Times like these test the mettle of nations and reveal truths about character.
It was troubling to learn this week about plans for a “hard stop” on June 24 to the federal deployment of National Guard troops to states and U.S. territories. The deployment was authorized in March by a presidential disaster declaration issued in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
National Guard members were dispatched to the front lines across the country to help enact testing programs, deep-clean public facilities, and carry out contact tracing activities necessary to help states reopen safely. The deployment authorized by the federal disaster declaration was set to expire May 31 before a 24-day extension was granted in response to bipartisan pleas from governors, legislative and congressional leaders.
The National Guard Association reported nearly 46,000 National Guard troops were serving this week in all 50 states, three U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. Most were serving pursuant to federal authorization, which shifts the costs of deployment — as much as $9 million a month for every 1,000 troops — from states to the federal government.
National Guard members deployed pursuant to a federally declared disaster also qualify for retirement and education benefits authorized by the Post-9/11 GI Bill if they accumulate 90 days of service during any fiscal year. Those guardsmen and women placed in harm’s way by the federal government in aid to the states would be deprived of those benefits after serving 89 days — one day short of eligibility — if the June 24 termination date stands.
Reporters at Politico learned the 24-day extension and apparent attempt to exclude guardsmen and women from benefit eligibility was by design. A recording obtained by Politico of an interagency call exposes a Trump administration official admitting as much, saying “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.”
Retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association, told Politico he was telling those who had questions about the 89-day deployment that it was “probably just a coincidence.” But he harbored doubts, saying he knew better, and National Guard members were being cheated of their eligibility for earlier retirement and a 40% reduction in tuition costs at public colleges and universities.
The White House initially declined to comment on Politico’s reporting, but its stonewall of resistance may be crumbling. Politico reported a day after its first article was published that it appeared plans were being prepared “to extend the federal deployment of more than 40,000 National Guard members performing coronavirus relief work across the country” through July.
Depriving Guard members who faced the hardships of deployment during this pandemic by cutting short federal authorization would be disservice to them and this country. Extending authorization qualifies members for benefit eligibility and helps states as they strive to “flatten the curve” — both are laudable goals that should have been pursued without applying public pressure.
D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix.