You Want to Join the Air National Guard? OK, but Which One?

You Want to Join the Air National Guard? OK, but Which One?
A U.S. Air Force HC-130 Hercules, with the 102d Rescue Squadron (102 RQS), New York Air National Guard, prepares to land at Hubbard landing zone at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., on June 18, 2014. (Photo by Senior Airman Patrick Evenson)
7/17/2023
Updated:
7/17/2023
0:00
Commentary

So, you want to join the Air National Guard (ANG), huh? Great choice! Which one do you want to join? If you think that there’s just one ANG you’d be completely wrong. Oh, there’s an HQ called the Guard Bureau, and a set of regulations that govern things, but the ANG is not a homogenous organization.

But before I go too much further, I should toss out some credentials and caveats. This article is based on my personal experience and may not be the same as anyone else’s. Your actual mileage may vary.
  • 38 years total, 4 active duty, 34 ANG
  • Crew chief solely on fighter and attack aircraft
  • Five different ANG units in four states
  • Held E1-E9
  • Was never a full-time Guardsman (explanations later)
  • I have no time in the Air Force Reserve
I mention all of these because I want to be clear that I have no ANG experience with tanker, bomber, helicopter, or transport aircraft. Life in those units may be completely different from what I discuss, although I doubt it. I also have no ANG experience in any field other than aircraft maintenance. The people in finance and other support roles may have completely different perceptions of the ANG. The short story is, it’s totally cool if you don’t agree with what I’m about to say. Write a rebuttal. I fully support your right to disagree.

So now back to my original question. Which ANG do you want to join? Because, truthfully, there are more shades of the Guard than a trailer park in Alabama, which leads us to our first big difference.

Unit Characteristics

Unlike active duty units, Guard units take on the characteristics of the state and region where they are located. Air Force bases have a continual flow in and out of people from other states, but the personnel at Guard units generally work and live in the same area for decades. Some may have served on active duty, but then separated and moved home. On the other end of the spectrum are those we refer to as Guard Babies, who enlisted in the Guard without any prior service. Yes, some folks do move from out of state to join a Guard unit, but eventually, they meld into the unique atmosphere of that unit.

As an example, there is an ANG tanker unit at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, and on the south side of town is Luke AFB, an active-duty fighter base. The ANG unit has that old west Arizonan feel to it, because it’s comprised of long-time locals and the attitudes and values of the personnel match the region, whereas Luke AFB is much like any other active-duty AFB. Just remember that most active duty bases turn over all their military people every three to four years. In the ANG it takes about 20 years or so.

Tucson is in a similar situation. There is an F-16 ANG unit at the airport and Davis-Monthan AFB is on the east side of town about 15 minutes away. Life at the two bases is completely different.

Having said that, the ANG KC-135 unit in Phoenix has a different feel to it than the ANG F-16 unit in Tucson. Why? One reason is that Phoenix and Tucson are very different cities, and that carries into the atmosphere of the units. But another difference is caused by the missions. The KC-135s have an active combat mission and are deployable. The Tucson F-16 unit only does pilot training, so they don’t have a combat mission and aren’t deployable. There’s nothing wrong with not being deployable, it just creates a different feel to the unit. An ANG unit in Los Angeles is going to be very different from one in Philadelphia. Get my drift?

When I moved to Virginia, I signed up with the unit which, at the time, was based in Richmond. My previous unit was in Colorado, in the Denver area. During my first FOD walk in Richmond, I kept noticing these brown balls on the ramp, a little smaller than a ping pong ball. I kicked a few and they disintegrated into fibers. A little while later I saw one of the other crew chiefs pull a wad out of his mouth, tossed it on the ramp, and pulled a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco out of his pocket. I also learned quickly to watch where I put my knees and hands on the ramp. Terbacky spit was common.

That unit also scheduled drill weekends around the NASCAR schedule. You never drilled on a race weekend in the Virginia ANG. It was definitely a different feel than the Colorado ANG. Every unit will be unique, even if they are in the same state—a fact that I can personally attest to. I served with both Indiana ANG units and they both operated F-16s. They were on opposite ends of the state and were very different from each other. The weird thing is that they had a blood feud going on with each other. I’m not talking about a friendly competitive rivalry: they really disliked each other. But the funny thing is that when I asked why—and I served in both units—nobody could ever give a reason for the feud. If I had to guess, it was probably just a bad case of sibling rivalry between two ANG fighter units in the same state.

