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WASHINGTON — Guardsmen responding to the Hurricane Katrina disaster will be eligible for Tricare benefits and be protected against losing their civilian jobs, after defense officials granted special status to the disaster.

On Wednesday, operations were given the special status under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, retroactive to Aug. 29. National Guard troops typically are funded through their individual states, but the Title 32 designation allows the federal government to pay for operations without taking over command responsibilities for the guardsmen.

Defense Department spokeswoman Lt. Col Ellen Krenke said that means those guardsmen will be given federal pay and benefits, similar to the situation of guardsmen serving on active duty in Iraq.

It also means those guardsmen and their families will receive health care coverage through the federal Tricare system, if they have orders for at least 30 days of active duty. Families with alternate health care can opt out of the program.

The designation makes the guardsmen protected members under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which prevents their civilian employers from firing or demoting them because of their absence due to military service, and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which provides caps on loan interest rates and protection from eviction proceedings.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who had requested the designation earlier in the week, praised the move as a critical step toward recovery for her state.

“It is a testament to the federal government and our mutual commitment to teamwork that the U.S. Defense Department has approved the duty status that meets the needs of both the state and the National Guard,” she said.

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