Reserve and Guard face federal backstab after serving nation’s COVID-19 crisis

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With Memorial Day and its commemoration of the 1 million U.S. service members who have perished for us just hours away, I am writing about some American military heroes who have been engaged in saving the lives of fellow countrymen right here at home.

Sadly, this story of honor has a dark side, how bureaucracies within the very government charged with their support may be acting in ways that betray that trust. 

More than 54,000 men and women in the Reserve and the National Guard, together called the Reserve Components, have been called to action in response to the pandemic. The National Guard has been activated to serve in all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia.  

Air Force Reservists have helped civilian medical staff in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Army Reservists, deployed virtually on a moment’s notice, left their families and jobs and are pitching in on the Northeastern Seaboard as well as in the Midwest. Reservists from the Navy and the Army served aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort, which deployed to New York.

COVID-19 is a proven killer, just as any armed enemy, and into this new harm’s way go these young citizen-warriors — with pride, and without hesitation.  

“This is what we trained for, so it feels awesome to be able to step in and help where we’re needed, especially here on our own soil,” said Army Reserve Capt. Elizabeth Benninger, an ICU nurse serving in the 352nd Combat Support Hospital in Dublin, Calif., who deployed to support Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.

Capt. Benninger’s fortitude is echoed in news clips and Department of Defense (DOD) “shout-outs” of young service members expressing their pride in serving our nation. Many have one or more deployments overseas; how poignant that they now risk their lives at home.

And if their battle cry is, “To the ramparts, for the nation,” the bureaucracy has its own mantra, and it goes like this: “Watch the pennies!”

ROA is fighting a federal government strategy to curtail deployment orders for Reserve Component servicemembers to 89 days — one day less than the 90 necessary to receive the Post 9/11 GI Bill and credit toward early retirement for time deployed.

In this battle we join several state governors, and some members of Congress, who have urgently asked President Trump to simply continue or extend orders. ROA has sent the president a letter asking that he do so. 

But it’s not so easy, at least not if your highest priority is watching pennies. These benefits are expensive. If you’re a green eyeshade bureaucrat, you’re perhaps more concerned at what really matters: budgets. And this pandemic has hit federal budgets hard.

So how does a fiscally-besieged government battle the red ink? Once again, apparently, a solution is found with the “part-time” soldier, sailor, Marine, airman, Guardsman. But that scheme will have its own costs.

“To terminate their orders one day before benefits kick in is like a kick in the stomach rather than ‘thanks for responding to this national emergency,’” said retired Navy Rear Adm. James Carey, founder of The Flag and General Officers’ Network (TFGON), whose membership numbers more than 1,500 active duty, Reserve, Guard and retired admirals and generals. “The impact on morale would be horribly negative. The signal it would send to all in the Guard and Reserve, when everyone is pulling together to fight this pandemic and the fed’s reaction is to send them home a day before benefits kick in, to save a buck.”

This is not the first battle we’ve had to fight for members of the Reserve and National Guard mobilized during government “stay-at-home” edicts and sent into harm’s way. When the National Guard was converted from state active duty orders to federal status, the orders were for 30 days, one day shy of the 31 days needed for the Transitional Assistance Management Program’s TRICARE health care coverage for up to 180 days (common theme: one day shy). 

After hearing from military groups, including ROA and the National Guard Association of the United States, the president issued an executive order extending the orders one day.

While these young citizen-warriors are fighting infectious and lethal viruses and diseases for us, we are fighting to ensure they are treated fairly and honorably. These heroes can vote with their feet if mistreatment goes too far. Under the best of circumstances, their service can mean lost promotions and friction in their jobs and families. The Reserve and Guard constitute nearly half the total U.S. military; readiness depends on their recruitment and retention of good people. 

Alarmingly, we see evidence here that the federal government knows very well what it’s doing.  

A May 19 Politico article describes an unnamed federal official, doubtless acting on guidance from “higher,” discussing on an interagency conference call the impact of the one-day deficit; the official tells colleagues, “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.”  

This does not sound like public servants about to proudly release good news of great stewardship.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey E. Phillips retired from the U.S. Army with 37 years of service and now directs ROA, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports the military’s Reserve and National Guard. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Tags COVID-19 pandemic Donald Trump G.I. Bill National Guard Reserve components USNS Comfort

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