Turnover and Inbreeding

This brings us to another point. Due to normal turnover, the atmosphere of an active-duty unit can change every three to four years. A good unit can go bad or vice versa in the span of one enlistment. Have a bad boss? Chances are that one of you will PCS before the other and you have a shot at getting a better one. Not so much in the Guard. Because there isn’t very much turnover with the bosses, who are normally full-timers, you might have the same one for five to eight years. If there is bad blood between the two of you, let’s just say it’s going to be a long couple of enlistments. And I had a few really bad ones.

This lack of turnover also creates an interesting phenomenon that you rarely see in active units. I call it inbreeding, and it can be attributed to a number of things.

Firstly, it’s not unusual to see multiple generations of the same family serving in the unit, at the same time, and in the same job specialty. That’s what happens when nobody moves, and the full civil service retirement is thirty years. And it’s not unusual to meet a coworker’s kids at a family event and then a few years later one of them is back as a second lieutenant and he is flying your jet.

Which leads to the second cause of inbreeding. Often Guard members marry other Guard members, and then divorce and marry other Guard members. Yeah. And sometimes there are kids born in each marriage. Oh, and officers do marry enlisted people—while both are still serving.

This brings us to our third cause of inbreeding, and it’s embodied by the phrase, “What happens at summer camp, stays at summer camp!” This saying was around a long time before the Las Vegas one came into being. Summer camp is an annual two-week period where a big portion of the unit would travel to a location to train and hone skills. Sometimes it’s a dedicated ANG training site like Savannah Georgia and other times it might be another military base. In any case, once the day’s training was completed the unit members were released to do whatever they wanted.

Let’s just say that short-term “romances” with other unit members were not uncommon. Of course, dalliances were not limited to summer camps, and often occurred during the work week as well. You’ll notice that I’m using the past tense, but it’s not intended to convey that those actions have stopped. I guarantee that they are still going on today. And why is this a problem? Well think about it, nobody ever transfers out for decades, and most everyone has dirt on almost everyone, especially among the full-timers. That creates a situation where some folks are covering up for other people when they do something wrong. Often, it’s referred to as “The Good Ole Boy Network.”

Now don’t get me wrong. There are tons of great and professional people in the ANG, and some of this also happens in the regular Air Force, but it just illustrates that the Air National Guard is different. And based on conversations with friends, the Army National Guard has the same issues.

Before I close this section, I should note that some units have high turnover because there are less demanding jobs with better pay in the area, and they struggle to keep people. It just goes to show that there’s no such animal as a standard ANG unit.

Status

Again, which ANG do you want to join? Full-time or part-time? If you say full-time, then there are more questions. Civil service or AGR? I should note that the full-timers are the ones who really run the unit, and I’ll expand on this later.
Civil service technicians (Air Reserve technicians in the Air Force Reserve) are part of the U.S. government civil service and work under the GS schedule. They hold various GS, WG, and WS slots and, as a rule, fill most of the leadership positions in the unit. Back in the day, they didn’t wear uniforms during the week, and dressed in civilian clothes. Then someone decided that they didn’t think it looked professional and made them start wearing the military uniform all the time. So, strangely, they are civilians wearing military uniforms. This can cause some confusion because sometimes they may be on military status during the week. Even more bizarre is the fact that you are supposed to address them by their rank even when they are in civilian status.

Civil service technicians generally must achieve thirty good years of civilian federal service to get full retirement. Military time does not count, but there is a way to buy the time back. Yes, you are required to pay money to get your military time to count toward your civilian retirement. They also sometimes have to take civilian leave to go on military status trips. Technicians also revert to military status for drill weekends, have to submit timecards, and contribute to healthcare plans.

The 30-year retirement requirement, coupled with few people transferring out, creates a stagnant workforce. There are limited leadership slots and so a crew chief might not be able to advance into leadership for fifteen years, or never. It’s also been my observation that many civil service technicians are in agony and unhappy for the final ten years. They are burned out and tired and are just marking time. Often, they are in a bad mood on drill weekends because they don’t get a weekend off. Never mind the fact that the part-timers lost a weekend too.

