Our Active Guard Reserve (AGR) Experience

My husband has almost 15 years of active service in the Army – the latter half as part of the Army Reserve AGR program. Because there is often some confusion about the AGR program and how my husband ended up in what some consider the best kept secret in the Army, I thought I’d write a post all about our AGR experience and answer some questions about the program. As a general disclaimer – please note that everything discussed in this post is a reflection of our personal experience and it not necessarily reflective of other people’s experience with the program.

Okay, first of all, what exactly is AGR? AGR stands for Active Guard Reserve. The Army Reserve has an AGR program and each state has their own National Guard AGR Program, which is different than the federally-run Army Reserve AGR program. My husband is in the Army Reserve AGR program so this post will only reflect information regarding that particular program.

Wait – your husband isn’t active duty? My husband is no longer considered Active Component. He ETSed (Expiration of Term of Service) in 2008 and formally separated from his ‘regular’ active duty service in the Army. However – as an officer in the AGR Program, he is considered active duty. Confused? Read on!

Your husband got out of the Army? Yup. It wasn’t an easy decision. In 2007, he returned home from a difficult 16-month deployment to Afghanistan. A lot has been written about his unit, such as the first part of The Outpost by Jack Tapper (which is currently being filmed as a movie – Orlando Bloom is playing Ben Keating) and various posts on this blog – like this one. He really wanted 12 months of dwell time (at home) before deploying again, but all signs were pointing to him having to deploy again less than a year after returning home from a 16-month deployment.

A few weeks after he returned home, we were preparing to PCS for him to attend Captains Career Course (CCC) across the country. But then he was informed by his branch that he’d almost certainly deploy immediately upon CCC graduation because his MOS was a critical need for MiTTs (Military Transition Teams). That meant that he’d more than likely would’ve deployed again only 7 months after returning home from a 16 month deployment. So because the Army couldn’t guarantee him 12 months at home (one year dwell time to mentally reset), he dropped his ETS paperwork. To this day, it is one of his decisions that I respect the most – he knew he wasn’t in the right headspace to deploy so soon after a hard deployment filled with a lot of casualties. It was a very tough decision but it was the right one.

He ETSed at the beginning of 2008 and signed a two-year stabilization agreement with the North Carolina National Guard in order to fulfill the rest of his commitment (4 years Active Duty and 4 years IRR (Individual Ready Reserve)) of his ROTC scholarship. When he ETSed, we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina and settled into civilian life for a few months. He wasn’t happy in his civilian job so when the North Carolina National Guard offered him active duty orders, he jumped at the chance (with my support, of course). My husband then attended CCC, took command of a Company, and then he deployed with them to Afghanistan (two years after returning home from his previous one, which was more than enough time to reset). When he returned home from that deployment, he transitioned to the Army Reserve and applied to the AGR program soon after. And before we knew it, he accepted his first AGR assignment and he became an active duty soldier again in the eyes of the government.

What made your husband decide to apply to the AGR program? After all, he’d already left active duty, right? I may be biased but I think my husband is an amazing soldier. He enjoys serving his country and being part of something greater then himself. When we reflect back on the 2007-2008 timeframe, it’s very likely that he would have remained ‘regular’ active duty if a just few (seemingly small) things played out a little differently. But that’s life. In fact – when he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel last month, he exclaimed, “How did this even happen? I got out as a Captain!” in his speech to a room full of laughter.

Over the years, we’ve learned that we’re not that motivated by money – acquiring wealth isn’t a life goal of ours. Could he be earning more money if he hadn’t chose to back to active duty? Possibly. But we’re comfortable and don’t mind the smaller footprint this lifestyle affords. Don’t me wrong – it’s not a fairytale – there are plenty of times when I say that I’m fine and I’m not. That being said, there is a lot about the military lifestyle that we like and that meshes well with our outlook on life. We enjoy living in new places and do not have the desire to settle down anywhere (we haven’t found ‘our’ place yet). If we were absolutely content staying in one place and wanting to put down roots, he would not have applied to the AGR program because as you can see with the next answer – our life is not much different than when he was Active Component.

How is AGR different than regularly active duty Army? It’s not really – at least in our experience. Some people are surprised when they learn that my husband is AGR because our life is no different than when he was Active Component (e.g. ‘regular’ Army) except that the majority of his positions are in support of Reserve units, rather than Active Component ones. That being said, the majority of the organizations he has worked for have been a mix of both Active Component and Reserve soldiers.

