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Wait, Me? Army Surprises Thousands With COVID-19 Duty Call

The Individual Ready Reserves: where you thought you were out of the military for good, but apparently 'forever' isn't an option.

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Not many people were surprised when President Trump signed an executive order that authorized the Secretary of Defense to mobilize, or call up, the ready or active reserves to help the country deal with the Covid-19 crisis. After all, the women and men who volunteer to join these National Guard or Reserve units expect to be activated to deal with crisis at home or abroad. Moreover, they are not only trained for these missions but receive compensation, benefits, and retirement credit while they are training and when they are mobilized.

However, the President’s order not only authorizes the Secretary to mobilize the guard and reserves, or ready reserves, but also individuals from the inactive component, or Individual Ready Reserves (IRR). This week the Army began contacting them to be called up, on a volunteer basis, for now.

For the most part, many of the approximately 200,000 IRR members do not even know they are in the reserves, or still have a military obligation. Essentially these women and men are people who have volunteered to serve in the active forces for a period of time, usually four years, but often, unbeknownst to them, have incurred a military service obligation of eight years. 

The primary reason many of these brave young people are unaware that they have incurred this eight-year obligation is that military recruiters rarely emphasize this provision for fear of scaring off the potential recruit. After all, informing an 18-year old woman or man that by joining the armed forces, for two or four years, means that she or he will incur an obligation, of almost half their life, can be a deal-breaker for them or their parents.

If the Secretary has to use this authority to call up some of them, it will mean that an individual who has volunteered to put his or her life on the line, usually fighting the endless wars in the Middle East, when the vast number of their contemporaries sat out the global war on terror, now could be forced to disrupt their lives again in order to deal with another threat to our country.

While it may be too late to stop many of these women and men from being called up involuntarily at this time, we should use this opportunity to change this unfair policy once and for all.

From now on, anyone who volunteers to put their life on the line for a fixed number of years should be given a choice when they complete their agreed upon term of service. They can choose to join a reserve or guard unit or remain in the IRR. If they select neither of these options, they should be allowed to opt out of the military for good. If this policy undermines our security, perhaps we should consider other options like providing a bonus for those willing to join the IRR, or pay them some form of retainer pay while allowing them access to commissaries and exchanges.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as assistant secretary of defense (manpower, reserve affairs, installations, and logistics) from 1981 through 1985.

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