AGRs (Active Guard Reserve) are on active duty status all the time, but it’s under a different federal law from regular Air Force. They get full military retirement at twenty years and all the other benefits associated with being on active duty. Technically they are on duty 24/7/365. AGRs do hold some leadership roles—it just depends on how things are set up. Often the civil service people gripe about the AGRs. Mostly it seems to do with them having freedom from timecards.

Here’s the deal though, you don’t necessarily get a choice between civil service and AGR. It depends on how the slot is set up. Then we have politics. Are you an outsider from another unit or on active duty applying for a technician job? Guess what? Good Ole Boy Network. If there are qualified internal candidates who they like, they will most likely be selected. I’m just covering the tip of the iceberg here. Believe me, the ANG is a complex beast.

Part-time status: Drill Status Guardsman (DSG), Traditional Guardsman, Part-Timer, Weekender—the ANG just struggles to know what to call these folks. The powers that be were probably trying to get away from the “Weekend Warrior” epithet and strongly discouraged the use of the latter two terms. Personally, they never bothered me because they were simple and accurate descriptions of the role. Weekenders are those who make up the bulk of the unit manning document. They have separate civilian jobs or are full-time students in school. DSGs have a basic requirement to attend drill weekends, generally held once a month, and a 15-day active duty training period, often referred to as summer camp. They are comprised of Guard Babies, who have no prior active duty military service, or people who have prior active duty service. In fact, I knew a few guys who came into the ANG with over fifteen years of active duty time. Yes, they had their reasons.

Whether you are a prior service troop or a Guard Baby, the unit characteristics, turnover, and inbreeding are going to be factors that impact you. But you do have one great thing going for you in your favor. If things are bad in your unit, you get to go home on Sunday afternoon and don’t have to deal with it again for another four to six weeks. The full-timers have to come back to it the very next day. They have no escape.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about being a Weekender is how the full-timers treat you. This is highly dependent on the unit characteristics. I’ve been in units where I was treated with respect as a valued contributing member of the unit, and I’ve been in others where I was sometimes treated like dirt. The mission of the full-timers is to train the part-timers to be able to do their jobs if the unit is called to war, or a national/state emergency. Some units forget that, and they treat Weekenders as something to be tolerated as a necessary nuisance. Others take the mission to heart and make Weekenders feel like part of the team.

Part of the disdain that some full-timers have for the Weekenders is that there is a high turnover rate. Eighty percent of first-term enlistees don’t sign up for a second hitch, so it’s a never-ending cycle of training new people. Additionally, most prior service people bail before the 20-year mark. They hit 10 years and are either unhappy at the unit, or it’s just getting too hard to balance a full-time civilian job, a part-time military one, and family life.

Many of them also see that they aren’t going to make rank and bail. So, here’s a little tidbit that you should know. The ANG enlisted ranks are slot controlled, beginning with technical sergeant (E-6). They can have an unlimited number of staff sergeants (E-5) but there must be an open slot on the unit manning document to promote someone to E-6. I believe the Air Force Reserve is slot-controlled, beginning with master sergeant (E-7).

This issue of slot control created a little bit of an angry discussion between me and my supervisor. I had already made tech but found out from a friend that ten tech slots were opening in our squadron. I asked my boss, a civil service technician/master sergeant, how many slots would be allocated for Weekenders to compete for. He said just one. I was stunned. In any case, military slots were not supposed to be separated out between full-timers and part-timers. Military is military. When I asked him the reason, he said that they saved the majority of promotions for the full-timers because that’s how they make their living, and the part-timers have their civilian jobs.

His answer was complete garbage. The full-timers made most of their income from civil service pay and it was good money. They only made military pay for drill weekends and other times they were on military status.

A few months later we promoted eight DSGs to tech sergeant. He wasn’t happy with me for going over his head with it, but it was something the unit had been doing all along and nobody had ever called them out for it. I knew plenty of Weekenders who retired at 20 years as an E-5. No wonder so many bailed.

And since we are on the topic of promotions, that’s another area where things are different. Enlisted promotions didn’t utilize WAPS testing (Weighted Airman Promotion System testing: a USAF program that determines promotions to staff sergeant and technical sergeant) in the ANG and until recent years, nobody did EPRs (Enlisted Performance Reports). Promotions for E-7 through E-9 are based on meeting requirements like TIS, TIG, PME, CCAF, and the big kicker—an in-person promotion board. Any sane person can see the pros and cons of that system. E-9 actually requires three different boards, and I won’t tell you about mine since one of them was hostile—‘nuff said.

