Members of the Ohio National Guard and 180th Fighter Wing command staffs salute as U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, leaves the 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton, Ohio, May 6, 2020.

Members of the Ohio National Guard and 180th Fighter Wing command staffs salute as U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, leaves the 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton, Ohio, May 6, 2020. (Kregg York/Air National Guard)

Stars and Stripes is making stories on the coronavirus pandemic available free of charge. See other free reports here. Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter here. Please support our journalism with a subscription.

President Donald Trump’s decision to extend the federal deployment of the National Guard to fight the coronavirus was the right thing to do, the general in charge of the National Guard said Thursday.

The missions are ongoing and the crisis created by the pandemic still exists, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said during an event with the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“They are on duty because of this national issue and they are exposed in a hazardous environment,” he said.

Though Trump has not officially signed an order to extend authorization through mid-August of a federal status known as Title 32, he posted on Twitter that he intends to do so this week. In mid-May, he set the initial end date as June 24 for the deployment of troops in relief efforts for the coronavirus pandemic.

About 46,000 National Guard members are activated across the United States in response to the pandemic that has resulted in the death of more than 100,000 Americans. The National Guard Bureau said Thursday about 40,400 Guard members deployed are working under Title 32, which keeps them under the control of the state’s governor but pays for them with federal funds. Missions under this status must be approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“There is widespread recognition that the requirement to keep the National Guard on duty to fight this virus exists well beyond the 24th of June,” Lengyel said. “It’s good for the states, for the governors and for the people in the states who need the National Guard to continue what they’re doing to fight the virus.”

The extension is also good for service members, Lengyel said, because the status provides federal benefits such as Tricare health insurance, death gratuity and a housing allowance. For troops serving in a federal status for at least 90 days in a fiscal year, service members are also eligible to receive their retirement compensation three months sooner and receive greater support through the post 9/11 GI Bill.

The previously planned June 24 end for the deployments would have left many troops with only 89 days of federal service against the coronavirus.

“It’s bad optics and business to cut people off on the 89th day,” Lengyel said.

Dozens of lawmakers agreed with that sentiment, and they called for the extension last week by sending letters to Trump and filing legislation that would do so.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., wrote four letters to Trump and filed a bill that would have authorized federal funds through the duration of the president’s public health emergency declaration. Trump finally got her message, she said in a statement following his tweet.

“The 40,000 National Guards troops responding to the [coronavirus] pandemic deserve full benefits for putting themselves at risk to protect the rest of us,” said Duckworth, a retired lieutenant colonel who deployed in 2004 as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot with the Illinois National Guard. “I’m glad that, after repeatedly trying to nickel and dime our troops, he finally abandoned his cynical ploy to cut off the Title 32 authorization at 89 days to deny members of the National Guard access to federal benefits that require 90 days of service.”

Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., who filed the House version of Duckworth’s bill, said she was pleased the president heeded the bipartisan call.

“President Trump’s decision to cut these deployments short was wrong, and I am glad to see that he has reversed course. The extension he announced today will provide certainty and support for communities across the nation through the summer,” she said.

Kuster also signed a letter with a bipartisan group of 125 senators and representatives that was sent Friday to Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor listing concerns for troops.

The lawmakers also asked Tricare health insurance for Guard members and their families be extended for 180 days after their deployments through the Transition Assistance Management Program.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, filed a bill to provide this benefit and Reps. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., and Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., filed companion legislation in the House.

Retired Brig. Gen. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association, an advocacy group for the service, praised the extension of federal orders and he said he hopes Congress will soon take up this insurance issue within the next couple months.

“They’ll have the same peace of mind in case there are any lingering effects from exposure to coronavirus,” he said. “I hope to get some traction there.” Twitter: @Rose_Lori

author picture
Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now