Pentagon leaves open possibility that some guardsmen could fall short of accruing benefits in virus response
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: May 25, 2020
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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is open to having some National Guard members stay on federal orders beyond a June 24 date set by the Trump administration, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday, but he did not rule out that some involved in the coronavirus response could fall short of accruing some military benefits.
The issue arose after the administration decided to end federal deployment orders for National Guard members on June 24. The decision would leave some who were placed under federal orders in late March just short of reaching a 90-day threshold that would allow them to collect retirement benefits early, before turning 60. The date also would cut short access to some GI Bill benefits, though that could be earned later.
Esper, in an appearance on the "Today" show, declined to comment on whether he thinks the date was set by design and said he is "fully committed to supporting our National Guard members and our active-duty members as well."
Esper said that he is open to extending federal status for guard members "if they're working a valid mission assignment" but that he was "not worried about the number of days" they did so.
"What I'm worried about ... is making sure that we win the fight against the coronavirus and we fully support the young men and women who are serving on the streets of America in the National Guard," Esper said.
The issue has grown contentious because under federal law, guard members who are activated for 90 days within a fiscal year are allowed to begin collecting retirement pay early on a sliding scale. The policy states that guard members begin collecting retirement pay at age 60 as a baseline, with benefits available early for each year they are activated 90 days or more on federal status.
Several Democratic lawmakers and the National Guard Association of the United States, which lobbies for guard members, have blasted the administration for adopting the June 24 date after it was reported in a Politico story this week.
"At some point in time, you'd think we'd get beyond this silliness," said retired Brig. Gen. Roy Robinson, the president of the association. "It's just crappy. You don't treat people that way."
The National Guard Bureau, in a statement, said it is working with the Defense Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to "determine the best ways to care for our Guard men and women in this unprecedented response."
The National Guard has nearly 46,000 members involved in the coronavirus response, "and they will continue to do so as long as they are needed," the statement said.
The group coming up on the 90-day threshold now is smaller. They are arriving on it after President Donald Trump followed through on requests from several governors and national security experts and placed several thousand members on "Title 32" status.
Doing so allowed them to remain under control by governors, but paid by the federal government with health insurance and able to accrue points toward retirement and GI Bill benefits.
At the time, about 8,000 guard members had been activated. But as the virus spread across the country, the number of them rose, with deployments to do everything from perform coronavirus testing to assist in nursing homes where there had been outbreaks.
A senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the Defense Department has long set deployment lengths with statutory benefit thresholds in mind. Air Force deployments, for instance, are often 179 days, with a benefit that offers reservists income replacement kicking in when they reach 180.
The official said that "no door is being closed on benefits" and that guard members still have the potential to earn additional days before the end of the fiscal year if they are activated again for the coronavirus response, hurricane relief or other missions in a federal status.
The number of people who are closing in on 90 days is difficult to determine, the senior official said. Periods on active duty among the guard members range widely, with some serving closer to 30 or 45 days. With potential new missions, others could serve far more than 90.
"Members are not put on orders to reach a certain number of duty days," the senior official said. "Members are not put on orders to obtain benefits. Members are put on orders to accomplish a well-defined and validated mission requirement."
Robinson said that it is true that some of the same guard members could be called on for other missions this year but that federal ones that count toward the benefits are rare.
"They are taking advantage of them," he said. "Somebody should be held accountable."