On paper, our life is no different than when my husband was regular active duty Army – we still move every 1-3 years, the rank structure and promotion schedule are exactly the same, he is paid the same, our benefits are the same, his uniform is the same, and he is still deployable. He is active duty. The only difference is that instead of supporting the Active Component, he is supporting the Reserve Component.

If your husband likes being active duty so much, why doesn’t he just go back to the regular active Army? He has sort of created a niche for himself within the AGR program. It’s a smaller community, which we like, and it’s been good for our family. And depending on the needs of the Army (strength of force, national security, foreign policy outlook, etc…), it’s not always easy to ‘go back in’ – a lot depends on the political climate of the country at any given point in time. When he ETS’ed, the Army Reserve AGR program was nowhere on his radar. But he stumbled upon an opportunity and it has absolutely been a great fit for our family.

Do you miss anything about regular active duty? Like I said, our lives are not much different – if at all. But there is something special about being part of a Combat Brigade community when there is a dangerous war being fought. The intense camaraderie, the tradition, and the sense of belonging we experienced during his time with the 10th Mountain Division isn’t something we’ve experienced to that caliber since. That being said – we still experience a lot of those things and have made great friends along my husband’s AGR journey.

Okay – that’s probably enough for now. I do hope this post helps to clarify some of the misconceptions about the Army Reserve AGR program. If you have any more questions or want to chat about it in more detail, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

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How We Chose Our Family Summer Vacation – 2019 Edition

Last year – I wrote a post about how we chose our summer vacation. It was a big hit on social media and prompted a lot of discussion about planning family vacations with a lot of people chiming in on what works best for them. So I thought I’d do it again this year. Back at the end of January, we started to seriously discuss where we wanted to travel this summer. We had our ill-fated New York City trip already planned, we knew we were going to Amelia Island for Spring Break, and while we penciled in trips to Williamsburg and Hershey Park and possible trips to see our parents in Lake Lanier and Wilmington, we had yet to narrow down our big summer trip. So one night at dinner, the four of us brainstormed possible vacation ideas.

Our kids were campaigning hard to go to Disney World this summer. We said no. But we are entertaining the idea of going there in November. Over Thanksgiving. Yes – we’re apparently masochists. As you can see, our list was all over the place. For as much as we’d love to travel to all of the places tossed around at dinner, our wallets and schedules say otherwise. So how did we narrow down our list?

First to be scratched off the list was a Caribbean cruise and any Caribbean island. We reasoned that because we’re going to Amelia Island for Spring Break and likely visiting Clay’s parents at their new place in Ocean Isle, North Carolina this summer, we will be able to get our beach fix at those places. We haven’t ruled out a cruise in the future but right now, it just doesn’t really appeal to us. This picture isn’t helping.

Truth be told, we researched traveling to Hawaii fairly extensively. We found some decent prices on airfare and hotels but most of the deals involved us staying on one island the entire time. When we added island hopping into the mix, the end result was more than we were comfortable paying. We also looked into Costa Rica, which actually appealed to us more than Hawaii and was cheaper. But since our desired travel time was smack dab in the middle of the rainy season there (hence the lower prices), we decided to save that trip for another year.

We also very briefly considered South Africa because we came across a fantastic deal on a vacation package but ultimately decided that we’d rather go when the kids are just a little bit older.

We then got a bee in our bonnet about taking a road trip throughout the eastern shore of Canada. We throughly enjoyed our New England road trip a few years back and thought it’d be a great way to save a few pennies while seeing some of the most remote areas of North America. Hahahahaha. When we started pricing car ferries to the various remote islands of Canada, we were met with sticker shock. Sorry Cape Breton Island, we won’t be seeing you this year!

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And then before we knew it, we were pricing flights to California. We sketched a rough itinerary of four days in Disneyland (we even reserved a hotel room!) and then taking a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway into Northern California. We told ourselves that California was the destination for our big summer trip and began to plan accordingly. But then the more we thought about it, the more we realized that we both wanted our next Disney-related trip to be Walt Disney World instead of Disneyland again. We don’t see ourselves going to either park multiple times over the next decade so we reasoned that it makes more financial sense to do our Walt Disney World trip in the near future, rather than spend money going to Disneyland again. So we cancelled our hotel reservation.

