Several National Guardsmen serving in Congress blasted the White House for plans to end fellow troops’ coronavirus response deployments in mid-June, just one day ahead of the minimum needed to qualify for a host of active-duty benefits.
On Tuesday, Politico reported that federal officials in a recent interagency call said they still intend to end federal orders for state Guard deployments on June 24, one day short of the 90 days needed to qualify for certain military retirement and veteran GI Bill benefits.
More than 46,000 Guard members are currently serving under Title 32 orders, the largest domestic employment of the force since the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005.
Federal officials originally extended the Guard orders from May 31 to June 24, but did not give any public reason for the new end date. June 24 falls on a Wednesday, and would give most troops 89 days of active-duty service.
The June 24 deadline for the end of Guard orders would leave troops at 89 days of active-duty, just short of the 90 needed for benefits.
In a statement, National Guard Bureau spokesman Master Sgt. W. Michael Houk said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials will make 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.”
He also noted that officials are “currently working with DoD and FEMA to determine the best ways to care for our Guard men and women in this unprecedented response.”
The latest news drew immediate criticism from Democrats in Congress, who accused White House officials of trying to cut costs instead of recognizing the heroism of the Guard troops.
“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 Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., a captain in the New York National Guard who deployed with his unit for two weeks in April to help with local coronavirus support missions.
“In peace time we should never balance our budget on the backs of our soldiers, so why anyone would think this is okay to do in the middle of a wartime effort is beyond human comprehension.”
Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who deployed to Iraq with the Army National Guard in 2004, similarly criticized the decision.
“Rather than making a decision about when to end the activation of National Guard (troops) based on the public health needs of the American people, the Trump administration has chosen the despicable path of intentionally cutting these servicemembers orders at 89 days just to pinch a few pennies by depriving them of the benefits they’ve earned and are guaranteed to them by law,” she said in a statement.
But Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. and a lieutenant colonel in the Wisconsin Air National Guard who deployed to the southern U.S. border with his unit last year, dismissed the criticism on social media as “not a scandal” on Tuesday.
“Assuming they went to basic training and that was at least 1 day long, they get the GI Bill. 90 days total, not at once,” he wrote in a Twitter post. “If in their 6 year committment they do one more day of title 32 or 10, they get the three month reduced retirement.”
VA officials say they're working with colleges and Congress to watch for potential problems when veterans return to classes next year.
At least eight members of Congress currently serve in the National Guard. Several others — including prominent Senate members like Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. — previously served there.
On Tuesday, Duckworth and several Democratic Senate colleagues sent a letter to the White House asking for immediate resolution on the matter, to ensure that currently serving Guard members aren’t left confused and frustrated by the current order end date.
White House officials have not publicly commented on the Guard deployments controversy. State officials have petitioned federal leaders to continue the deployments, arguing the military personnel are needed for continued response to the fast-spreading virus.
More than 90,000 Americans have died from coronavirus-related complications in the last three months.
As of this weekend, more than 1,100 guardsmen had been diagnosed with coronavirus, many of whom were deployed for pandemic response missions.