Under current federal orders, tens of thousands of National Guard troops battling the novel coronavirus pandemic would have their deployments end one day short of qualifying for retirement and education benefits.
The order from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, first reported Tuesday by Politico, calls for a "hard stop" to the deployments on June 24, one day shy of the 90 days needed for the benefits to accrue for most of the more than 40,000 called up during the pandemic.
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In a statement confirming the June 24 cutoff, a National Guard Bureau spokesman said it was FEMA's current decision.
"We are always supportive of policies that provide National Guard soldiers and airmen with benefits that match the service," he said.
However, "FEMA makes the final decisions regarding the length of time National Guard members are activated under federal orders, while the soldiers and airmen remain under the operational control of the governors," the spokesman said.
The decision ignores the sacrifices of the National Guard members who have been on the front lines of the nation's efforts to combat COVID-19, said Rep. Max Rose, D-New York, a decorated Army National Guard captain who was called up during the threat.
"Intentionally ending orders one day short of a deadline for National Guard soldiers to receive benefits for their heroic sacrifices is the definition of heartless," said Rose, a recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service in Afghanistan with the 1st Armored Division.
A senior FEMA official on a May 12 interagency call said a unified messaging strategy was needed to explain the cutoff of federal funding one day short of the troops qualifying for retirement and education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Politico reported.
In a statement, Rose said, "This decision must be reversed not only because it is deeply unpatriotic, but also economically unsound and puts our gains against COVID-19 at risk for some short-term, foolish budgetary gimmick."
The more than 40,000 troops called up for service in 44 states, three territories and the District of Columbia make up the largest deployment for an emergency since the 51,000 who served during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In a statement to Politico, retired Army Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association of the U.S. (NGAUS), said that leaving Guard members one day short of the threshold might be an oversight.
"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."
On March 22, President Donald Trump ordered Guard members in three states -- California, New York and Washington -- to operate under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, allowing them to be funded and paid by the federal government while being managed by state governors. The order has since been extended to other states.
"We want to win this war [against coronavirus] with as few deaths as possible," Trump said at the time. "Today, I am announcing action to help New York, California and Washington, to ensure that the National Guard can effectively respond. The National Guard, these are tremendous people. Fully on alert. It has been activated."
The Title 32 order has since been extended and was extended again May 12, with a cutoff date of June 24.
According to NGAUS, early retirement benefits under Title 32 status would provide Guard members with three months' credit for every 90 days served during a federal emergency. It added that GI Bill benefits can provide 40% off tuition at a public college or university after 90 days of federal service.
The vast majority of the estimated 46,000 Guard members serving nationwide during the pandemic are operating under Title 32 status, according to NGAUS.
They have delivered food and supplies, assisted health care workers, conducted tests, backed up local first responders, disinfected common areas and risked exposure to the virus.
As of Monday, a total of 1,162 Guard members had tested positive for COVID-19, up from 672 on April 20, according to the Defense Department.
In Pentagon briefings in March and April, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, noted that Guard call-ups stateside are usually of short duration, so qualifying for retirement and education benefit is not normally an issue.
"FEMA generally gives shorter-duration mission assignments," he said at an April 8 Pentagon briefing.
When asked why FEMA is not extending the mission to enable qualification for benefits, Lengyel said, "I don't really know the answer to that question."
He added, "We recommended a longer period of time at the beginning."
Last week, FEMA confirmed that the June 24 cutoff date is still in effect and gave no immediate indication that there would be a change.
The president has thus far approved 49 requests for federal support in the use of National Guard personnel under Title 32 duty status. The federal government "will fund 100% of the cost for T-32 National Guard orders through June 24," a FEMA spokesperson said in a statement.
As of May 18, the activations of National Guard troops in T-32 status numbered 39,891, the spokesperson said.
The potential denial of benefits to National Guard troops drew criticism from the nation's largest veterans service organization.
Leaving the troops one day short of qualifying for benefits is "highly unfair and disturbing," said American Legion National Commander James W. "Bill" Oxford.
"An 89-day deployment strongly suggests a decision based on accounting rather than what's needed to truly respond to this emergency," Oxford said in a statement. "The American Legion is calling for the president to fix this."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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