How Long Do I Have to Serve if I Join the Military?

military service obligation

Raising your right hand to support and defend the Constitution of the United States is a task that should not be taken lightly. Joining the military is a commitment on the part of two parties — the service member and the government. If you’re contemplating being a part of the best and most dominant military force in the world, you may be asking, “How many years do I have to serve in the military?” The Department of Defense lays out the terms to fulfilling the military service obligation.

Every person who enters military service by enlistment or appointment incurs a military service obligation of 8 years, no matter whether it’s for active-duty or reserve components. But other factors can shorten or lengthen your time in service such as the way you enter the military, the service branch, and the job you choose. Today, Empire Resume will simplify the military service obligations or MSO for short.

Need to Know Terms for Joining the Military

Before we get started, there are some terms and abbreviations you need to understand:

  • Military Service Obligation (MSO): The military service obligation is the total required years of service that each person who becomes a member of a Military Service must serve under the regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the respective military branch.
  • Active-duty service obligation (ADSO) or Active Duty Service Commitment (ADSC): The active-duty service obligation or active-duty service commitment is the time that must be completed before you can think about getting out of the military.
  • Individual Ready Reserve (IRR): A reserve component where military members who have an unfulfilled portion of their initial 8-year Military Service Obligation or other service commitment are assigned. Members transition here because of recent separation from active duty or a participating guard/reserve program.

For example, whatever amount of time is not spent on full-time active duty, or spent in the Reserves or National Guard is spent in the IRR to complete your time of the military contract.

Now, we’ll move on to the ways you can join the military, which includes:

Enter by Enlistment

military service obligation

You can join the military right out of high school. Remember, everyone who enlists in the military incurs an 8-year service obligation. When you put your autograph on that lovely piece of paper, you’re committing yourself to 8 years of military service.

Throughout your time, you will serve in active duty, reserves, or Individual Ready Reserves. However, most military contracts are 4 to 6 years of active duty followed by the remaining years in the IRR.

The Reserves or National Guard is a part-time commitment. The way you fulfill your commitment to the military is by going to drill one weekend per month, and two weeks per year. In the meantime, you’ll be subject to be called to active duty on the needs of the military.

In the IRR, individuals are not required to drill, nor do they draw any pay, but their names remain on a list, and they can be recalled to active duty at any time until their total 8-year service obligation is complete.

However, periodically IRR individuals must attend Muster Duty, which is a screening process to collect medical and personnel information. IRR individuals are also provided with mobilization opportunities while receiving access to resources and benefits.

Enlist Under the National Call to Service Program

The National Call to Service (CTS) Program is a three-tiered enlistment option available to those who have not served before, have a high school diploma, and earned an ASVAB score of at least 50.

Enacted on October 1, 2003, as part of the 2004 Defense Authorization Bill, it contains a unique combination of service requirements along with education benefits that open the door to those who would like to serve their country in a military and civilian capacity.

The enlistment obligation under this program is the same for all branches of the military — 8 years. However, an initial shorter 2-year enlistment period provides more options and, in turn, attracts more people than the standard 3, 4, and 6-year enlistments.

But it’s not just a 2-year enlistment. The time spent on active duty depends on the length of initial training. The catch is, only 2 years of it must be served on active duty. The CTS program requires 15 months of active duty after initial training. The service portion of the program consists of:

  • First, after completing initial entry training (basic training and advanced individual training), individuals must serve on active duty in a military occupational specialty for 15 months.
  • Without a break in service, serve an additional period of active duty, or 24 months in an active status in the Selected Reserve.
  • After 24 months, without a break in service, the remaining portion of the obligation will be served as follows:
    • On active duty
    • Continuing in the guard or reserves
    • Transferring to the IRR
    • Serving in the AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, or other National Service program
    • A combination of the above options

For example, if you join the Air Force, you will incur a total active-duty commitment of 19 months. That’s 7 weeks of boot camp, and 9 weeks of job training, plus the 15 months of active duty after training. 

If you’re interested in the program, do not wait to apply. Each service branch limits the number of enlistees each year. For more information, check out the National Call to Service Program Fact Sheet by the VA.

Enter as a Commissioned Officer through ROTC

military service obligation

If you graduate from an ROTC scholarship program, you’ll incur a 4-year ADSO and 8-year MSO if you accept a commission as a regular officer. You’ll have an 8-year MSO if you accept a commission and serve in a reserve component.

Finally, you’ll get at least a 6-year MSO and up to an 8-year ADSO if you accept a commission and serve in a reserve component with at least 2 years of active duty. This stems from Federal law: 10 U.S. Code Section 2107

Need more information about ROTC? Be sure to review what is ROTC at your leisure.

Enter as a Commissioned Officer through Service Academy

If you’re seeking an appointment as an officer upon graduation from one of the U.S. Military Academy’s, you will have an ADSO of no less than 5 years. This stems from Federal law: 10 U.S. Code Sections 7448, 8459, and 9448.

Below is a breakdown of the policy for each branch of the military:

  • Air Force Policy 

Service academy graduates incur a 5-year active-duty service commitment (ADSC). AFROTC graduates incur a 4-year ADSC. Officers commissioning from all other sources incur a 4-year ADSC, except chaplains incur a 3-year ADSC. Check out Air Force Instruction 36-2107 for more information.

  • Army Policy

According to Officer Active Duty Service Obligations, Army Regulation 350-100, service academy graduates incur a 5-year ADSO.

