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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A Look at the Military Housing Crisis

Last August, Reuters issued a special report about how the military continuously ignored military housing hazards, resulting in the lead poising of military dependents, including children. The article circulated on social media within the military community in the following weeks – more and more military families stepped forward to share their stories about substandard military housing and posted pictures on social media. The pictures seemed to horrify everyone except the privatized housing companies tasked with providing safe and habitable living conditions – all while lining their pockets at the expense of the seemingly bottomless Department of Defense budget.

Since then, Reuters has continued their investigation – calling it Ambushed at Home: The hazardous, squalid housing of American military families. Other news outlets began to report on the appalling conditions Congress decided to reopen its investigation into substandard military housing and this Thursday (March 7th), Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps leaders are scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. While a lot of military families are hopeful that these hearings will bring about much-needed change to policy, it’s hard not to take the cynical view that little will transpire beyond the action-oriented words said into the small microphones. After all, when a group of concerned military spouses approached the Department of Defense Military Family Readiness Council back in 2017 about concerns over dangerous and subpar housing, they were told that the ‘family readiness’ council didn’t deal with such issues (although in all fairness, it isn’t exactly clear what purpose the organization does serve).

Crystal Cornwall was one of those spouses who presented detailed findings to the Military Family Readiness Council. Over the past few years, she’s been a tenacious advocate for safer military housing. She appeared before the Senate last month and testified to the conditions of military housing and is in the process of launching a new nonprofit – Safe Military Housing Initiative. In addition to personal testimonies, data from a military housing survey conducted earlier this year by the Military Family Advisory Network (click here to read that preliminary research report) was presented to the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services Joint Subcommittee on Personnel, Readiness, and Management Support.

It’s important to note that not all military housing is bad or unsafe. There are plenty of military families who have had positive experiences with privatized military housing (my family being one of them). But there are also a lot of families who are subjected to mold, rats, moisture, lead-paint, and other hazardous conditions that are not being addressed by privatized military housing companies. Such companies that are mentioned multiple times throughout the Military Family Advisory Network housing survey are Balfour Beatty, Corvias, Hunt, Lincoln, and Michael’s Military Housing.

Some Questions and Answers about Military Housing

When looking at some comments on social media regarding this issue, there are questions from those who are not super familiar with privatized housing, Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), and the potential impact that these hearings will have on military families. Here are some questions that I’ve seen circulating about military housing and my best attempt to answer them.

Do you currently live in privatized military housing? No. We currently rent a house in the local community. We chose to live off post for this assignment because of schools and my husband’s commute to the Pentagon. In the almost fifteen years that my husband has been in the Army, we’ve actually only lived on-post once – when we were stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. We had a great experience living in a historic quarters and while there were a few issues, they were dealt with swiftly by maintenance. We are open to the possibility of living on-post again and will likely try to do so at our next assignment (some installations have a year-long waiting list for housing).

Is military housing free? No. If a military family lives on post, they are paying for the privilege to do so. In addition to base pay, service members received a Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) as part of of their benefits package; cost-of-living, whether or not a service member has dependents, and rank all determine the BAH amount. BAH can be used to live in military housing, in which the privatized military housing companies typically take the entire BAH amount. While there are a few instances where a military family could be required to live on post in military housing, the majority of families have the option to live off-post. In this case, their BAH can be put toward rent or a mortgage. However, whether or not BAH covers rent varies on market conditions and a host of other variables.

If housing conditions are so bad, why would military families chose to live on post? Living on-post can provide an experience that is unique to the military – one filled with tradition and camaraderie. But sometimes reasons for living on post are financially-driven, like not being able to afford rent off-post because BAH doesn’t cover rent. For example, an 05 (a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army) has a higher BAH than an E4 (a Specialist in the Army). If the rental market off-post is geared toward 05 BAH, then an E4 may not be able to afford to rent in the local community because they are priced out of safe neighborhoods.

Additionally, moving is expensive – even when the ‘military moves you’. Some rental properties require a security deposit and the first month of rent upon signing the lease. For example, if a military member is stationed in a higher cost-of-living area, this could mean that a military family needs to have $7000 in liquid assets to hand over to a property manager to even be able to secure reliable housing before the higher cost-of-living BAH hits the paycheck. That can be a tall order for some military families.