I give you this example to show what sorts of bad things Weekenders may have to endure. Another unit I was in appreciated my skill and background and allowed me—as an E-5 Weekender—to become qualified to do aircraft engine runs, something that they didn’t normally do.

Prior service people with lots of experience, who enter the ANG as Weekenders, are also often frustrated because they wind up being treated as another “dumb Weekender.” For instance, a job on a jet might come up that they did a hundred times on active duty, but the bosses assign full-time technicians to do the job and send the Weekender out to service oxygen on the jets. I’ve seen that so many times it’s sickening.

Again, let me reiterate that not all units and shops are bad, but there is a whole range of good to bad in the ANG. Before you sign on the dotted line, I suggest that you try to talk to some of the lower-ranking people in the shop, preferably off base.

And perhaps this is a good place to mention something else. Everyone knows that as a Weekender you will have to manage your civilian employer. Some are extremely supportive of Guardsman and others are not. Yes, there are federal laws regarding company support of Guardsman, so most won’t be openly hostile, but they can still make life difficult in more subversive ways. So, it’s going to be incumbent on you to manage your employer and do your best to make them amenable to supporting the Guard and Reserve. But here’s the flip side. Tons of civil service technicians have been doing the job for so long that they have forgotten what it’s like to balance a civilian and military career. And maybe they never had to. You might just need to remind them from time to time regarding those challenges. For sure, the active duty Air Force, which sets all the rules, doesn’t understand that challenge.

Drill weekends—RSD (regularly scheduled drill), UTA (unit training assembly), blah, blah, blah—this is another area that they keep changing the name. Someone is probably making Full Bird each time they suggest calling something by a new name. Drill weekends are certainly something that Mother Air Force really should pay attention to when making policy that impacts the ANG. And it’s definitely something that prospective new Weekenders need to be aware of.

Every new Weekender crew chief has visions of spending 16 hours every drill weekend crewing, launching, and repairing their jet. They sign up because they want to fix aircraft and make them fly. Some weekends it works out that way. But here’s the problem. All the other non-aircraft stuff that a regular Air Force crew chief has to do, gets spread out through a whole month. An ANG Weekender crew chief has to cram all of it into a drill weekend. So, if you are due for your PT test—there is half a day shot. Due for a physical at Med Group? Half a day. Did you get pinged for urinalysis? An hour or two gone. Get pinged to be a urinalysis monitor? Half day. New ID card, shots, blood tests, sexual harassment briefings, Commanders Call, mask fit, all the various annual recurring training, ceremonies, range qualification, testing for PME and skill level increase, records check at Personnel, and on and on and on ... Get my drift? As a Weekender, quite a bit of your time in the Guard is going to be taken up with stuff that has nothing to do with your primary job. And that’s one of the primary reasons that maintainers leave the service, both active and ANG. When I made E-9 I had to start doing three-day drill weekends just so that I could get my primary job done.

I definitely don’t want to give the impression that the ANG is all bad. Mainly I just wanted to show that there are some unique factors at play that many outsiders are unaware of. So now let’s look at some of the positives in comparison to active duty.

(Staff Sgt. Stephany Richards)
(Staff Sgt. Stephany Richards)

Positives

Diverse experience: Most people currently on active duty have only known the military and the specific job they do. That’s not true of the ANG, especially when talking about the part-time force. There are commercial airline pilots and mechanics, aerospace engineers, aerospace tech reps, bankers, car mechanics, carpenters, health insurance reps, and the list goes on. Those people bring a breadth of experience to an ANG unit that the Reg AF (Regular Air Force) could only dream about. In a wartime remote environment, an ANG can rely on that experience when things go bad.
Depth of experience: Pilots with 25 years flying time, and more hours and experience than their active duty counterparts. I knew a technician at Barksdale AFB who retired when he got his 30 years in. As a young crew chief, he took delivery of a brand new A-10 Thunderbolt II from the factory. He took care of that one aircraft his whole career. Lots of ANG crew chiefs have 25 years of hands-on experience maintaining jets. Their active-duty counterparts are pulled into management jobs during their second enlistment.

