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Congress Still Trying To Figure Out How To Pay National Guard

Soldiers of the California Army National Guard’s 115th Regional Support Group...

Credit: Defense of Department

Above: Soldiers of the California Army National Guard’s 115th Regional Support Group work with civilian volunteers in Sacramento, March 22, 2020.

— For the past month, Spc. Richardo Benitez has been staying in a hotel outside Los Angeles, while his National Guard unit works at a food back in L.A.

“So basically I wake up at five,” he said. “I prep for myself at the hotel. It includes some hot coffee and some oatmeal and we just drive out over here. We meet up at 7:30 a.m.”

Then pack meals, which are sent to drop off sites around LA County, then head back to his hotel. Benitez does not even get to see the people he is helping. Instead, during downtime in his hotel, he follows some of the local nonprofits on social media.

“I do see how the cars line up, break of dawn basically, to get some meals in their trunks,” he said. “So that gives me a little bit of, piece of mind, where my work is going to.”

Reported by Steve Walsh

The response to the coronavirus is among the largest domestic call up of the National Guard. Roughly 41,000 troops were mobilized in March. In L.A. County, the guard was dispatched to nursing homes when the staff became ill with the virus. In several states, guard troops are administering tests. They are deployed in nearly every state and US territory.

This has become the latest episode in a long debate over how to pay troops when they respond.

“With everyone on lockdown people are afraid to go do that work but the National Guard is there to step in,” said Frank Yoakum, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, a trade organization for people enlisted in the National Guard.

“We will do whatever mission you want to give us,” he said.

The debate over how to compensate the guard has been fueled by several recent missions. Advocates in and out of Congress cried foul when the Trump administration called up the guard for 89 days for the COVID response — one day short of the 90 days needed to qualify for early retirement and GI Bill benefits.

Originally, during the pandemic, the guard was called up for 30 days — one day short of when they would qualify for a larger housing allowance, as well as medical benefits for their families under the military’s Tricare.

The federal government should give the guard the same benefits as active-duty troops within a few days of when they are called up, and then everybody would get the same benefits, Yoakum said.

The immediate problem was corrected by the president’s recent decision to extend the pandemic deployment into August. US Rep. Mike Levin, D-California, has held hearings on the pay inequity issues between guard and active-duty troops.

“I’m very happy that the administration corrected what I thought was just a terrible decision that seemed designed to deny benefits from service members,” Levin said.

When a similar discrepancy came up for National Guard members deployed at the border, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued a letter that allowed those troops to earn equal time toward GI Bill benefits.

Guard service has changed, Levin said.

“Now, day in and day out, they’re doing the same things,” Levin said. “They are taking similar risks. As a result, I have believed and will continue to believe that they ought to be getting the same pay and the same benefits as well.

Congress is looking at whether guard troops should receive hazard pay for their work in the pandemic. A long term fix to the pay and benefit issues has been elusive, even though more guard troops than ever are being called up domestically.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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