Lack of benefits for Guard, Reserves could become national security risk, leaders and advocates say

Abbie Bennett
October 23, 2019 - 11:27 am

© TNS

Members of the National Guard serving Operation Guardian Support at the U.S. southern border are not earning eligibility for benefits such as the GI Bill, unlike the active-duty service members they’re serving alongside, who also are paid more.

The Defense Department is looking into the issue, Guard leadership said, but this isn’t a new problem, and it could hurt readiness, recruitment and retention, leaders and advocates said. 

Daniel Elkins, who was a Special Forces sergeant in the Guard, said when he was completing the Special Forces qualification course, his service also did not qualify to accrue GI Bill eligibility, thought “I was in the same class, wearing the same uniform, doing the same training as active duty … The issue of benefit parity is prolific. This needs to change in order to continue recruitment and retention and prevent a national security issue.” 

Elkins, legislative director for the Enlisted Association fo the National Guard, along with Guard and Reserve leaders and other advocates, sat before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday telling stories of the service members they represent who are struggling to balance increasing operational and training demands with a lack of benefits, including health care and mental health services. 

Non-active service members are now training and serving “at a pace rivaling active-duty components,” Elkins said. “The vast majority are unable to earn the same benefits as their active-duty counterparts, even though they’re performing similar duties in similar locations. 

“They are serving their country but loopholes and equity issues are keeping our country from serving them … This is drastically impacting the force.” 

To begin to qualify for post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, service members have to serve at least 90 total days of active duty post-Sept. 11, 2001. To qualify for the full GI Bill, service members need to be active a total of at least three years. 

Non-active service members are “treated as an afterthought, despite their success in our wars,” said Susan Lukas, director of legislation and military policy for the Reserve Officer Association. 

“We continue to demand more training time of our citizen soldiers,” said J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association. “The era of one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer is over.” 

Not only do Guard and Reservists struggle with a lack of benefits, they now face fewer employers willing to hire them, advocates said.

“As we continue to rely on their operational support, support from employers is eroding as they are wary of (increasing absences),” Lukas said. “Civilian employment problems erode retention and readiness.”

Financial problems such as lack of benefits or employment issues are also known contributors to suicide among veterans and service members.

“As our (Guard and Reserve) suicide rate has continued and not abated, employment and financial stressors contribute to that suicide (rate),” Lukas said.

Congressional staff recently visited Texas National Guard members, who said they served an average of 70 days per year in uniform in Fiscal Year 2019. The Texas Guard said its No. 1 concern was “benefits disparity and why they didn’t receive the same pay as the active service members they served next to,” Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., said. 

About a third of the Guard is serving more than 50 days in uniform per year and some units are serving much more, especially during unplanned domestic or emergency responses, said Maj. Gen. Dawne Deskins, director of manpower and personnel at the National Guard Bureau, adding that Defense officials have started a review, but none of the leaders at Wednesday's hearing could say when that review would be complete or if any subsequent decisions would affect past, current or future troops.

Reservists serve a minimum of 60 days in uniform, Maj. Gen. Michael O’Guinn, deputy chief of the Army Reserves, said, adding, “most units are doing well above that.” 

The disparity in benefits and pay between Guard and Reserves service members and active-duty troops is “clearly not fair” as non-active components continue to serve under “higher and higher readiness standards … spend more time away from home and work” and complete training and operations that increasingly “carry the potential for injury or death,” Levin said. 

“Our services are stretched thinner,” he said. “We must ask ourselves if we have fundamentally changed our unspoken agreement with service members, their families and employers. Are they being fairly compensated, or are they losing money when they go to drill? Will their families tolerate absences … will employers continue to hire them if they are gone much more than expected?” 

For Elkins, who represents some of the service members most impacted -- the enlisted Guard members -- the problem is clear. 

“All have served,” he said. “They’ve been denied these benefits from the start. Every one of them wore the uniform with pride. Every day in uniform counts.” 

Want to get more connected to the stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

Do Guard and Reservists face barriers to benefits? This congressman wants to find out.