Early career National Guard troops who supported COVID-19 response this year may soon be eligible for Veterans Affairs home loan benefits, thanks to a provision in this year’s Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act.
President Donald Trump signed the legislation on Jan. 5, narrowly avoiding an accidental “pocket veto.” Had he not signed it today, the measure would not have become law unless the new Congress passed similar legislation.
When the legislation becomes law, Guard troops who have served at least 90 days of qualifying Title 32 active duty service, including a stint of at least 30 days, will be newly eligible for the loan. The expanded eligibility is applied retroactively, too.
Tens of thousands of Guard members logged qualifying service in 2020 as part of the nationwide COVID-19 response. At the mission’s peak on May 12, 47,100 Guard troops were on Title 32 orders for pandemic response, according to National Guard Bureau data shared with Military Times.
National Guard troops could only become eligible for the VA loan benefit in one of two ways, according to the VA website: 90 days of federal active-duty service or six years of retirement-creditable service in the Guard or another reserve component of the military. Only Title 10 orders –– which come in the event of a federal mobilization for deployment –– counted towards the 90 day threshold, though.
Now that has changed.
The bill is “Congress’ recognition that the benefits gap [between full-time National Guard duty and active duty] is no longer appropriate,” said John Goheen, communications director for the National Guard Association of the United States, in a phone interview with Military Times. He argued that the benefits need “to be more reflective of what the nation is asking of its guardsmen and reservists.”
NGAUS previously made the home loan eligibility expansion a legislative priority for the group, which advocates on behalf of Guard troops on Capitol Hill. A bipartisan group of legislators had introduced a bill seeking to expand eligibility earlier this year.
“VA is ready to ensure that members of the National Guard who qualify with expanded eligibility requirements will have access to their home loan benefits,” said Susan Carter, director of the VA’s office of media relations.
“Practically speaking, the change means that thousands more National Guard personnel will qualify for the VA home loan,” said Dr. Dwight Stirling, CEO of the Center for Law and Military Policy and a former California National Guard judge advocate general. “Full-time National Guard service is fundamentally no different from federal service.
While the VA did not have an estimate of how many Guard troops would become newly eligible for the benefit, the Congressional Budget Office projected that “roughly 2,000 more [Guard troops] would obtain loan guarantees over the next 10 years.”
Does my Title 32 service make me eligible for the VA loan?
According to the legislation, qualifying Title 32 service must have been active-duty periods completed under sections 316, 502, 503, 504, or 505 of the federal law. At least one of the periods of service must have been for more than 30 days, as well.
Most of this year’s National Guard COVID-19 response has been under Title 32 502(f) orders, with tens of thousands of troops surpassing the 90-day threshold necessary to qualify under the new legislation, and thousands more logging at least 31 days.
Time spent on orders for initial military training does not count even under the new law, but other schools do count, so long as the orders were issued under the applicable sections of Title 32.
The eligibility expansion also means that periods of annual training orders –– most of which are under section 503 of Title 32 –– can count towards the VA loan, as long as the service member has completed at least one order of more than 30 days.
For example, under the new law, a Guard member who has completed an 89-day Title 32 order for coronavirus response — as some did, due to a political kerfuffle over extending Title 32 authorizations in summer 2020 — is eligible for the VA home loan benefit if they have completed even one day of annual training in their career.
“Those shorter training periods would count towards the 90-day threshold,” said Samantha Gonzales, director of strategic communications for the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in an email to Military Times.
VA officials told Military Times that they would allow troops to document their shorter periods of service –– for which they frequently do not receive discharge papers — using documents such as retirement point statements and copies of “applicable military orders.”
“VA will evaluate all available information related to eligibility,” said Carter, director of VA’s Office of Media Relations, in an email to Military Times shortly before Trump signed the bill. “If HR7105 is signed, VA is prepared to quickly provide guidance to staff to make [eligibility] determinations for members of the National Guard”
“Members of the National Guard can visit https://www.va.gov/housing-assistance/home-loans/eligibility/ for information on eligibility,” she added. “The site will be updated after the bill is enacted.”
Disclosure: The author of this article, Davis Winkie, is a member of NGAUS.