I do need to make a quick admission here, though. I can hear some of you active duty crew chiefs poo-pooing this because of some ANG crew chiefs you ran into. “Yeah, Dave, those guys didn’t know how to do anything on the jets, even though they had been in for 10 years!” This is a fair accusation, but keep this in mind: A non-prior service Weekender crew chief with 10 years has less than 390 days working on the aircraft, assuming there were no deployments or contingency operations to add to the minimum 39 days required for a good year in the ANG. Add on top of that all the things I mentioned they have to do on a drill weekend and it’s no wonder there are a lot of jobs they don’t know how to do. Is that their fault, or is it the fault of the Air Force and the ANG? The latter, I think. I will say that I’ve been on deployments multiple times where an active duty unit was stumped with an aircraft problem and our ANG guys helped them find the problem.

Low turnover in key roles: This is the best title I could think of to describe the characteristic. Because the full-timers normally hang around for decades, everyone knows who the go-to person is for something. Need some problematic finance issue fixed? They know who can fix it now, instead of opening a help ticket at DFAS. Need a part for an aircraft that’s in short supply? We know the guy who scrounged on for just such an emergency.

If I remember correctly, most combat-coded ANG units have to be ready to deploy in 72 hours. I once watched our folks have everything ready in 24. It’s because people have been there for so long and packed so many times that everyone even knows where the coffee maker goes in the mobility bin. It’s rote memory.

Even though low turnover and longevity have some negatives, as pointed out earlier, they also have some positives. They can create a unit cohesion and a sense of family that active duty can never attain. I remember one young second lieutenant who came out to fly my jet on his first flight in the unit. Decades later, he was at my retirement ceremony as a Lt. Colonel.

In another instance, one of the aircraft I crewed had a midair with another F-16. One of the pilots was the nephew of my daughter’s high school running coach. He called me in a panic because the news was saying that one pilot was confirmed dead, but they weren’t releasing names. He begged me to help, so I made a call and found out that the nephew wasn’t the casualty and that he was alive and walked to the ambulance. That pilot and I worked in the same civilian company and in the same area. In fact, we had a few heart-to-heart discussions after the accident, because of the guilt he felt. Thankfully, he kept flying. I’m not sure how often a commissioned pilot would share feelings with an enlisted crew chief in the active duty Air Force. Not often, I would imagine.

That sense of family in the ANG often causes consternation in the active forces. Rank and military bearing doesn’t mean as much in the ANG. When the son of your best friend at work grows up and becomes an officer in the unit, well, let’s just say there is a certain familial relationship that’s stronger than a regulation. Things are often more laid back and on a first-name basis in the Guard. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t respect, it just comes from a different source. In one unit, ten of my fellow crew chiefs that I had worked with for years took commissions. Later on, we went on trips where they were in charge. Yes, I called them sir and saluted when required, but there was a level of family and friendship underneath all of that. It’s not uncommon to see master sergeant crew chiefs in the ANG. The rank is just superficial in so many ways.

Finally, I’d like to mention one last positive of the ANG, even though there are many more. I was not a good fit for active duty. I was too outspoken, hated politics and show ponies; I questioned too much and pointed out things that were double standards, or broken. Additionally, I was never impressed by rank or position, and it showed in my body language. Groveling is not in my makeup, and I am as transparent as optical glass. I would have been kicked out of active duty for failure to advance in rank. As a Weekender in the Guard, they were happy to put up with me because I showed up for drills and volunteered for trips. Because of that, I was able to stay long enough to make the highest enlisted rank and retire the day before my 60th birthday.

Conclusion

Over the decades, the ANG has changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much. To a great degree, the implementation of the Total Air Force concept has robbed the ANG of much of its initiative to make innovative changes. But if you want well-maintained aircraft and highly capable personnel, look to the Air National Guard. Just be prepared for it to take a while to figure out what you are dealing with.
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
Dave Chamberlin served 38 years in the USAF and Air National Guard as an aircraft crew chief, where he retired as a CMSgt. He has held a wide variety of technical, instructor, consultant, and leadership positions in his more than 40 years of civilian and military aviation experience. Dave holds an Airframe and Powerplant license from the FAA, as well as a master's degree in aeronautical science. He currently runs his own consulting and training company and has written for numerous trade publications. His true passion is exploring and writing about issues facing the military, and in particular, aircraft maintenance personnel.