Military 101


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The military is a complex and dynamic organization.

The military can at times seem overwhelming to someone new or with limited exposure to the Armed Forces. Service members can sometimes appear to be speaking a language all their own–a language filled with acronyms, terminology, and seemingly subtle nuances that are, in actuality, very important. As a mentor, it is beneficial if you become familiar with military culture, terminology, and structure, so you can better empathize with the military youth you serve. A helpful resource to keep close-by during review of this lesson is the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. At just under 700 pages long, the dictionary captures the definitions that you might encounter when interacting with members of the military. The dictionary also includes over 100 pages of acronyms and abbreviations and their meanings. Search the dictionary or download a PDF version at www.dtic.mil/doctrine/dod_dictionary.

Understand the environment in which you are serving youth from military families.

At the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Recall appropriate terminology to communicate with military members, youth, and families;
  • Recall the structure of military components within the Department of Defense (DOD); and
  • Recognize and describe the phases of the deployment cycle.End of text

Structure and Rank

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Duty status is a common way that Service Members self-identify.

Active Duty

There are 1.4 million active duty personnel within the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard. These Service Members are employed full-time by the military, whether in times of peace or times of war. Active duty members voluntarily sign up for full-time Service, with enlistments ranging from two to eight years in length, and are obligated by law to fulfill the terms of their Service. Some active duty Service Members will later join reserve components as a way to fulfill the terms of their Service.


The reserve component includes the Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Air Force Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, Coast Guard Reserve, the Army National Guard, and the Air National Guard. In the civilian world, you might compare the Reserves to part-time employment. Many reservists maintain full-time jobs in the civilian world and live in locations of their choosing. Reservists take part in regular training and are subject to call to active duty in times of war or emergency, but they are not normally “stationed” at a military installation.

National Guard

The Army National Guard and Air National Guard are part of the reserve component. Guard units are organized by state and territory. Under normal circumstances, all Guard units answer to the governor of that state and can be called to help assist in national disasters and emergencies within their states. However, during times of war or national emergency, they come under federal control and authority shifts to the commander in chief–the President of the United States.

Rank communicates Service Members’ level of responsibility and leadership.

Chains of command and authority provide a foundational basis for the Armed Forces. In the military, a person’s status can mean the difference between giving orders or following them. Rank varies from service to service—while there is such thing as a captain in both the Army and the Navy, they are not at equal levels of responsibility or leadership. When a member of the armed services is in uniform, he/she will wear insignia to denote his/her rank. Rank is divided into three categories: enlisted, warrant officers, and commissioned officers.


Enlisted members are the individuals who voluntarily enlist or enroll for a specific period of service and are positioned below commissioned officers and warrant officers. As the most junior members of any military branch, they comprise the majority of the Armed Forces.

Warrant Officers

Each military branch, with exception of the Air Force, has warrant officers. They rank between the highest enlisted rank and the lowest commissioned officer rank. They typically have highly specialized skills in a specific area. Warrant officers undergo special training in order to remain experts in their field.

Commissioned Officers

Commissioned officers make up the senior-most leadership positions within the Armed Forces. Military members who qualify as officers meet more than the minimum requirements for enlisting and are placed in positions of immediate leadership. Officers have completed college course work and most have at least a bachelor’s degree.

For a complete listing of insignia worn by officers and enlisted members, click the Resources link.

How rank is communicated will vary depending on the venue or situation.

How you address a member of the Armed Forces will vary depending on the mode and the formality of the interaction. For instance, you would address an envelope to a Service Member differently from how you would address the person in conversation or formally introduce him/her to an audience. Generally, lower ranking military members will refer to a senior officer simply as “sir” or “ma’am.”

To learn more about appropriate ways to address military members, click the Resources link.End of text

Army and Air Force

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The Army organizes its soldiers around land missions.

Today, the Army’s mission is “to fight and win our Nation’s wars by providing prompt, sustained land dominance across the full range of military operations and spectrum of conflict in support of combatant commanders.” Led by the Secretary of the Army and the Undersecretary of the Army, civilians nominated directly by the President of the United States, the Department of the Army accomplishes this mission through both operational and institutional missions.

The Army’s operational units are organized, trained, and equipped under the Army Chief of Staff, a general and the highest-ranking non-civilian member of the Army. The Army’s basic organization is built around the smallest unit, the individual soldier. Soldiers are then organized into increasingly larger units including squads, platoons, companies, battalions, brigades, divisions, corps, and field armies.

The Army Reserve is the federal reserve force of the United States Army.

Together, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard constitute the Reserve Component of the United States Army. The Army Reserve is a key element in The Army multi-component unit force, training with Active and National Guard units to ensure all three components work as a fully integrated team. The Army Reserve's mission is to provide trained, equipped, and ready Soldiers and cohesive units to meet the global requirements across the full spectrum of operations.

The Army National Guard comprises part of the Army’s reserve component.

The Army National Guard and the Army Reserve make up the United States Army’s reserve component. Formation of the Army National Guard actually pre-dates the birth of the United States as a nation. In the late 1600s, local communities formed militias to help protect their colonies from attack by the British. The founding fathers recognized the importance of state militias and, with the signing of the Constitution, empowered Congress with the authority to organize these militias, and empowered states to train and appoint officers.

The Air Force organizes missions in air, space, and cyberspace.

