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, unique terminology, and seemingly subtle nuances that are, in actuality, very important. A helpful resource to have open on your computer 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 Service members. 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 Military environment.

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

  • Recall appropriate terminology to communicate with Service members, their Families, and the Military community;
  • Recall the structure of Military components within the Department of Defense (DoD);
  • Recognize and describe the phases of the deployment cycle; and,
  • Recall a variety of resources that are available to Service members, Veterans, and their Families.

Reference the Department of Defense (DoD) Manpower Requirements Report for an in-depth description of branch requirements and related statistics included in this lesson, and click the Resources link for a Department of Defense organizational chart.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 Military personnel within the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, all of which are under the Department of Defense. In addition, there are approximately 47,000 members of the U.S. Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime. 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, usually ranging from two to five 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. There are nearly 850,000 members of the Reserve components.

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 assist during emergencies within their states. However, during times of war or national emergency, Guard units 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 and following them. Rank varies from Service to Service; for example, there are captains in both the Army and the Navy, but 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. Service 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


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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, both 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 4-star general and the highest-ranking Military 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 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 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. Making up only twenty percent of the Army’s organized units, it provides about half of the Army’s combat support, a quarter of the Army’s mobilization base expansion capability, and one hundred percent of the Army’s chemical brigades, internment brigades, Judge Advocate General Unit, medical groups, railway units, training and exercise divisions, and water supply battalions. The Army Reserve is crucial to the Army’s expansion capabilities, and provides Army support for land, air, and sea missions.End of text

Navy and Marine Corps

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Coast Guard and Air Force

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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 4-star 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 led 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 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 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 4-star 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 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 2012 report from the Department of Defense, the Air National Guard maintains more than 106,000 members. When called into active duty, members of the Air National Guard seamlessly integrate within the larger organizational structure of the Air Force. Air National Guard provides almost half of the Air Force’s tactical airlift support, combat communications functions, aeromedical evacuations, and aerial refueling, along with total responsibility for the defense of the entire U.S.

The U.S. Air Force Reserve performs many missions with the active duty Air Force and engages in unique missions, such as Weather Reconnaissance and Aerial Fire Fighting. With facilities in 67 locations, they perform about twenty percent of the work of the Air Force. The Reserve deploys thirteen different kinds of state-of-the-art aircraft, including the remote-piloted Predator, the C-17 Globemaster III, and the F-22 Raptorfighter.End of text

The Deployment Cycle

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Today’s Service members face increasing deployment lengths.

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.

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

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

  • The pre-deployment phase: 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 and all parties can experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, anxiety, excitement, resentment, and guilt.
  • The deployment phase: The deployment phase is marked by the Service member’s absence. During deployment, Service members and their Families may feel a sense of pride, but also a sense of abandonment or fear of the unknown.
  • The post-deployment phase: The post-deployment phase includes both the emotional high of the initial reunion, as well as the struggles that accompany the following “normalization 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 as they do not 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

Service Member and Veteran Support

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Yellow Ribbon focuses on the well-being of members of the National Guard and Reserve.

The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP) seeks to promote the well-being of National Guard and Reserve Members, their Families, and communities, by connecting them with resources throughout the phases of the deployment cycle. Yellow Ribbon hosts events that bring Service members and their Families in contact with resources to help them navigate the difficult, emotionally tumultuous, and sometimes frightening phases of the deployment cycle, from pre-deployment through post-deployment. Commanders and leaders ensure that Guard and Reserve members and their Families attend these events and learn about health care, education/training opportunities, financial resources, and legal benefits. Community organizations sometimes participate in Yellow Ribbon events and provide support in one of those areas.

Each Reserve Component implements YRRP programming to meet the unique needs of their Service culture. To learn about getting involved in a Yellow Ribbon event, contact the Yellow Ribbon Service Liaison Officers: http://www.yellowribbon.mil/contact. Learn more about the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program by downloading the Resources list or visiting:


The National Guard Yellow Ribbon Program can be found by visiting:


Department of Veterans Affairs works to care for Service members who have completed their term of Service.

