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Some Guard troops deployed to US-Mexico border aren’t earning federal benefits

A soldier from the Texas National Guard scans the shores of the Rio Grande River in Starr County, Texas, April 10, 2018 as part of the federal call-up to the Texas-Mexico border.

TEXAS MILITARY DEPARTMENT

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES  Published: October 25, 2019

WASHINGTON — Some National Guard troops deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border are not being compensated with GI Bill benefits, despite conducting homeland security missions directed by President Donald Trump, according to advocates and lawmakers.  

“Thousands of National Guard service members are fulfilling their duty and responding to a national emergency declared by President [Donald] Trump,” said Daniel Elkins, a Green Beret with 19th Special Forces Group and legislative director for the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, an advocacy group for service members.

Whether Guard members deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border are being properly compensated surfaced this week during a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing Wednesday.

Maj. Gen. Dawne Deskins, director of manpower and personnel at the National Guard Bureau, told lawmakers at the hearing that the Defense Department is reviewing the criteria for benefits for Guard troops operating at the southern border. 

Prior to the hearing, Reps. David Roe, R-Tenn., and Gus Bilirankis, R-Fla., sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressing their confusion over whether soldiers deployed to the southern border are entitled to benefits, when other similar domestic missions awarded federal perks to National Guard members. 

“We are writing today to express our concern that certain members of the National Guard deployed to the southern border in support of Operation Guardian Support are not receiving active-duty service credit towards Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility,” the lawmakers wrote to Esper. 

They also noted soldiers deployed in Noble Eagle -- a security operation protecting potential targets after the 9/11 attacks -- were under the same type of state orders as troops serving at the border.

“There is no question that the men and women answering the president’s call to stand in defense of our southern border should be given the full benefits that their service entitles them to,” Roe said Friday in an issued statement. 

After Trump’s national emergency declaration in February, troops at the border should have been able to start collecting federal benefits. A 2011 statement to troops from the National Guard said service members responding to a national emergency are entitled to GI Bill benefits. 

“Prior to the president's declaration of national emergency, service members were not entitled to earn Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits,” said Brandon Jones, a spokesman for the Texas National Guard. “With that declaration, National Guard personnel should be authorized to earn GI Bill benefits. We are pending guidance.”

To qualify for post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, troops have to complete at least 90 days of active duty. Typical National Guard service doesn’t fall into the active-duty bracket, with most Guard troops banking on their deployments overseas to cover a lot of the costs of living while going to school. 

Esper approved up to 5,500 service members to continue operations along the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2020. More than 2,000 of the troops at the border are National Guard members, with most of them being Texas National Guard, according to military records.

“These men and women serving on the border are responding to a federal call to action made specifically by the commander in chief, and still, the vast majority of these service members are unable to earn the same federal benefits as their active-duty counterparts even though they are performing similar duties in similar locations,” Elkins said. 

Advocates argue the spirit of how military pay and benefits are issued should automatically entitle Guard troops to federal benefits and the bureaucracy makes it challenging for soldiers and Congress to get a straight answer on how soldiers are being compensated.  

“Our brave National Guard women and men deserve clarification now,” said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, another advocacy group. 

The labyrinth of different duty statuses can get confusing, and it can be easy for lawmakers, advocates and the military to lose track of which soldiers are deployed on what orders and the benefits they are entitled to receive.

“Congress’ intent is clear, these soldiers are entitled to these benefits. There are way too many order statuses, it gets confusing,” said John Goheen, communications director for the National Guard Association of the United States.

Goheen said it’s difficult for troops to track whether they are accruing GI Bill benefits. In some cases, a soldier won’t know what they’re entitled to until after they’ve applied. 

“It’s difficult for the Guard, they’re counting days for benefits. The troops down there might also be getting different answers,” he said. “There are families involved.”

beynon.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @StevenBeynon

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