The mission of the United States Air Force is simple: “to fly, fight and win … in air, space and cyberspace.” The Department of the Air Force is led by a number of civilians who are nominated into office to hold the positions of the Secretary of the Air Force and the Under Secretary of the Air Force. The highest ranking military member of the Air Force is the Chief of Staff, a position held by a general.

The Air Force is based off the smallest unit, the airman. Airmen are then organized into flights, squadrons, groups, wings, and major commands.

The Air Force Reserve is the federal reserve force of the United States Air Force.

Together, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National guard constitute the Reserve Component of the United States Air Force. The Air Force Reserve is an integral part of the United States’ presence in air and space. The primary mission of the Air Force Reserve is readiness – providing the nation's leaders with Air Force Reserve units and people who are trained and ready for duty at a moment's notice.

The Air National Guard comprises part of the Air Force Reserve component.

World War II saw the birth of the Air National Guard from National Guard Aviation units. According to a 2011 report from the Department of Defense, the Air National Guard maintains more than 100,000 members. When called into active duty, members of the Air National Guard seamlessly integrate within the larger organizational structure of the Air Force.End of text

Navy and Marine Corps

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Coast Guard

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The Coast Guard has had many homes in the federal government.

Throughout its 200-year history, the Coast Guard has resided in a number of different federal departments, including the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Transportation. Today, the Coast Guard is located under the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Homeland Security is led by a civilian, the Secretary of Homeland Security, a role appointed by the President of the United States. The highest-ranking member of the Coast Guard is the Commandant, a role held by someone in the rank of admiral.

The organization of the Coast Guard is similar to that of the Navy.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s mission is “to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic interests — in the nation's ports and waterways, along the coast, on international waters, or in any maritime region as required to support national security.” The Coast Guard accomplishes this mission through five fundamental roles that include maritime safety, maritime security, maritime mobility, national defense, and protection of national resources.

Members of the Coast Guard, referred to as sailors, Coast Guard personnel, or, more informally, as “coasties,” are organized in units similar to that of the United States Navy. The Coast Guard’s operating forces are divided into the Atlantic and Pacific areas. Both areas are lead by vice admirals, and both geographical areas maintain districts, maintenance and logistic commands, mission execution units, and mission support units. Like the Navy, the units of the Coast Guard are largely organized around a ship or aircraft and its crew.

The Coast Guard Reserve is the federal reserve force of the United States Coast Guard.

Coast Guard Reservists take part in maritime safety, mobility, security, national defense, and the protection of natural resources. They provide critical skills and experience that are vital to our ability to lead, manage, and coordinate the national response to acts of terrorism, disasters, or other emergencies in the maritime region.End of text

The Deployment Cycle

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Today’s Service Members face increasing deployments.

Historically, certain branches of the military have been accustomed to more frequent or lengthy deployments. For instance, prior to the global war on terror, the Marines were known to have short deployment lengths, but very little time to prepare for deployment. However, frequent deployments were almost a way of life for branches like the Navy, a service where sailors were often on shipboard duty for extended periods.

Today, deployment lengths vary from ninety days or less in the Air Force, to up to eighteen months in length within the Army.

The phases of deployment can bring out a variety of emotions.

The phases of deployment can sometimes be marked by overwhelming emotions for Service Members and their families. The deployment cycle includes three phases: pre-deployment, deployment, and post-deployment.

  • The pre-deployment phase includes the weeks and months leading up to deployment. During pre-deployment, Service Members and their families are preparing for deployment. They may experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, anxiety, excitement, resentment, and guilt.
  • The deployment phase is marked by the Service Member’s absence. During deployment, Service Members and their families may feel a sense of enthusiasm and pride, but also a sense of abandonment and fear of the unknown.
  • The post-deployment phase includes both the emotional high of the initial reunion, as well as the struggles that accompany the reintegration process. The post-deployment phase can sometimes be marked by feelings of elation and euphoria, but might also include feelings of resentment, role confusion, and guilt.

Reservists and their families face unique challenges during deployments.

During times of war, members of the National Guard and Reserve are seamlessly incorporated into the military’s active duty component. During deployments, service members are surrounded by peers with whom they share experiences and develop friendships. While full-time active duty members will return to military installations and stay surrounded by their “battle buddies” post-deployment, members of the Guard and Reserve are expected to return to their communities and their civilian jobs. This can be a difficult transition for members of the Guard and Reserve, as they don’t have ready access to a network of peers or the services provided to veterans through active duty military installations.

The deployment cycle can also be incredibly difficult for reservists’ families. While communities in and around active duty military installations can be very supportive to Service Members’ families, the communities in which the reservists reside may not be aware of or sensitive to the challenges presented by deployment. Also, while active duty military installations can help to connect and develop a sense of camaraderie between family members, reservists’ family members may not have a similar peer group within their communities to turn to while the reservist is deployed.End of text


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The more appreciation you have for military culture and the unique challenges faced by military families, the greater impact you will have on the lives of military youth.

Now that you have completed this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Recall appropriate terminology to communicate with military members, youth, and families;
  • Recall the structure of military components within the Department of Defense (DOD); and
  • Recognize and describe the phases of the deployment cycle.

To certify completion of this module, take the lesson evaluation found here. Once you have completed the evaluation, email or return the form to your Match Supervisor.End of text

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