CORVALLIS, Ore. — When Marine Corps reservist Daniel Ha was offered the chance to take part in a humanitarian mission to Honduras, he was excited for the opportunity.
The 24-year-old Corvallis resident had been drilling with his unit — the Springfield-based Engineer Services Company, Marine Combat Logistics Battalion 23 — one weekend a month and two weeks a year, but this would be his first full-fledged deployment.
"That's what I signed up for," he said.
Along with nearly 200 other Marine reservists, including 36 from Oregon, Ha was put on active duty in March. After three months of training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the group shipped out to the Gracias a Dios province of Honduras, where they spent the next six months as part of a Marine task force. While there, they built a schoolhouse, renovated a hospital and completed a number of other aid projects in rural areas of the Central American country.
But when he and his fellow reservists got back to the States just before Thanksgiving, they found an unpleasant surprise waiting for them: Unlike the regular Marines who took part in the Honduran deployment, the reservists would not be receiving any credit toward their G.I. Bill and other benefits for their months of active duty.
"If you're going to deploy, it's assumed that you're going to receive those benefits," said Ha, who holds the rank of lance corporal and is pursuing a degree in education. "It's atypical that you wouldn't."
A growing number of military reservists, however, are learning that benefits they thought they could count on may not be there for them after all.
Under a little-known legal authority called 12304b, the Pentagon can now call up reservists and National Guard members for active duty without any obligation to provide traditional benefits such as Post-9/11 G.I. Bill education assistance, early retirement and health insurance — all key incentives in recruiting the "citizen soldiers" who provide a crucial backup for America's regular armed forces.
For Ha and his fellow reservists, that news came as a bitter blow after returning from a long deployment in a foreign land.
"It's really upsetting," Ha said. "We put a lot of things on hold."
Every branch of the U.S. armed forces has a reserve arm. Along with the National Guard, the Reserves are intended to provide a backup force of trained personnel who can be called up to support the full-time military in times of war or national emergency.
In addition to putting in at least 39 days a year of mandatory training time, members of the Guard and Reserves must be prepared to go out on longer deployments if necessary. This can mean spending months at a time away from family, friends, jobs, school and other aspects of their lives.
Guardsmen and reservists are paid while on active duty, but the money is often far less than they earn in their civilian jobs.
To aid in recruiting, the government offers many of the same benefits to the reserve components that are available to members of the full-time military. One of the most attractive of those is the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, a generous package of education assistance that can cover the full cost of tuition at state schools while providing hundreds of dollars a month for housing expenses.
It takes a certain amount of active duty time to qualify for the G.I. Bill, which is one of the reasons reservists look for deployment opportunities. The Marine reservists who signed up to go to Honduras this year say they expected to rack up a significant amount of benefits during the deployment.
"That was my understanding," said Cpl. William Iversen, a 22-year-old from Eugene who's studying economics at the University of Oregon, "that by the end I should rate 50 percent of my G.I. Bill."
In his case, Iversen said, that would have amounted to $5,678 a year in tuition and fees, plus $765 a month in housing allowance and $500 a year for books.
As it turned out, he got nothing.
When he and his fellow reservists returned to Camp Lejeune last month, word started going around that they would not be getting their active duty benefits. A few days after Thanksgiving, the rumors were confirmed by their sergeant major in a stand-up briefing outside the barracks.
He told them they had been deployed under Section 12304b, a relatively new addition to the federal law that governs military reserve call-ups. Unlike other legal authorities used in most previous deployments, he explained, 12304b does not come with most of the usual benefits, including the G.I. Bill.
"It was kind of a kick in the gut, because none of us knew about that," Iversen said. "It's pretty obscure, and I don't think it's been used that much."
A new authority
There are a number of legal authorities, defined under Title 10 of the U.S. Code, that can be used to call reserve components into active duty.
Section 12301a, known as full mobilization, is the most extreme example. It requires a declaration of war or national emergency by Congress and activates all reserve components for as long as needed.
Near the other end of the spectrum is Section 12301d, which allows individual reservists to volunteer for active duty.
Somewhere in between is Section 12304. Known as a presidential reserve call-up, it allows the president to activate up to 230,000 reservists without a congressional emergency declaration.
Section 12304b was created in late 2011, when it was tucked into the Defense Department's $662 billion budget authorization bill for fiscal 2012. It would be another two years before the new section would make its debut in practice, but since 2014 it's been used with increasing frequency.
According to information gathered by journalist Alex Horton, who has reported on the new authority for the national military publication Stars and Stripes, 12304b has now been invoked more than 4,700 times by all branches of the military to call members of the Guard and Reserves into active duty. (Although some reservists may have been deployed more than once, Horton estimates the number of individuals deployed under 12304b is likely close to that 4,700 total.)
