Understanding Military Active Duty

Knowing the Terms of Active Duty Is Key for Military Members

Woman soldiers in bootcamp
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In the U.S. military, there are some basic terms that describe military life and how the infrastructure works. Most people are familiar with the term "active duty" although they may not be entirely clear exactly what this means for the member of the military, and, how this differs from being deployed. 

The Department of Defense (which is the agency that oversees every branch of the U.S. military) definition of active duty in the U.S. military is pretty straightforward.

Active duty refers to full-time duty in the active military, including members of the Reserve Components on full-time training duty. It does not include full-time National Guard duty. 

Being on active duty is similar to working a full-time job. In the Army, for instance, its active duty soldiers serve 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the length of their service commitment (that's not to say that each soldier works a 24-hour shift, just that there are always soldiers on duty). 

During this period of active duty, the military member has set hours off every day, where he can spend time with family and go about his everyday life. 

This is different from deployment, which is when a member of the military is transferred to another place in the world to fulfill their contract of service. This doesn't always mean combat, but in some circumstances, it does. So a soldier (or sailor, or airman or Marine) can be on active duty but not deployed, but you won't be deployed unless you're on active duty.


Active Duty Living Arrangements

While a member of the military is on active duty, there are programs in place to help his or her immediate family (spouse and dependent children). In most cases, they can live on the base with the soldier (in the case of the Army). This depends on a few factors, including what unit the military member is with, what their military occupational specialty (MOS) is, and their deployment status.


So sticking with the Army example, if a soldier is single, he or she can live in barracks on the base, but a soldier with a family may live in base housing. 

Length of Active Duty

Soldiers on active duty can be deployed anytime, for a period of 12 consecutive months. 

For soldiers on active duty, service terms typically last between two and six years, depending on the unit and its mission. Soldiers are eligible for a two weeks of leave after six months of deployment. 

This varies depending on the branch of the service; for instance, in the Marines, the most common enlistment contracts include four or five years of active duty service. In the Air Force, most airmen enlist for a total of eight years of active duty.

Reserves on Active Duty

Reserve soldiers are called to duty as needed, and can hold normal full-time civilian jobs. Army reserve soldiers attend training sessions near their home one weekend per month, and an annual field training.

A soldier in the Army Reserve may never see active duty at all during the entire length of his enlistment.