tactical coxswain for the unit while they helped maintain a continuous maritime anti-terrorism force protection presence in the Naval Defensive Sea Area of Guantanamo Bay directly supporting the commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay Naval reservation and adjoining waters. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Lally.

Misconceptions about the Coast Guard Reserve

Joining the reserve takes up too much time (or they deploy all the time).

First, the total commitment is one weekend a month and two weeks a year for a minimum of two years. But that translates to healthcare and retirement benefits, Thompson said.

As for the deployments, the mission of the reserve is to be ready to mobilize during an emergency.

“That being said, yes, we do have a few units whose training requires deployments, but you will have plenty of time to make arrangements,” Thompson said. “For the rest, there is no deployment schedule- training consists of preparing for if and when an emergency occurs.

I can’t join the reserve if I separate in lieu of orders, am a high year tenure candidate, am an aviator…

Let’s take these one by one. If you are eligible for re-enlistment, you are eligible for the Reserve, Thompson said. (The transition is just a different process, she said.) As for high year tenure, Thompson said the professional growth points are different for the reserves, so you might qualify. And then for the aviators? Sorry, but there are no aviation reserve rates. However, Thompson said, you can still join if you choose a different rate.

The reserve force is not real Coast Guard

Reservists train to be ready for any contingency. Just because they are not training daily does not mean they are not a necessary part of the Coast Guard.

“The one thing that I wish people understood is that just because you don’t see us full time at your unit doesn’t mean we aren’t real Coast Guard,” Greenwood said. “We know that at any time a 9/11, Katrina, or Deepwater could happen.”

Reservists are less trained, less experienced or less capable

Johnson said nothing could be further from the truth. A large part of the reserve force is made up of former active duty members. reservists are generally about 10 years older than their active duty counterparts, he said, meaning they may bring a level of maturity and exposure to life events that an active duty member has not yet experienced.

“Oftentimes, the reserve members hold equal, if not greater, qualifications as their active duty counterparts,” Johnson said. “They have the wealth of their experience gained from their civilian skill set, which may be law enforcement, environmental protection, or education. So they not only have the Coast Guard skill set, but they have a civilian occupation that really complements the coast Guard specialty.”

Can’t the Coast Guard’s garrison force do some of this?

In a word, no. (Mostly because there isn’t a garrison force.) The Coast Guard doesn’t deploy and then come back and garrison like in other military branches. The Coast Guard’s active duty strength is engaged every day. The reserve then provides the backup.

“I think more so than any other service, the Coast Guard is on duty 24/7, so our bench strength is really the Coast Guard Reserve,” said Johnson. “It is critically important for us to have a backup team waiting on the bench.”

The members of the reserve are not really that necessary

The reserve is like a cog that helps hold the larger Coast Guard gears together. It is an invaluable resource to the success of the Coast Guard, Hinrichs said.

U.S. Coast Guard graphic.
U.S. Coast Guard graphic.

“The Coast Guard Reserve could not be the ready, reliable surge force on which the nation relies if not for the hard work and dedication of each and every one of its 7,000 members,” Hinrichs said. “In turn, they could not continue to answer the call if not for the unwavering support of both their families and their employers.”

Do you have experience with the Coast Guard Reserve? Share your comments or questions below!

Resources:

U.S. Coast Guard Reserve : The official website of the Reserve force.

Reserve facts: Facts about the Coast Guard Reserves, including billet assignments and demographics.

Reserve programs

Reservist : This magazine is the official publication of the Coast Guard Reserve.

In-service Transfer Team : You can reach the team by email at CGR-SMB-ISTT@uscg.mil.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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