When the National Guard initially mobilized thousands of troops across the country to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the bulk of them were on State Active Duty (SAD Orders) before slowly transitioning to federal Title 32 orders. SAD orders are an unacceptable way of deploying troops in virtually all capacities. Instead, federalizing the Guard should be the go-to way the military does business until SAD gets a dramatic overhaul.
The Trump administration totally bungled deploying the National Guard. Troops went weeks without proper pay and critical benefits, including Tricare health insurance, Basic Allowance for Housing, points toward retirement, and GI Bill benefits accrual while the federal government dragged its feet without an explanation.
The National Guard’s coronavirus mission is the most ambitious non-combat deployment in its history and it is the most unique part of my military career so far. Delivering food to the needy and facilitating coronavirus testing is different from what my infantry company is used to doing. I’ve been humbled by the eagerness of soldiers to serve the communities they live in, and the Guard’s ability to adapt to the unique mission. But these soldiers can only be properly compensated for serving their state through Title 32 orders. Anything less is an insult to their service.
President Donald Trump issued a memo saying the Guard’s coronavirus mission will be federally suspended on June 24, meaning units might have to go back to SAD orders. Some lawmakers blasted the administration of leaving some soldiers just a day short of earning their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
These concerns are exaggerated and impact a minority of troops — and there are other education benefits that are not reliant on 90 days of active-duty service. Most service members would come up weeks short, not one day, if June 24 was the end of the mission since most Title 32 orders were issued in early April. Politico reported the administration is weighing on extending federal Title 32 orders through July, which would allow soldiers to earn more education benefits and retirement points.
However, this underscores the troubling issue that guardsmen and women are constantly serving their country without earning federal benefits, despite performing the same jobs as their active-duty counterparts. It is a confusing, bureaucratic mess of different types of activations, meaning different things for pay and benefits few seem to understand or care about.
How troops are compensated when on SAD orders varies state-to-state. However, the bulk of them are shortchanged on pay and are denied the vast roster of the military’s most attractive benefits. Soldiers and airmen are generally paid regular active-duty checks, but without most of the goodies, and given housing stipends that can be less than half of the federal basic housing allowance counterpart.
For example, as an E5 with no dependents, in Maryland my state stipend was roughly $700 for the month, a far cry from a federal active-duty stipend which is roughly $2,100 per month. Keep in mind, I live in Washington, D.C., which is home to some of the most expensive zip codes in the U.S.
Enlisted military pay is laughably small, without the benefits and most of the BAH, it adds insult to injury. To make up for the small pay, some states like New York have to pay privates as E5s on SAD orders.
There are other federal bonuses states generally do not provide, like travel vouchers, leave, and family separation. In short: Many soldiers make more money in their civilian jobs and are taking a severe pay cut to come on state orders.
Despite over 700 National Guard troops killed in the post-9/11 wars, they are largely treated as second-class citizens in the military. Selfless service is great, but troops still have mortgages, children, and car payments. State orders simply do not cut it in most cases and amplify the active duty-National Guard pay gap. At no point should a service member be unable to serve because they cannot afford it. On top of that, guardsmen are not entitled to employment discrimination laws for their service while on state orders.
Because there are multiple pockets of orders and confusing benchmarks for different benefits, troops are constantly jerked around a labyrinth of bureaucracy so complicated even the Guard’s top brass can’t properly advocate for citizen-soldiers on Capitol Hill.
Last year, there was bedlam regarding whether or not guardsmen and women deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border were entitled to accrue GI Bill benefits. Maj. Gen. Dawne Deskins, the director of manpower and personnel at the National Guard Bureau, told lawmakers at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on benefits that she didn’t know the criteria for how benefits are decided for the Guard. After months of confusion, all troops at the border were awarded their benefits.
It isn’t all brass who are tone-deaf to the issues of troops on the ground. When the Maryland National Guard was on state orders, Maj. Gen. Timothy E. Gowen, the state’s adjutant general, sounded the alarm that his troops were getting hosed.
“Despite the ‘U.S. Army” and ‘U.S. Air Force’ emblazoned on the front of their uniforms, the federal government has thus far declined to authorize activation of Guard members under Title 32 of the United States Code, except in California, New York, and Washington,” Gowen wrote in an op-ed in March. The Maryland Guard was later placed on Title 32 in early April.
These concerns seem to get lost beyond the state level. Trump initially authorized California, New York and Washington to have its troops provide relief under Title 32, but left the rest of the Guard in limbo.
This caused mass confusion in the ranks. Why were some troops earning health care and benefits while some were being thrown under the bus? Who actually makes this decision? In the Maryland National Guard’s case, troops were continuously promised Title 32 activation ― only to have that football pulled away for weeks.
In the future, SAD Orders should be reserved for short term Guard deployments where troops are not in danger, such as snow emergencies which typically last under a week. But for riots, hurricanes, and pandemics, it is unacceptable to pay a soldier near-minimum wage and deny them the benefits which are the military’s key tool for retention. Congress should take the National Guard/active-duty pay gap more seriously, presidential administrations should not drag their feet federalizing the Guard, top brass should learn about the complexities of benefits, and key leaders on the state level should continue rattling the cage.
Steve Beynon is a sergeant in the Maryland Army National Guard and is an Afghanistan War veteran. He is also a D.C.-based reporter covering Capitol Hill and the Department of Veterans Affairs for Stars and Stripes. His views are strictly his own and do not represent the Army National Guard or Department of Defense. You can reach him on Twitter: @StevenBeynon
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