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Members of the New York National Guard fill test kit boxes.

Senior Master Sgt. William Gizara, The National Guard

The way retired Brigadier General J. Roy Robinson sees it, one of the primary draws for young people to join the National Guard is the opportunity to go to college using tuition benefits provided by the federal government. Many National Guard members see the benefits as recognition of and appreciation for their service during times of crisis.

But members currently on active duty assisting states in responding to the coronavirus pandemic may fall short of qualifying for federal tuition and retirement benefits because of a Trump administration decision to end some members' deployment just one day shy of the 90 days of federal service required.

The federal deployments are set to end June 24. If the Trump administration sticks to this cutoff date, it will have a negative impact on some Guard members’ ability to begin or complete their college education, said Robinson, who is president of the National Guard Association of the United States, or NGAUS, an advocacy organization that serves mostly officers in the National Guard.

“They did the job required by the nation; they hit benchmarks that entitled them to certain benefits,” Robinson said. “There’s just no good way to explain that. It’s just wrong.”

He noted that service in the National Guard also provides many underprivileged Americans with a “kick start in life,” allowing them to secure careers they could not have without a college degree.

More than 40,000 Guard members are currently deployed in 44 states and the District of Columbia through federal orders, called a Title 32 designation, which is typically used to respond to national emergencies. The designation means Guard members receive federal pay and benefits, including discounts on tuition and other costs associated with attending college, as soon as they reach 90 days of service. Many Guard members, particularly those in states such as California, Washington and New York, that began responding to the public health emergency in March will have reached just 89 days of service by June 24, said John Goheen, director of communications for NGAUS.

The benefits are provided through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, an education assistance program specifically for military members who served on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001. It provides Guard members who meet the 90-day criterion a 40 percent discount on tuition at public colleges and universities and a 40 percent housing subsidy toward their cost of living and other education-related expenses. All these costs are covered in full after three years of federal Guard service. If Guard members continue their service after the June 24 cutoff, they will not accumulate time toward these federal benefits, although they could receive benefits from their respective states.

Some individual states provide educational benefits to Guard members, but Goheen said the current GI Bill offers the “most generous” amount. Robinson said state-funded education benefits for Guard members vary and generally do not provide funding for housing. While wealthier states direct more funding to these benefits programs, states facing budget shortfalls or that have struggling economies often can’t afford to consistently fund their programs, he said.

“They’re great programs and do help to attract members to the National Guard, but they’re designed to be used in tandem with the federal GI Bill,” Robinson said.

Robinson and some members of Congress who have vocally opposed the June 24 cutoff believe it was an intentional move on the part of the Trump administration in an effort to reduce costs associated with the federal government’s response to the pandemic. Mobilizing 1,000 Guard members can cost up to $9 million a month, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported in an overview of the Guard’s response to COVID-19.

Representative Max Rose, a Democrat from New York and a captain in the National Guard who was deployed to help with the coronavirus response effort in his home state, criticized the administration for being “heartless.”

“In peace time we should never balance our budget on the backs of our soldiers, so why anyone would think this is okay to do in the middle of a wartime effort is beyond human comprehension,” Rose said in a statement. “This decision must be reversed not only because it is deeply unpatriotic, but also economically unsound and puts our gains against COVID-19 at risk for some short-term, foolish budgetary gimmick.”

A letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and signed by Rose and more than 70 other members of Congress on May 20 called the timing of the June 24 cutoff “curious” and asked for an extension. The letter also emphasized the continued need for Guard members to work at community coronavirus test sites, distribute food and medical supplies, and provide medical assistance. State reopening plans “require their continued contributions,” the letter said.

“We cannot give into the temptation to declare victory over this virus prematurely and walk away from our responsibility to our states,” the letter said. “Cutting off your Department’s support to our states on June 24 would undermine our whole-of-nation response and shift the full burden to states whose budgets are already under great strain.”

Retired Sergeant Major Frank Yoakum, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, or EANGUS, which represents a majority of enlisted Guard members, took a different view of the June 24 cutoff. Yoakum said he suspects no bad intentions on the part of the U.S. Department of Defense or Federal Emergency Management Agency, the agencies that coordinated the federal deployment of the Guard. He believes federal officials were simply unsure of how long states would need Guard members on duty given the uncertain nature of the virus.

“My own personal opinion is when this thing happened back in March, FEMA decided, ‘We don’t know how long this is going to last -- let’s just bite it off in small segments,’” said Yoakum, who previously worked for the National Guard Bureau. “I don’t think there’s any ill will, or it’s a planned denial of benefits situation. I don’t buy that philosophy.”

But ending the Title 32 designation does meet the political needs of the Trump administration and its goal of reopening the country, Yoakum said. If Guard members continue their federal duty, that sends the message that the states still need help fighting the pandemic, he said. Where the states are in their response efforts varies and so can the Guard response -- some states can retain members on federal active duty while others are taken off, Yoakum said.

“Maybe you keep Guardsmen on active-duty status where they’re being hit hard,” Yoakum said. “It could be tailored. The Guard can be used in any particular way. That’s the beauty of the National Guard -- it has both a state and a federal mission.”

He said there’s still hope the White House will extend the June 24 cutoff to the end of July, although the administration has not confirmed this. Politico reported on May 20 that the administration is “preparing” to extend the date.

“We will continue monitoring the impact of coronavirus in the states and will work to ensure they are equipped to respond,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Politico.

Robinson of the NGAUS said he’s hopeful the administration will decide to give Guard members responding to COVID-19 the education benefits they deserve.

“A lot of these young people are trying to put themselves in positions for a different kind of professional life,” he said. “This is a big part of the reason people serve. They want to be a part of something bigger and give back to their state and country and community.”

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