“Every day, Donald Trump reaches for a new low, and unlike everything else, he’s succeeded there,” said American Bridge spokesperson Kyle Morse. “It’s absolutely disgusting the president cheated the women and men of the National Guard out of critical, hard-earned benefits – with one day to go before their eligibility. Trump went all out to bail out his big Wall Street donors, but outright betrayed the courageous servicemembers on the frontline of the fight against the virus. Voters won’t forget it.”
By Alice Miranda Ollstein
More than 40,000 National Guard members currently helping states test residents for the coronavirus and trace the spread of infections will face a “hard stop” on their deployments on June 24 — just one day shy of many members becoming eligible for key federal benefits, according to a senior FEMA official.
The official outlined the Trump administration’s plans on an interagency call on May 12, an audio version of which was obtained by POLITICO. The official also acknowledged during the call that the June 24 deadline means that thousands of members who first deployed in late March will find themselves with only 89 days of duty credit, one short of the 90-day threshold for qualifying for early retirement and education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI bill.
The looming loss of crucial frontline workers, along with questions about whether the administration is shortchanging first responders, would require a delicate messaging strategy, the official — representing FEMA’s New England region — told dozens of colleagues on the interagency call.
“We would greatly benefit from unified messaging regarding the conclusion of their services prior to hitting the 90-day mark and the retirement benefit implications associated with it,” the official said.
Top National Guard and other federal officials on the call did not dispute the June 24 cutoff or raise the possibility of an extension. In a statement, FEMA acknowledged that President Donald Trump’s current order for the federal government to fund the troops expires on June 24. But a National Guard spokesperson said a decision to extend the deployments could still be made in the coming weeks.
“We’re not there yet on the determination,” the spokesperson, Wayne Hall, said. “Nobody can say where we’ll need to be more than a month down the road.”
Governors and lawmakers in both parties have been pleading with the White House to extend the federal order for several more months or until the end of the year, warning in a letter to Trump that terminating federal deployments early in the summer just as states are reopening “could contribute to a possible second wave of infection.”
More than 40,000 Guard members are currently serving under federal orders known as Title 32, which grants them federal pay and benefits but puts them under local command, in 44 states, three territories and the District of Columbia — the largest domestic deployment since Hurricane Katrina.
Tens of thousands of them have been working full-time since early March on a wide range of sensitive and dangerous tasks, such as decontaminating nursing homes and setting up field hospitals, along with performing tests for the virus. They’ve provided a crucial backup for understaffed and underfunded state public health agencies trying to contain the pandemic.
The cost of the deployment is as much as $9 million per month for every 1,000 troops, according to the National Council of State Legislatures — an expense that states would have to shoulder should Title 32 expire. In addition, state deployments do not count toward federal education and retirement benefits.
The 45,000-member National Guard Association and some state officials told POLITICO that they suspect the Trump administration timed its orders to limit the deployment to 89 days — one short of the number that would qualify the earliest participants for certain education and retirement benefits.
Guard members must serve for 20 years to qualify for a pension at age 60. But for every 90 days serving during a federal emergency, Guard members can move up that retirement by three months. Ninety days of service also qualifies members for 40 percent off the tuition at a public college or university.
Because the National Guard members have to self-quarantine for two weeks before returning to civilian life to ensure they don’t spread the virus after serving on the front lines, states could lose their services in early June.
Trump’s original order calling up Guard members to help with the coronavirus crisis had been scheduled to expire on May 31. With the deadline approaching, Colorado’s entire congressional delegation — Republicans and Democrats alike — wrote to the president asking for an extension until the end of the year. Senators from New Hampshire, Connecticut, West Virginia and Illinois sought an extension through the fall. And several officials, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, have written letters asking for an extension until at least June 30.
Instead, the White House issued an unusual 24-day extension that terminates the deployment mid-week.
“It seemed kind of weird to me,” said retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association, the advocacy group for Guard members. “It’s a Wednesday. And it also coincides with 89 days of deployment for any soldiers who went on federal status at the beginning. I was getting all kind of calls about it and I said, ‘It’s probably just a coincidence.’ But in the back of my mind, I know better. They’re screwing the National Guard members out of the status they should have.”
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The National Guard’s Hall countered that the 90-day threshold is cumulative, meaning members can qualify for early retirement benefits on their next federal deployment if it falls within the same fiscal year, which ends on September 30. For the GI Bill education benefits, members can accumulate days across federal deployments without a time limit.