ROTC scholarship graduates selected for active duty incur a 4-year ADSO. Non-scholarship ROTC graduates selected for active duty incur a 3-year ADSO. Officer candidate school (OCS) graduates incur a 3-year ADSO.

  • Navy Policy 

Graduates of OCS are appointed as ensigns and incur a 4-year ADSO. Graduates of the NROTC scholarship program incur a 5-year ADSO. Check out the Navy Memo 257.09 for more information.

  • Marine Corps Policy 

According to Marine Corps Order 1306.17F, enlisted Marines who complete the NROTC scholarship program and are commissioned incur a 4-year ADSO. Enlisted Marines who graduate from a service academy incur a 5-year ADSO.

Enter Military by Direct Appointment 

Direct-appointment officers who receive a call to active duty incur a 3-year ADSO.

Direct commission officers can receive a commission without the typical requirements such as attending a service academy, ROTC program, or officer training school.

People who receive direct appointments are often ministers, lawyers, or medical professionals. They will most likely start at a higher military rank than most other officers, such as the rank of captain or O-3.

Serve Without Full-time Commitment in the Reserve Components

military service obligation

You can serve your country without making any full-time commitment and receive many of the same benefits by joining the military reserves. In the Reserve and National Guard, your obligation is typically a monthly drill session one weekend a month, plus 2 weeks of active duty for annual training.

Your military reserves contract can range from 3 to 8 years, depending on the branch of service and your occupation.

Military Obligation According to Job

Each career in the military has a different service obligation. Your friends may have a 6-year contract, whereas you may have an 8-year contract. Below, we point out varying occupations that have unique service obligations:

  • Health Professionals

Maybe you’d like to be a healthcare professional and researcher. Graduates of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences incur an ADSO of at least 7 years.

Those serving on active duty for less than 10 years shall serve in the Ready Reserve as follows:

For active-duty service less than 8 years, 6 years in the Ready Reserve. For at least 8 but less than 9 years of active duty, 4 years in the Ready Reserve. And for at least 9 years but less than 10, 2 years in the ready reserve. This stems from Federal law 10 U.S. Code Section 2114.

Learn more about Uniformed Services University and its schools of medicine, nursing, dental college, and college of allied health sciences.

  • Military Lawyers

Maybe you’re intrigued by the movie A Few Good Men, or you were a fan of the JAG tv series. If you’re interested in being a JAG Officer or Judge Advocate General as a lawyer, we have good news for you.

The pathway to becoming a military lawyer involves joining the military as an officer, attending the required officer training that lasts up to 11 weeks, and graduating from the Judge Advocate General School for your respective branch. Typically, a 4-year military service commitment is required for lawyers.

For more information, check out the article entitled JAG Corps: Military Lawyer by The Balance.

  • Pilots

The minimum service obligation is 6 years for all pilots and 8 years for all fixed-wing jet aircraft pilots. The minimum service obligation for navigators and flight officers is to be set at 6 years.

For members of the active component, the service obligation is a period of active duty; for members of a reserve component who completed flight training in active duty for training status, the service obligation is a period of service in an active status in the Selected Reserve. This stems from Federal law 10 U.S. Code Section 653.

6 Service Branches of the Military

military service obligation

Now that you know how long you may serve in the military, the six service branches of the U.S. Armed Forces are below so you can easily choose the best branch for you!

  • U.S. Air Force (USAF)
  • U.S. Army (USA)
  • U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)
  • U.S. Marine Corps (USMC)
  • U.S. Navy (USN)
  • U.S. Space Force (USSF)

The Air Force is part of the Department of Defense (DoD). It’s responsible for aerial military operations, defending U.S. air bases, and building landing strips. Its servicemembers are known as Airmen. The reserve components are Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.

The Army is part of the DOD and is the largest of the military branches. It handles significant ground combat missions, especially operations that are ongoing. Army Special Forces are called Green Berets. The Army’s members are known as Soldiers. The reserve components are the Army Reserve and Army National Guard.

The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It provides national security and search and rescue for America’s waterways, seas, and coast. It’s responsible for stopping drug smugglers and others from breaking maritime law. It enforces marine environmental protection laws. Service members are Coast Guardsmen and carry the informal nickname of “Coasties.” The reserve component is the Coast Guard Reserve.

The Marine Corps is part of the DoD. It provides land combat, sea-based, and air-ground operations support for the other branches during a mission. This branch also guards U.S. embassies around the world and the classified documents in those buildings. Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) members are known as Raiders. All service members are called Marines. The reserve component is the Marine Corps Reserve.

The Navy is part of the DoD. It protects waterways (sea and ocean) outside of the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction. Navy warships provide the runways for aircraft to land and take off when at sea. Navy SEALs (sea, air, and land) are the special operations force for this branch. All service members are known as Sailors. The reserve component is Navy Reserve.

The Space Force is a new branch, developed in December 2019 from the former Air Force Space Command. The Space Force falls within the Department of the Air Force. It organizes, trains, and equips space forces to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and provide space capabilities to the joint force. Its members are known as Guardians. Learn more about the newest branch of the military.

Want to join the military?

We hope you enjoyed the latest military article from Empire Resume. We invite you to join us next week for more military career insight. In the meantime, check out what to expect when you first join the military and where will I be stationed once I join the military to help you make a decision that will impact the rest of your life.

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military service obligation

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Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for both professionals and service members transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a Ph.D. in Finance.

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