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Advice About Staying In

If your ETS is nearing and you've got questions about renewing your commitment, give these two wise NCOs a chance to address some frequently cited issues head-on.

GX asked two Veterans with extensive experience in retention and professional development to address common concerns Soldiers have before renewing. If you’re approaching your ETS date—or will be before long—and wondering if extending is right for you, then consider the following advice from these leaders who have been there and done that (and a lot more): Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) Conrad Watson, who served 26 years in the Guard and Active Army, was the New Hampshire Army National Guard recruiting and retention command sergeant major from 2007 to 2012, and now serves as supervisor for the 1-800-GO-GUARD call center; and Sergeant First Class James R. Wilson, senior operations NCO, Kentucky National Guard, who has 14 years of service overall and has worked as a brigade-level career counselor for the past eight years.


“I see a lack of opportunity for career advancement. I feel stuck.”

Watson: First off, we absolutely want to keep you. Sit down with your retention NCO, and see where you are. Even if you’re doing all the right things, are you doing things to make yourself stand out even more? Raise your PT score by 15 points. Volunteer to be the unit retention Soldier. Do other things to make yourself more well-rounded. 

Wilson: Are you open to doing different things? The Guard is very diverse. Just because you’re stuck in one career doesn’t mean there’s not another unit that could use you. In our unit, I’ve had one position that has been on the vacancy list, and I can’t find Soldiers to fill it. There’s more for you than just being an 11B, a 42A. What do you want to do? For instance, in the civilian world, at a fast-food drive-through, if a guy’s not good at cooking a burger, maybe he’s better suited for the window, or maybe he has management skills that someone just isn’t seeing. I would say, give me one more year; let me find you a different home for a year. What better time to gain a little bit of experience in another career field without having to place a huge investment in that? 

“Funding cuts are limiting chances for advanced training.” 

Watson: There are always going to be ups and downs on budgets. But keep in mind that when budgets are being shrunk on the military side, there’s also a good chance they’re being shrunk on the civilian side (for instance, a lack of overtime pay). Remember, in the Guard, you’ll get medical, and M-Day pay that will supplement that paycheck. 

Wilson: We’ve all seen it over the years. I’ve seen a lot of cuts, but in my career, the cuts I witnessed were temporary. Right now, they seem more permanent, but you never know. Regardless, remember this: For hundreds of years, we’ve invested in our Soldiers to protect other people. 

“It’s hard to balance my military and civilian life.” 

Watson: If this is about drill, there’s a way to work around that. Some units are flexible. If you really dig into the weeds, you can get help. Sit down with your retention NCO and work through it. Together, you can come up with a plan. If this is about dealing with your civilian employer, you can get help talking this through with your boss. Then that manager will feel like they’re part of the equation and understand that they’re a priority.  

Wilson: If you’re having difficulty dealing with an employer, there are options. One is that the Guard in your state can recognize your company with a certificate of appreciation—in our state it’s signed by the Adjutant General. For a company, what better honor than to have on your front door something for people to see that says you’re a military-supporting organization? Another is that your chain of command might be able to talk with your employer. Also, if needed, you can use the JAG system to help you with legal support. If it’s just the general juggling of everything, of course that’s difficult. But if your issue is childcare, or if it’s spouse-related, or something else, there are options out there (such as Strong Bonds), and the Guard can help. But you need to ask about those options; until you ask, other people won’t know what you need. If juggling both worlds remains a problem, you can go into an inactive status. Take a little time off and then come back.

“I can't get into the training schools I want.” 

Watson: If things are tight, there might be five slots a year to send someone to Air Assault School. If you’re not in the top 5 percent, ask yourself: “What else can I do to stand out?” Go to the Soldier of the Year board. Compete for the Enlisted Soldier of the Year. Volunteer to take extra schooling. We want to keep you. Just keep at it. 

Wilson: Some of that will depend on your unit. But one thing we look at is physical measures. If you’re overweight or out of shape, you’re not going to meet the standards of Airborne. Also, don’t pass up any opportunities, however small, because they can always lead to other opportunities. Sometimes we’re offered things only once in a lifetime. Also, a key phrase is “verbally expressing yourself.” Tell your retention NCO or chain of command what you’d like. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. I don’t know if a Soldier likes turkey atop of ham until they tell me.

“I’m looking for action, and my chances of deploying aren't great.”

Watson: That’s the DoD, and sometimes there’s not much you can do. But you can always volunteer and get on those lists. If there’s a need, they’ll come for you. The key is, No. 1, your records must always be up to date. Make sure you’re within the height and weight standards. And make sure your qualifications are up to date. Try to attend every school you can—Warrior Leader Course, Advanced Leader Course, for example. 

Wilson: We’re not sending mass units for operational support overseas, but we are sending people. There’s a website——that lists available tours. If there’s a deployment that you want to go on, tell your chain of command. Another possibility: What about an AGR tour or ADOS tour at NGB? There are options out there. 

“My spouse doesn’t want me to be in anymore.” 

Watson: I’ve been in your shoes, and trust me, most people have. Whatever the issue is, try talking together with your retention NCO. If that’s not an option, go home and talk through this with your spouse. There’s a reason you joined to begin with, whether it’s the camaraderie, or about learning some skill, the action, etc. Go back to your spouse and reflect on why you joined, the things you get out of this one weekend a month drilling, and try to find out the specific reason your spouse would not like you to stay in. Keep in mind the healthcare benefit; that’s a big deal. TRICARE is a great deal for a family, and you’re not going to touch that in the civilian world nowadays. Your life insurance is a big deal. If you try to go get $400,000 in coverage somewhere else, you may not be able to afford it.

Wilson: Your spouse has been there for everything. But remind her or him of the end result: In x years, you’ll be able to retire. Everything that you’ve invested together will pay off. If your current military paycheck is an issue, let’s talk about putting yourself in position to be promoted. Have you met all the standards? Taken the required courses to make the next grade? If you and your spouse decide you don’t want to stay in, one option is taking a leave. It can be up to a year; it’s called entry into the ING—Inactive National Guard. 

“I’ve gotten what I wanted out of the Guard, and there’s nothing left for me to do.” 

Watson: Give your retention NCO the chance to pull your records and do some research and see where you are—what you’ve done and where you can go. And always keep in mind: How many years do you have in? Let’s say you’ve hit the 10-year mark. You only have to do 10 more years of one weekend a month—with AT, that’s 39 days total a year. And by the age of 60, you’ll have supplemental income coming in. By the way things are going nowadays, you can’t tell me you wouldn’t like an extra $800, $900, $1,200 coming in per month. 

Wilson: Before you make up your mind, answer this: Are you challenging yourself, or are you doing just what’s asked of you? If I give you one task on a duty day that’s eight hours or 12 hours long—the duration doesn’t matter—and that’s all you think you can complete, then it’s going to come back and bite you later when it comes to those schools that you want to go to. You are valuable to the Guard. You’re important to this organization. If you don’t feel like you’re being properly utilized, talk to your chain of command to get some general advice. Let the Guard teach you something outside your current MOS that makes you feel important. Also, one more suggestion: Later, before you meet with your retention NCO about extending, think hard about what you want to do. I know that’s the whole purpose of that discussion, and it seems like it’s difficult to answer, but it’s really not. I know what chaos looks like in our civilian lives, but I can’t make the decision for you on staying. What I can do is tell you the military value of it. Say, “Hey, I’m thinking about extending, but I wonder what options are available to me.”