As the law is written, up to 60,000 members of the nation's military reserve components can be activated under 12304b at any one time.
The Marine Corps' position is that Section 12304b was the only appropriate authority for the Honduran call-up.
"Use of 12304b is authorized under U.S. Code, Title 10, 'when the secretary of a military department determines that it is necessary to augment the active forces for a preplanned mission in support of a combatant command,'" Maj. Clark Carpenter of the Office of U.S. Marine Corps Communication wrote in an email to the Gazette-Times.
"The deployment of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Southern Command-16 was such a mission. Because of this, the decision was made to leverage the reserve component to support Marine Corps Forces South. U.S. Code, Title 10, dictates the use of 12304b in these situations."
Mistakes were made
That doesn't make a lot of sense to the Marine reservists interviewed for this story, who note that more traditional sections of Title 10 have been used for similar deployments in that past. What's more, they point out, 12304b is an involuntary activation authority, and they all volunteered for the assignment.
To a man, they all say they're glad they signed up for the deployment — but they might have thought twice if they'd known they wouldn't qualify for the G.I. Bill.
"Everything we were told (before the deployment), every single briefing, was that we'd get those benefits," said Cpl. Paul Elias, a 23-year-old Corvallis resident who's been taking community college classes in preparation for transferring to Oregon State University.
"I still probably would have deployed either way, but it would have been nice if they'd told us."
In fact, the official guidance from the Marine Corps had always been that active duty under 12304b did count as creditable time served toward educational assistance.
Now, the Corps admits, it made a mistake.
"Marine reservists were informed about benefits prior to deployment based on a Marine Administrative Message published in 2014," Gen. Douglas Meyer, head of the Military Policy Branch, Manpower Policy Division, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, told the Gazette-Times in an email.
"Unfortunately, this message incorrectly stated that reservists involuntarily activated under authorization 12304b were eligible to receive Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits. A correction has been issued and published in a subsequent message."
The correction was issued on Dec. 2 of this year, after the Marines returned from Honduras.
Cause for concern
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Defense Department relied heavily on the Guard and Reserves to supplement the full-time armed forces for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As those conflicts cooled down, troop levels have been reduced and defense budgets have been trimmed.
At the same time, however, the need to respond rapidly to hotspots in the global war on terrorism has remained strong.
That's left the Pentagon scrambling to find creative ways to deploy reserve components while saving money on benefits, says Susan Lukas, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who now works as director of legislation and military policy for the Reserve Officers Association, which advocates for military reservists and their families.
"We're in new territory now," Lukas said. "We're looking at involuntary deployments to be able to fight terrorists."
Lukas argues that reservists and guardsmen subject to involuntary deployment should receive the same benefits as regular troops based on the amount of time they spend on active duty: Post-9/11 G.I. Bill education assistance, reduced age for retirement, vocational rehabilitation services, pre- and post-mobilization health care and access to VA loans, plus federally subsidized differential pay to make up for their lower salaries while away from their civilian jobs.
While section 12304b might keep deployment costs down in the short term, Lukas says, the strategy could backfire over time by making it tougher to recruit and retain people to serve in the Guard and Reserves.
"We know that this is an authority that is going to be used more and more," she said. "We want to make sure that it is not used so much that it pushes people away from service."
Reservists pay the price
The lack of benefits under 12304b deployments is certainly having a demoralizing effect on the Oregon Marine reservists.
"It's a pretty big setback because I was planning to use the money to attend school," said Cpl. Oscar Lemus, 22, a Salem resident studying psychology and sociology at Portland State University.
"That would be really helpful."
Lemus said he doesn't feel let down by the Marine Corps, but he does feel like the country has failed him and his fellow reservists.
"It's like they've broken a promise," he said.
They're not taking it lying down.
After coming home from their deployment, a number of the reservists contacted their senators and representatives asking for help in securing their benefits. They've launched an online petition seeking support for their cause. And some of them have contacted the media.
"We're trying to spread the word about what's happening," Lemus said.
The issue was already beginning to gain a modest amount of traction in Congress even before the Marine reservists got back from Honduras.
Earlier this year, two bills were introduced in the Senate that would restore the lost benefits — the National Guard 12304b Benefits Parity Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, and the Veterans First Act, sponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia.
So far, however, neither measure has made it to a floor vote.
Lukas said her organization, the Reserve Officers Association, will push Congress to reform 12304b, but it's not clear at this point whether funding will be available to cover benefit costs.
"The Pentagon put it through without any benefits because they needed it right away and didn't have money to pay for that," she said. "They want to add benefits to it, Congress wants to add benefits to it, but they have to find the money to do it."