“If someone’s new in the Guard, they won’t be able to make that 90 days in one shot,” Hall acknowledged. “But if two months from now they’re called up for a hurricane or flood, they can make it then. The goal here is not to hurt Guardsmen.”
Nonetheless, federal deployments are relatively rare, and the practical impact of a June 24 cutoff would be to prevent many Guard members from claiming potentially valuable benefits, the National Guard Association said.
Meanwhile, as the national death count climbs toward 100,000, many states are depending on Guard members to help enact testing programs, deep-clean public facilities and perform the kind of contact tracing of people exposed to the virus that’s necessary to help states reopen — and say those needs will not go away anytime soon.
In Washington state, for example, Guard members comprise about a third of the state’s contact-tracing force, working to identify coronavirus outbreaks and locate people who have been exposed. More than 500 Guard members are currently performing such duties. According to the governor’s office, hundreds more are running community operations that have tested more than 1,600 people, assembled more than 28,000 testing kits and delivered nearly 14 million pounds of food to food banks and struggling families.
Casey Katims, the federal liaison for Gov. Jay Inslee, said that while the state will do what it can to keep Guard members on duty if the federal deployment ends in June, “that footprint will necessarily be smaller without federal support.”
“All of the missions are going to continue for months to come,” he said. “The need for testing, the need for meals, the need for contact tracing don’t disappear on June 25. So if the administration allows [Trump’s order] to expire, that will mean fewer personnel to assist Washington in each of these critical missions.”
In North Dakota, a state with one of the highest per capita testing rates and the lowest rate of fatalities, more than 100 National Guard members have been running mobile testing sites since April, testing between 350 and 750 residents each day in places like the Fargodome parking lot, Grand Forks’ Alerus Center and Standing Rock High School.
“Local public health is somewhat understaffed, so we bring the bodies,” Major Waylon Tomac explained in a recent promotional video for the National Guard.
Another 30 or so members have been deep-cleaning long-term care facilities that have recently seen outbreaks — spraying disinfectant and wiping down every surface. Still more have been working the night shift at the state’s labs, assembling coronavirus test kits.
Col. Tad Schauer, the director of military response for the North Dakota National Guard, told POLITICO that while his team is currently planning to wrap up its operations by June 24, it stands ready to keep working if the Trump administration extends the deployment or Gov. Doug Burgum asks it to transition to “State Active Duty.”
“The people of North Dakota have been exceptional in fighting Covid-19 and we’re here to support the state and its citizens regardless of our federal or state status,” he said.
The May 12 conference call was one of a series of interagency meetings the Trump administration has convened daily during the pandemic. On those video conference calls, senior officials from HHS, FEMA and other government agencies update participants on the progress made on various fronts — including ongoing efforts to ramp up testing, acquire and distribute protective equipment and monitor hot spots around the country.
During that meeting, the official who raised the June 24 deadline was identified as “Russ” from FEMA’s Region 1, which includes Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Captain Russell “Russ” Webster, the regional administrator whom the White House also tapped in March to be New England’s coordinating officer for federal recovery operations, did not confirm or deny that he was the one speaking on the call when contacted by POLITICO.
While some Guard members could continue the same work under State Active Duty after the June deadline, the National Guard Association has warned that without federal orders and funding, most states won’t be able to “support significant Guard deployments.”
In addition to being unable to accrue time toward federal retirement and tuition benefits, Guard members under State Active Duty are ineligible for the military’s health insurance for active duty members — an issue Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) are seeking to address in a new bill.
The health coverage question is especially pressing during a pandemic. The National Guard confirmed to POLITICO that as of Monday, 1,158 members have been diagnosed with Covid-19, including 617 active cases.
The National Guard notes that members whose federal active status expires can enroll in a different health insurance program, TRICARE Reserve Select. But that program charges members and their families significant premiums, deductibles and co-pays that regular TRICARE does not, and it doesn’t cover any dental care or pharmaceuticals.
Robinson, while pushing for the passage of the Ernst-Manchin bill, said he’s disappointed in the Trump administration’s treatment of Guard members risking their health during a pandemic.
“They’re working side-by-side with doctors, nurses and first responders,” he said. “And we’re going to cut them off and send them home with no health care coverage while they transition back to their civilian life. Not to mention, some of their jobs may have evaporated since they were deployed.”