Friday afternoon, Maryland National Guard officials told Military Times they would not be authorizing increased housing allowance payments for troops responding to the coronavirus crisis. Hours later, however, they said the increase would merely be delayed.
The difference, they say, has to do with the swiftly evolving nature of how the Guard was authorized to receive federal funds to respond to the pandemic.
“The primary cause in the delay [is] tied to both funding and authority,” Army Brig. Gen. Adam R. Flasch, Maryland National Guard director of joint staff, said in an email to Military Times Friday night.
When President Donald Trump signed a memorandum Tuesday essentially giving full health care and housing allowance benefits to National Guard troops on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, it seemed a major inequity was addressed.
But implementing that order has proven a bureaucratic nightmare.
It all has to do with how the changes were rolled out. Trump initially authorized National Guard troops in three states to receive Title 32 status, which provides federal funding to National Guard units operating under state control. Trump sweetened the deal by having the federal government pick up the full tab instead of the usual 75 percent.
About 11,000 of the nearly 28,000 National Guard troops currently deployed in the COVID-19 fight are under Title 32 orders, which are now in effect in 21 states, two territories and Washington D.C., said Air Force Gen. John Lengyel, Chief of the National Guard Bureau.
The move to Title 32 status was lauded by National Guard leadership and others because in addition to the federal funds, it gives National Guard troops healthcare, housing allowance benefits, and leave equal to active duty troops.
But it turned out there was a catch. Those benefits kick in only after 31 days and the Title 32 status was initially granted for only 30.
Trump’s Tuesday memo seemed to address the benefits discrepancy by authorizing National Guard units to be activated under Title 32 for increments of up to 31 days — instead of the previous 30.
Despite that, Guard officials in Maryland who are now under Title 32 orders say troops will see a delay in when their basic allowance for housing will kick in because Maryland was not covered in the addition of the 31-day authorization in Trump’s Tuesday memorandum.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time FEMA has established a reimbursable processes on this scale with the National Guard,” said Flasch.
“This has led to leaders working extremely hard from several federal agencies to establish legal procedures to flow hundreds of millions of dollars to states’ national guard, such as Maryland. As the President signed different authorities for this emergency, Maryland was not covered in the addition of the 31-day authorization. This was brought to the attention of our Maryland National Guard commanders, resulting in the issue being quickly addressed by the Department of Defense.”
The issue has caused consternation in the ranks. Several Maryland National Guard members who contacted Military Times said they were informed the housing allowance was not coming. They expressed concern they wouldn’t be able to pay their bills should housing allowance not be increased while serving on active duty away from potentially better-paying civilian jobs. Some also said much-needed protective gear was in short supply.
At least two MDNG members filed complaints with members of Congress.
Flasch told Military Times those benefits issues will soon be resolved.
"While the process worked our Soldiers and Airmen remained covered only under the 30-day funding authorization,” said Flasch. “As of today, we have been granted the authority and will soon have the funding to provide a 31-day order under Title 32 USC 502(f), ultimately providing our Soldiers and Airmen the full benefits and entitlements they deserve.”
Other states who issued Title 32 orders before the Trump extension are likely facing similar benefits issues, said Michael Waltz, a U.S. representative from Florida who is also a National Guard colonel who drills with the MDNG.
These issues stem from the fact that states like Maryland issued Title 32 orders before Trump extended them to 31 days, leaving those states trying to catch up to the changes.
“For states that already transition from state active duty to Title 32, these are huge issues,” Waltz said, speaking as a member of congress, not a representative of the Guard.
Before Trump issued his memorandum extending Title 32 to 31 days, Maryland Guard officials had been anticipating a 45-day extension, so they put their troops on short-term Title 32 orders, hoping they would be extended.
That left the MDNG with a tough decision, said Flasch.
“We were initially faced with the decision to either continue our members on State Active Duty or put them on Title 32 orders,” said Flasch.