My friends who are in the military bought a home. If rent is so high and privatized military housing hazardous, why don’t more military families just buy a home where they are stationed? For some families, it makes financial sense to purchase a home at a duty station – especially if there is a strong possibility that they will be there for three-four years. We currently own two homes, neither of which we currently live in (read about how we became accidental landlords) and we’re not entertaining the idea of buying another house anytime soon. A lot military families are only stationed somewhere for 1-2 years…in these situations, purchasing a home most likely isn’t in the best financial interest in the family. And no – the military does not buy back your home if you are unable to sell it when you receive orders halfway across the world.

So how does this even happen? Doesn’t the military oversee housing? Actually no – the military does not oversee the majority of the housing on military installations. In 1996, Congress established the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in effort to help the military improve quality of life improving housing conditions. A lot of these communities are filled with homes that were built extremely fast with subpar materials that are inappropriate for harsh environmental conditions (e.g. humidity, wind, below-zero temperatures, etc…). As a result, the homes are not aging well and allowing hazards, like mold, to thrive. And because military families have no recourse, the privatized military housing executives continue to live lavishly at the expense of military families.

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Tomorrow both the uniformed leaders and civilian leaders of our military will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee at 9:30am about the chain of command’s accountability to provide safe military housing (click here for details). I look forward to seeing what changes are on the horizon and remain hopeful that the military families with long-term effects from hazardous living conditions are given their proper due. As Bob Dylan reminds us – the times, they are a-changin’.

Confessions of a Military Spouse

Over the weekend, we attended a hail and farewell on Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall. The Army isn’t necessarily known for it’s beautiful instillations or spectacular locations but the rolling hills on Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall offer some of the most gorgeous and uniquely American views of both Arlington National Cemetery and the National Mall across the Potomac River. Whenever I am on the post, I’m calmed by the history, beauty, solemness, and unity that hangs in the air.

Hail and farewells are traditional Army events where incoming and outgoing personnel are recognized. While I side-eye some of the more outdated military social practices (e.g. calling cards and officer wives clubs), I’ve thoroughly enjoyed attending military balls, dining outs, promotion parties, and hail and farewells over the years. And last night, while animatedly talking with some of Clay’s coworkers – a glass of cabernet sauvignon in my hand – I had the realization that such social engagements are what keep me going when I am frustrated most with the Army. When I stripped down our somewhat transient and seesaw existence, it’s simply a collection of moments involving the breaking of bread together, camaraderie, and respect.

Sometimes I wonder if I should write more about experiences specific to being a military spouse. I mentioned in my All Things Army: You Asked, I Answered post that I tend to get a bit squirmy when writing specifically about my husband’s career – I try to do so in as vague of terms as possible, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the blogging world. I’ve written about dealing with disappointment and what it is like to return to a duty station and the time I didn’t bloom. But I like to think of this space as so much more than just the sliver of my life that is occupied by being a military spouse.

I am so incredibly proud of my husband – he works hard and gives so much of himself to a cause greater than him. And there is a lot about our lives that is directly impacted by his career. Yes – I am a military spouse because I am married to a member of the military, but it is just one small part of who I am as a person. In fact, I don’t own one piece of clothing with ARMY silkscreened or embroidered on it. All of the spouse-related pins I’ve acquired at various functions over the years are tucked away in a jewelry box, never worn. And I still need to glance at the program when singing The Army Goes Rolling Along at official events and I refuse to use “hooah” as part of my vernacular.

But I also my husband’s biggest cheerleader. I think he is an absolute wonderful human-being, husband, and father and an incredible asset to the Army. I encourage him to compete for difficult assignments. I continue to sacrifice some of my own career aspirations in order to support his. I look forward to the hugs and kisses when he returns from a trip or simply comes home for the day. And I am there for when he simply just needs to talk. I am  many things and a military spouse just happens to be one of them.

After the hail and farewell, the few leaves that were left on the trees rustled in the wind as we walked back to our car from our host’s house. Clay held my hand and thanked me for putting up with the craziness of his job. And when I replied, “I love you and support you and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” – I meant it.

Where Will We Settle After Saying Goodbye to the Army?

Yesterday I booked an Airbnb for a little family getaway over Veterans Day weekend. Now that our children are older and active in sports, scouts, and school-related activities, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sneak away for a weekend. Add in Clay’s unpredictable schedule and the art of planning a simple weekend retreat rivals a Renaissance masterpiece. We recognize that we’re simply in the season of our life together where the kids’ schedules reign supreme when it comes to planning. And from what our predecessors have told us – it will feel like both the longest and the shortest season yet. Clay and I have been thinking a lot about our long-term goals and where we see ourselves (both professionally and location-wise) in ten years. And now that we’re likely on the downhill slide of Clay’s Army career, we’re often asked by others and ourselves, “Where do you think you’ll end up when this is all over?

