It was over my first Philly cheesesteak sandwich – in Philadelphia – that I learned Maj. Bonnie Carroll was not a veteran despite her extraordinary service to our country.

Since September 11, 2001, more than 900,000 members of our reserve components – the National Guard and Reserves of our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard – have served in support of the war on terrorism.  More than 1,200 have died in that fight. 

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“War is a national challenge, and, for our part, we cannot execute without the Guard and the Reserve,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. You can’t talk to a general or admiral for more than five minutes without hearing a variation on that theme. 

Reservists today serve virtually everywhere, alongside their “active component” comrades.  In battle, the performance of these trained and courageous citizen-warriors of all ranks, specialties, and any other category has been recognized as indistinguishable from the “regulars.”  They ask to serve; they deserve equity for that service. 

Inequity is written into law; most of the legislation governing the military was written before and during the Cold War.  The reserves in those days were a strategic reserve and not used much – that’s where the “one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer” model evolved. 

Desert Shield, Desert Storm and the present war changed all that.  The reserves are now considered “operational.” They are used continually, like the active force.  In the late 1980s, usage of the reserves was 1 million man-days per year; it is now about 25 million man-days.  But the law hasn’t kept up as important benefits are limited only to those who serve in “active military, naval, or air service.” 

By “important benefits,” we aren’t necessarily talking about an extra $27.50 a month for your bum knee from that five-mile run in combat boots back in 1982.  We are talking about who you are in the eyes of federal law when it comes to being considered for hiring preferences accorded to veterans. 

We are talking about helping young, dynamic new professionals – who understand service and dedication to higher cause – renew our graying and often hidebound federal bureaucracy.

Bonnie stunned me when she told me she wasn’t a veteran.

“But, of course you are, you’ve served in the Air Force,” I countered, momentarily forgetting my cheesesteak sandwich.

No, she told me, she had never amassed enough days on “active duty” to qualify to be a veteran under titles 5 and 38 for federal hiring preference.  To be a veteran for hiring preferences, she needed 180 or more consecutive days on active duty – and that did not include active duty while she was training. In those days, getting nearly six consecutive months on active duty was tough; it still is: the armed services purposely limit orders to 179 or fewer days.  They aren’t stingy or mean-spirited: anyone on active duty 180 or more days is reflected on active duty manning documents and counts against the service’s personnel ceiling.  They shortchange reservists because they are forced to.

If that doesn’t first shock you and then anger you . . .

The Reserve Officers Association has worked with Congress to craft a simple solution.  It’s easy: in the law, change the word “consecutive” to “cumulative.” 

Both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the top leaders of our reserve forces informally indicated to us the cost is not prohibitive and they would not object to such a change. 

Changing one word would provide significant equity to members of our Guard and Reserve who affirm the wisdom of our founders in their willingness to serve boldly, selflessly, and with great fidelity in the defense of our way of life. They balance military service – a consuming and uncompromising business – with the demands of a civilian work life and the care of their families. 

Not unlike her citizen-warrior comrades, Bonnie is a remarkable woman.  Self-effacing and focused on service to others, she asks nothing for herself.  ROA is urging this reform for today’s reservists now being shortchanged, and for the benefit of a nation that needs them serving the public as civil servants. 

In 1994 Bonnie founded Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors after her husband, an Army officer, was killed in a military plane crash. TAPS supports those who have lost a loved one in military service, but provides expertise to all who need that kind of help.  They are known for their unparalleled expertise in the care and recovery of survivors.

For her work with surviving families, President Obama awarded Bonnie the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November.

Maj. Bonnie Carroll ultimately retired after 32 years in both the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve. 

But according to federal law, she’s not a veteran.

It’s time that changed.

Phillips is executive director of the Reserve Officers Association.