The Department of Veterans Affairs mission statement is: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.” They provide a wide range of programs and benefits to Veterans, and operate more than 1,400 sites of care, including hospitals, community clinics, community living centers, domiciliary, readjustment counseling centers, and various other facilities. The VA provides financial and other forms of assistance to Veterans, their dependents, and survivors. Forms of assistance include Veterans’ compensation, Veterans’ pension, survivors’ benefits, rehabilitation and employment assistance, education assistance, home loan guarantees, and life insurance coverage. Community organizations interested in connecting with regional offices for the Veterans Benefits Administration or the Veterans Health Administration can visit the VA facility locator at http://www.va.gov/landing2_locations.htm.

State governments also run Veterans Administrations to help connect Veterans with state-level benefits. To find your State VA office, visit: http://www.va.gov/statedva.htm.

Learn more about VA Services by downloading the Resources list or visiting: http://www.va.gov

Download the Resources list for an organizational chart depiction the organizational structure of the VA.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration works to support Veterans, Service members, and their Families.

Under the Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) works to support America’s Service men and women by leading efforts to ensure that needed behavioral health services are accessible and that outcomes are positive. SAMHSA is working towards increasing awareness of and promoting integrated responses to the needs of Service members, Veterans, and Families, among agencies, providers, and stakeholders, in addition to a number of other goals. SAMHSA carries its programs through its various centers, each of which focuses on a different area: prevention and treatment of mental disorders, prevention and reduction of illegal drug use, provision of effective substance abuse treatment and recovery, and collection, analysis and dissemination of behavioral health data. The following chart shows the organizational structure, starting from the Office of the Administrator through the head of each of the centers.

SAMHSA Organizational Chart

Learn more about SAMHSA by downloading the Resources list or visiting: http://www.samhsa.gov

Many organizations work together to provide services for Service members, Veterans, and Families.

A small sample of those organizations includes:

  • Citizen Soldier Support Program is designed to strengthen community support for the National Guard and Reserve Component Service members and Families. They have a series of online courses titled, Treating the Invisible Wounds of War (http://www.citizensoldiersupport.org).
  • Operation: Military Kids provides resources to help children respond to the deployment cycle and meet other Military kids (http://www.operationmilitarykids.org).
  • Joint Services Support provides resources in a variety of different areas, including reintegration, career, Family, finances, behavioral health, sexual assault prevention, and transitional support. They host events and help to build the military community (https://www.jointservicessupport.org/default.aspx).
  • Wounded Warriors seeks to foster successful, well-adjusted wounded Service members, while raising awareness and enlisting public aid for the needs of injured Service members. They also provide resources and programs to help Service members strengthen their minds, learn skills and find jobs, heal physically, and find a community (http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org).
  • Hero2Hired is an organization which helps Service members find employment upon their return to civilian life. It is a free tool which helps translate Military skills into civilian words, and offers career assessment surveys, tips and advice, and professional networking opportunities (https://h2h.jobs).
  • Joining Forces is a White House sponsored program designed to support Military Families by raising awareness, education communities and citizens, showcasing skills and experience of Veterans and spouses, and building connections between the American public and the Military community (http://www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces).
  • The Veterans Support Foundation is a nonprofit designed to improve the quality of life for deserving Veterans and their Families. They help fund nonprofits that support Veteran-related projects, assist disabled Veterans and their qualifying dependents, assist and provide transitional and permanent housing for homeless and at-risk Veterans, and enrich the lives of all Veterans and Families (http://www.vsf-usa.org).
  • Local Businesses: there are many local and national businesses which offer benefits and support. Discounts, job opportunities, and events are often provided for Service members, Military Families, and Veterans in local communities.End of text


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By understanding the Military’s structures and operations common themes and values can become apparent.

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

  • Recall appropriate terminology to communicate with Service members, their Families, and the Military community;
  • Recall the structure of military components within the Department of Defense (DoD);
  • Recognize and describe the phases of the deployment cycle; and,
  • Recall a variety of resources that are available to Service members, Veterans, and their Families.End of text

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