While Clay still has about six years until the earliest he can retire from active duty, the idea of retirement no longer feels like a nebulous concept reserved for those older and higher ranking. You know – those who watched the first season of The Real World in real time or identified more with Pretty in Pink than Can’t Hardly Wait. When talking with our fellow downhill-sliders about what’s next, phrases like ‘forever home‘ and ‘military retirement state tax‘ and ‘lucrative job offer‘ are tossed around with ease. I admit that I am tad jealous of my peers who have a definitive idea of where they want to end up. Some want to go back to their hometown or state, others want to go back to their favorite duty station, and a few want to go to a place they have only visited or dreamed about. Meanwhile – Clay and I are like “Uhhhh….not sure. Maybe somewhere with snow?”

That’s not to say that we’re completely lost when it comes to our next chapter. We have learned over the years that flexibility is a large piece of the success pie so like most other areas in our life, we are determined to keep an open mind and not close ourselves off to opportunities that may not even be on our radar yet. A lot of where we end up next is dependent on how old the kids will be when Clay retires. Will we have to factor high school into our decision? Or will they both be off at college when that time arrives? To be honest, I am not sure how much we will factor jobs into our choice. One of the biggest perks of military retirement is that we’ll have a safety net to pursue careers with lower pay but fill our cups in a way that’ll make us feel beyond rich. I’d like to think that we won’t be motivated by money so much that we choose to live in an area we’re not crazy about because of a higher paycheck. That is not exactly how I envision spending the next season.

Okay – so where do we think we’ll end up? Here are a handful of locations we’ve discussed as possible post-Army places to call home…

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Washington DC area. We have been stationed in the Washington DC area twice thus far so it arguably feels the most like home than any other place we’ve lived since embarking on this crazy journey together. Ideally, we’d live closer to the district and not have to worry about school ratings. I’d love a little townhouse in Old Town Alexandria or a condo in Foggy Bottom. I hope wherever we end up, it is in a walkable community. I hate being chained to a car so living in a city or a walkable small town appeals to me so much more than living on multiple acres in the country.

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Maine. A little seaside village or a quaint lake town in Maine sounds pretty darn nice right now. Portland would suffice as would Augusta. The winters would be white and the summers absolutely gorgeous. Clay spent his childhood summers vacationing in Maine and would happily sit beside me on the porch of our shake-shingle cottage. We had such a great trip to Maine last time we were stationed here and looking forward to going back again someday…maybe for good – who knows?

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Northern Arizona. Growing up in Phoenix, I spent a fair amount of time in northern Arizona. When visiting the Grand Canyon during our Spring Break adventure, we commented on how much we love Flagstaff and the surrounding area. Living in a high desert with four seasons totally appeals to us and the art and food scene sounds right up our alley.

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Michigan. The world is divided into two camps. Those who are aware that Lake Michigan has one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world and those who have yet to visit the wonder of pure Michigan. Both of my parents are from Michigan and I was born there so I spent many summers vacationing in Glen Arbor and consider myself well-versed in the landscape of the Leelanau Peninsula. Clay loves it just as much as I do and we could totally see ourselves living there someday.

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Colorado. Our time in Colorado has been limited to brief visits but we’ve loved every single second of our time in the Centennial State. We hope to be stationed there someday – if anything to prove that we could totally call Colorado home.

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New York City. While I don’t necessarily see us calling New York City home for the long haul, we both would like to live there for a few years. For as much as I love the outdoors and mountains, there is an energy I get from being in a bustling city that is absolutely intoxicating. As a kid, I always pictured myself living in New York City. And because life has a funny way of working out, I may end up doing so – I’ll just be in my late forties instead of my early twenties!

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St. John, US Virgin Islands. The other week, Clay and I watched a family search for a home in Cruz Bay, St. John, USVI on Beach Hunters. Clay and I fell hard during our visit to St. John four years ago and we’ve dreamed about living there ever since. St. John is definitely the most ‘pipe-dream’ of locations to live post-Army but we refuse to rule it out. Although – just like the family we watched on Beach Hunters, we may be priced out of St. John and have to settle for St. Thomas. Oh darn. Poor us.

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Only time will tell where we end up. Maybe it will be somewhere on this list or maybe in the next few years we will discover a place that feels more like home than any place has ever before. Or perhaps we may choose not to settle anywhere and travel the world a’la Gone with the Wynns until we feel the urge to put down roots.

Do you currently live in your forever place? If not, where do you see yourself long-term? If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?