National Guard COVID orders end one day short of earning retirement, education benefits

Abbie Bennett
May 21, 2020 - 2:34 pm
NationalGuard

U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Patrick Evenson

Current federal orders would stop coronavirus pandemic deployments just for thousands of National Guard troops, ending just one day shy of qualifying them for education and retirement benefits. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) order, first reported by Politico, ends deployments June 24, one day away from the 90 days required for most of the more than 40,000 troops to qualify for those benefits. National Guard members have been helping states test residents for COVID-19, distributing supplies, decontaminating nursing homes, building field hospitals, manning emergency operations centers and more. 

The "hard stop" order would mean Guard members would not qualify for early retirement or education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Most troops still have access to the Montgomery GI Bill, though lawmakers have considered phasing that benefit out in favor of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. 

Those thousands of troops have been activated and deployed across 54 states and territories on state active duty or federal Title 32 orders. But not all Guard members were activated at the same time, and some were activated on state orders first, meaning many began accruing time for benefits on different dates. Even those approved earlier in March may not have received the federal orders for a week or more after. 

Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association, said the 24-day extension of the orders to June 24 was unusual. He said it could be a coincidence the extension leaves troops one day short of the needed threshold.

“But in the back of my mind, I know better,” he said. “They’re screwing the National Guard members out of the status they should have.”

Senate Veterans Affairs ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., "demanded" the Trump administration reverse its hard-stop order in a letter to the president this week. 

“This latest decision to cut deployments one day short of eligibility for federal benefits is further proof that this administration does not properly value the service of our Guardsmen and women,” Tester wrote. “Serving 89 days instead of 90 days blocks these men and women from receiving additional benefits toward their pensions, home loans and education benefits. This does not even take into consideration all of the troops still on state active duty — often carrying out the same jobs as their peers on Title 32 orders, while responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a clear, and deliberate, pattern of requiring servicemembers to do more, while actively seeking to deny them the benefits and compensation they have earned.”

Tester said it took multiple pleas from Congress, governors and the National Guard Association of the United States to convince the administration to activate the Title 32 orders in the first place. 

“Unfortunately, it seems as if this administration is intent on nickel and diming these men and women at the expense of Americans suffering with COVID-19," he said. "At every turn the Department of Defense and the Federal Emergency Management Administration are asking more and more of these Guardsmen and women, but utilizing them in a way that cheapens their service and fails to appropriately reflect the burden they are asked to bear."

Senate Armed Services Committee member and Army Reserve veteran Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., introduced legislation this week to provide those troops full benefits. 

The National Guard COVID-19 Response Stability Act would extend the Title 32 orders "until the end of the public health emergency" rather than allowing the orders to expire and states to continue to request support. 

And since Guard members will have to self-quarantine for at least 14 days before they can go back to civilian life, states could lose their help early next month, instead of on June 24. 

"While the Trump administration issued an extension, it cynically chose a peculiar date that was later revealed to result in a hard deployment stop at 89 days for thousands of National Guard members — one day short of the 90-day threshold to receive additional federal benefits," Duckworth said in a statement. 

The National Guard Association also has advocated for transitional healthcare coverage for troops coming off pandemic missions. A bill sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, would provide healthcare for those troops for six months -- similar to what they receive for overseas missions. 

Guard members could still qualify for some benefits since their accrued time is cumulative. So some could hit that 90-day threshold for retirement benefits if they have another federal deployment within the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. But that's not guaranteed. The Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits can be accumulated without a time limit. 

Guard troops must serve for at least 20 years to qualify for a retirement pension when they turn 60. But for each 90 days they serve on federal orders, they can get early retirement credits -- moving their retirement up by three months. 

The Guard's response to the coronavirus pandemic is the largest for a domestic operation since Hurricane Katrina nearly 15 years ago when more than 51,000 deployed, according to the National Guard Association. 

“They’re working side-by-side with doctors, nurses and first responders,” Robinson said. “And we’re going to cut them off and send them home with no health care coverage while they transition back to their civilian life. Not to mention, some of their jobs may have evaporated since they were deployed.”

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

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