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We were eating lunch at Old Brogue in Great Falls when we seriously began discussing going to Ireland this summer. We loved Scotland and England so we had no doubt that we’d love Ireland too.

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Italy was also high on our list, as was Germany. The more we entertained the idea of going to Europe again, the more excited we became at the prospect. So few weeks ago, we became absolutely determined to make it happen within our budget. We were somewhat flexible with dates (a huge difference from last year due to Clay’s previous position) so we started looking at flights to almost every major European city in July. We were also flexible with the location. We spent a little time each night researching flights and tracking on a spreadsheet the price to fly to various European cities.

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And before long – we came across a fantastic deal on airfare that almost seemed too good to be true. So we bit the bullet and booked four airline tickets to Munich, Germany!

Yup – we’re going to spend almost two weeks in Germany this summer and we couldn’t be more excited. Both of our ancestors hail from Deutschland and beer and Bavarian pretzels are practically our love language so I have the feeling that we’re going to feel right at home in Germany. While we don’t have the details hammered out yet, we plan to visit Munich, Berlin, multiple Bavarian villages, the Alps, and more.

As you can see, our process for choosing a location this year that worked within our budget wasn’t exactly linear nor easy. Would we love to go on multiple trips throughout world this year? Of course! But that isn’t our reality. But with some flexibility and good ol’ fashioned research, we came up with a summer travel plan that has us excited.

Have you planned your summer travel yet? If so, where are you going?

Am I Addicted to My Phone?

Are you familiar with the Holderness Family? They went viral back in 2013 with their Christmas Jammies video. I’ve been following Penn and Kim on social media for awhile now because I appreciate their tongue-in-cheek humor about parenting in the 21st century. They started a podcast last year that I check in with occasionally – I found myself listening to their latest episode last night while shuttling the kids to their respective ball fields. Titled Breaking Free from Social Media, the episode is about the impact screen time and social media has on not only our everyday lives but also our mental and physical health.

When the iPhone was released in 2007, I coveted it from afar. It wasn’t in our budget to upgrade our phones and my pink RAZR was pretty bangin’. But in 2011, Clay and I finally jumped into the iPhone pool and have yet to get out to dry off. I’ll be honest and admit that I find it absolutely intoxicating to literally have the world at my fingertips. I don’t leave the house without my phone and even when home, it isn’t very far from my side. I use it to watch Murder, She Wrote episodes on Hulu, I listen to music and podcasts, I use it as a camera, I check Facebook and Instagram multiple times a day, and Wikipedia and I are quite tight. It is the last thing I look at before falling asleep and the first thing I look at when I wake up. It is much more than just a phone – it is an extension of myself. And I think I want to change that.

Women strive to be the picture-perfect Pinterest mother that looks amazing, hosts the best birthday parties in town, posts the most “liked” photos, and serves delicious, nutritious home-cooked meals in her neat, organized home after ferrying the kids to school and a host of extracurricular activities on time.

Mommy Burnout by Dr. Sheryl Ziegler
Visit Dr.SherylZiegler.com

On the podcast, Penn and Kim had a discussion with Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, author of Mommy Burnout: How to Reclaim Your Life and Raise Healthier Children in the Process. They talked about how social media is creating an environment in which women (and men) feel pressure to cultivate the ‘perfect’ life – both online and offline. One interesting topic that came up was that a lot of parents are like me and Clay. While we limit our kid’s screen time, we make very little effort to formally put limitations on ourselves. And I know that we can do a better job monitoring the amount of time we’re mindlessly scrolling through our phones. After all, what message are we sending to our children when we tell them to put their devices up while we’re still using ours to read a listicle on BuzzFeed and to check the latest news alert from CNN?

I do not believe that we can solve the problem by eliminating our smartphone use all together. There are too many benefits associated with my phone that I am not willing to give up. But there are steps I can take to help reduce the amount of ‘mindless‘ consumption I endure on a daily basis. Some examples include:

  • delete Facebook app (keep Instagram)
  • delete Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video (no longer watch TV on my phone)
  • remove the Gmail alerts
  • delete Buzzfeed (keep major news sources)
  • no longer charge my phone on my nightstand (leave downstairs at night)

I am going to take the next few days to really think about how I want to change my phone habits and devise a realistic technology plan for my family. What about you guys? What tips and tricks do you use to help keep your social media and technology use in check? Any advice welcome!

