Cover: Characteristics and Duty Limitations of Service Members Transferring Between the Active and Reserve Components

Characteristics and Duty Limitations of Service Members Transferring Between the Active and Reserve Components

Published Dec 15, 2020

by Heather Krull, Christina Panis, Katherine Anania, Philip Armour


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Research Questions

  1. How many service members transfer from the AC to the RC each year, and what are their characteristics?
  2. What medical conditions are present prior to AC separation that might reappear after RC affiliation if the service member is permitted to transfer from the AC to the RC?
  3. How many transfers have a deployment-limiting medical condition after joining the RC, and what are the most common conditions that present?
  4. What percentage of service members with a deployment-limiting medical condition after RC affiliation had a related condition prior to AC separation?

The Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General (IG) published a report in 2014 with an observation about service members who transfer from the active component (AC) to the reserve component (RC). Specifically, DoD IG observed that medically limited or nondeployable service members were affiliating with the RC after being discharged from the AC, despite policies in place establishing the criteria for transferring, and therefore individual medical readiness (IMR) rates were reduced. DoD IG therefore recommended that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness develop a plan to establish guidance that charges the services with establishing procedures and criteria that will ensure AC to RC transfers meet IMR requirements.

In this report, the authors review DoD and service policies that define requirements for transfers from the AC to the RC and describe how those policies are implemented. They then analyze (1) the characteristics of service members who separated from the AC between FY 2010 and FY 2016 and later affiliated with the RC, and (2) duty limitations observed among AC to RC transfers. The researchers also include a retrospective look at what information was available during the service member's time in the AC that was related to the RC medical condition. Finally, they conclude with a set of recommendations that, if implemented, should reduce the number of service members who transfer from the AC to the RC with medical conditions that limit deployability.

Key Findings

Between 20,000 and 25,000 service members separated from the AC between 2010 and 2016 and joined the RC within 24 months of separation

  • More than 80 percent of all transfers affiliated with the RC within six months of AC separation; marines were the most likely to affiliate with the reserves more than six months after AC separation.
  • Seventy percent of transfers have eight or fewer years of service at the time of transfer, implying that the majority of transfers likely affiliate with the RC to complete their military service obligation.
  • DoD-wide, 60 percent of transfers are observed for at least 24 months in the RC.

Nontraumatic joint disorders, back problems, hearing and vision impairments, and a history of mental health and substance abuse were the most common medical issues identified

  • Transfers with duty limitations after joining the RC related to nontraumatic joint disorders, hearing loss, back problems, and, for the Air Force, connective tissue disease and sprains and strains were relatively more likely to have the same condition prior to AC separation.
  • Other common RC duty limitations, including anxiety or mood disorders, asthma, vision loss, and disorders of the teeth and jaw, did not match at a high rate to medical conditions while in the AC.
  • Many medical issues that appeared in the AC often do not persist in the RC.
  • Other indicators of medical issues after RC affiliation, including placement on medical orders, receipt of incapacitation pay, and medical discharge, are rare among transfers.


  • DoD should require service members to meet retention standards in order to be able to affiliate with the RC.
  • Because all service members are required to undergo a health assessment prior to separation, medical retention standards should be applied at the time of their Separation History and Physical Examination.
  • To the extent possible, the requirements for transferring from the AC to the RC and the information used to determine whether the service member meets these requirements should be standardized across services and components.
  • The AC to RC decision authority should have access to and make full use of information available at the time of AC separation.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

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