“If we kept them on State Active Duty orders, they would’ve been ineligible for military healthcare. The Maryland National Guard requested approval for up to 45 days of duty. So, we made the decision to publish an initial five-day set of orders to allow the process to work, while fully expecting and planning to publish a subsequent set of orders for an additional 40 days. This would’ve authorized full pay and benefits for our troops. To ensure we could pay our members in a legal and timely manner, the initial five-day order was processed expeditiously.”
The MDNG decision on basic allowance for housing that was reached Friday morning had changed by Friday evening, showing the complex and confusing nature of the rollout of National Guard troops to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and treat those afflicted.
It is unclear how other states are faring. Officials from FEMA, which issues the Title 32 mission orders, did not respond to a request for comment. The National Guard Bureau did not provide any answers to questions posed by Military Times.
John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, a non-profit advocacy group, said he was not surprised to hear about confusion in Maryland because of the complex nature of the rollout.
However, Waltz, the Florida Republican, tells Military Times it is likely that issues with the Title 32 rollout extend beyond Maryland.
A former Green Beret who earned four Bronze Stars, including two with V devices for valor, Waltz said it is a bureaucratic problem in dealing with personnel and budgets created by the unusual nature of the initial Title 32 rollout.
Typically, he said, such orders are given after a hurricane or some other localized natural disaster with limited response time.
Waltz, who fought for the increased benefits, said the problem is for states like Maryland, which had already converted soldiers and airmen from state active duty to Title 32 before Trump issued his memorandum Tuesday night.
“I am not making excuses, but it is incredibly difficult bureaucratically to stop orders and restart them,” he said. “It could end up with a lot of disruptions in pay. This is now an issue at the state level whether to stop orders midstream and try to reissue them and whether those interruptions, are prudent.”
Waltz said he fought for the Title 32 extension because “National Guard men and women are sharing the same risks on the front lines” of the fight against coronavirus and “should have absolute parity with reservists and active duty troops who receive full Tricare and housing allowance.”
DISCONTENT IN THE RANKS
Concern over a BAH boost has upset a number of MDNG troops who have reached out to Military Times via email.
“Without the full BAH we are all making at least $1,000 less a month,” said one MDNG soldier, who, like all others reaching out to Military Times, requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media. “At this rate I’m worried about being able to pay rent. I’m making almost half of what I do at my civilian job.”
“We have soldiers delinquent on bills, rent, mortgages, etc. because they refuse to pay us,” said an MDNG battalion staff officer. “We have soldiers ill and with medical issues that have gotten turned away from both civilian and military medical treatment facilities.”
The battalion staff officer dismissed the MDNG leadership’s BAH explanation, saying they "attempted to give a politically correct answer to make it seem as if it is not possible, but they are counting on people not knowing or understanding U.S. Code Title 32.“
Still, benefits weren’t the only concern of MDNG troops. The battalion staff officer said personal protective equipment was in short supply.
“We are short on N95 masks (like everyone so I do not really count it), but we received 10 masks for over 90 people who are closely working with testing sites,” the battalion staff officer said.
“We have yet to be provided vests that are not expired which is a threat to life and safety. Our medic has received a decent amount of medical supplies but they are hoarding fluids (IV Kits), tourniquets and other life saving equipment in the event of an accident. They are increasing our risk of contracting the virus by violating quarantine rules and letting soldiers inter-mingle (not my unit, but multiple other units).”
Maj. Kurt Rauschenberg, the MDNG spokesman responded to that complaint, saying, “our Maryland National Guard members are no less vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure than anyone else. COVID-19 targets everyone and continues to significantly impact our society. However, our leaders continue to aggressively equip our personnel with optimum personal protective equipment, as each day they are serving on the front lines of this pandemic.”
Before the MDNG was even activated, he said, “Maryland National Guard members at all levels of our force were well-informed and educated on the need to maintain social distancing and follow all guidelines the CDC has issued to protect themselves.
“The well-being of our Maryland National Guard Soldiers and Airmen continues to a top priority, second only protecting the health of the public.”
If you or someone you know is serving with the National Guard in the COVID-19 response and are interested in sharing your experience, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.