Our 5 Favorite Slow Cooker Recipes

Clay loves to lovingly tease me about my cooking. Well – not my cooking per se because my experience as a prep chef at an upscale bistro and my love for well-prepared food have proven me to be damn good cook. He gets a kick out of the fact that I almost never use recipes. I use a dash of this, a pinch of that, and add a little pizazz when needed. I’ll follow a recipe to a T when baking but when it comes to cooking – all bets are off. Therefore, whenever someone asks me for a recipe of a dish I made, I always seem to respond along the lines, “Uhhh…well – I use a little bit of this, a lot of that, add butter at this time (because it’s law that butter makes everything better), and do this right at the end!” A food blogger I am not.

Seeing as how spring is our busiest season and baseball practices and games are ridiculously long, our slow cooker gets used the most this time of year. And as delicious as eating Five Guys may be on a weekly basis, our heart health is important to us so we try and keep our meals there to a minimum despite it being so easy to grab a bite there on our way home. I am always on the hunt for delicious meals that utilize the slow cooker because on the days when we have Little League practices from 5pm – 8pm, it’s impossible to find the time to cook a meal for the kids that doesn’t involve chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese.

Below are some of our favorite slow cooker recipes that our family enjoys during this time of year (click the heading to see the original recipe). All of these yield leftovers and some of them can easily be repurposed into another meal (tacos, nachos, etc…) later on in the week. How can you not love that?

Mississippi Roast

I discovered the recipe about five years ago and it has been a staple in our house ever since. We will eat it as a pot roast the first night and then shred the meat for tacos later on in the week. I’ve modified the recipe over the years to accommodate our tastes (see notes below) because I’ve found the au jus packet unnecessary and 1/4 cup of butter to be superfluous.

  • 1 ranch packet
  • 1 jar of pepperoncini juice (we like a bit of a kick so I also add at least half the pepperoncinis in the jar)
  • 1 tablespoon of butter

Chicken and Dumplings

There are a lot of slow cooker recipes for chicken and dumplings but unfortunately, a lot of them call for cans of condensed soup, which we don’t consume in our household. The ingredients in this linked recipe are what I typically use when I make chicken and dumplings in the slow cooker except I use a can of cut-up (raw) biscuits instead of making homemade dumplings. Because if I’m using the slow cooker, it means that I certainly don’t have time that day to make dumplings. Ha.

  • 4 chicken breast
  • 1 container of chicken stock
  • chopped celery, carrots, and onions
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • salt and pepper

Slow cook the above ingredients. When done, use an electric beater to shred the chicken or pull apart with forks. Then add a couple of cups of milk and more broth/stock/white wine if desired (you get the choose the consistency…it’s all part of the fun of cooking!). If you are going to be away from home for awhile, you can always add the milk and extra broth/stock in the beginning.

About 45 minutes to an hour before dinner will be served, I add the cut up pieces of biscuit dough and close the lid. See this Pillsbury recipe for details about using biscuit dough as dumplings. But don’t actually use these ingredients because mushrooms are nasty and don’t belong in chicken and dumplings.

Chicken Tortilla Soup

This is another staple in our house and a crowd-pleaser. I follow this recipe fairly close. I add more seasoning than it calls for because more flavor is always a good thing. And I also add Tajin Clasico Seasoning with Lime because it’s amazing. I tend to use chicken stock instead of chicken broth for more depth of flavor. Additionally, if we have limes on hand I’ll add a few fresh squeezes because acidity in soup is wonderful.

Barbacoa

This is another recipe that I follow pretty closely as written. I use beef stock, add a few more cloves of garlic, and omit the oregano. I also add Tajin Clasico Seasoning with Lime seasoning.

Chicken Tiki Masala

Even if you’re not a fan of Indian food, chances are you’ll like this recipe…it is a great primer into the world of curry. I don’t use the heavy whipping cream – we always have sour cream in the refrigerator so I almost always add a cup of that instead. My preference is making chicken tiki masala in my cast iron pot but when we have a million activities going on in the afternoon and evening, I’ll toss the ingredients (including yogurt) in the slow cooker that morning with great results come dinner time.

Okay – I showed you mine, now you show me yours. What are some of your favorite slow cooker recipes?