WASHINGTON – National Guard troops based in Western New York and elsewhere around the country rushed to the nation's aid when the Covid-19 pandemic struck – but now the federal government wants to cut short their deployments one day before many of them qualify for valuable federal benefits.
And members of Congress, along with those who look out for the Guard, are not happy about it.
Guard personnel "have stepped up to aid in the federal response, and the federal government should respond by providing these fine National Guard members with the support and opportunity they are owed in return,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat.
John Goheen, director of communications for the National Guard Association of the United States, agreed.
"There's no group of military more eager to contribute, yet treated this poorly, as the National Guard," Goheen said. "It happens too often and it appears to be happening again."
At issue is a Trump administration decision revealed by the Politico news website earlier this week. Politico obtained a recording of a May 12 call among administration officials where a senior Federal Emergency Management Agency official said Guard troops' Covid-19 deployments will face a "hard stop" on June 24.
That's one day before those deployments would reach the 90-day threshold at which they would earn duty credit that can be used for early retirement and education benefits under the revised GI Bill that Congress passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“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 on the recording Politico obtained.
The Niagara Falls-based 107th Air National Guard Fatality Search and Recovery Team, which had been dispatched to New York City to recover dead bodies from hospitals, nursing facilities and private homes, returned home about a month ago and demobilized, said Col. Richard Goldenberg, public affairs officer for the New York Army National Guard.
But 325 Guard personnel based in Buffalo remain on active duty across the state.
"A portion of Western New York personnel have been repositioned to other parts of the state based on mission needs for logistics, transportation or other support as needed," said Goldenberg, who declined to comment on the abrupt end to deployments that the Trump administration had scheduled.
Goldenberg indicated, though, that deployments could be extended despite the current June 24 deadline.
"As the pandemic response continues to develop, we will reassess the need for New York State military forces for missions across the state beyond that date," Goldenberg said. "Leaders and staffs continue to refine enduring mission needs and troops to those tasks."
In Washington, the planned June 24 deployment cutoff left lawmakers asking questions. Higgins joined colleagues in a letter to Trump about it, as well as a separate letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
"To battle this unprecedented crisis, we asked our neighbors in uniform to serve our nation in its time of need, and we hope the Department has not — and will not — nickel-and-dime its soldiers and airmen," said the letter to Esper, which Higgins and 77 other House members signed.
Goheen, of the National Guard Association, offered two reasons why he believes the deployments should not end on June 24.
First, the pandemic isn't over, and Guard personnel could be useful to first responders addressing the Covid-19 outbreak, he said.
Also, consider the range of duties Guard personnel have been performing, he said. They've been responding to outbreaks in nursing homes, distributing personal protective equipment, staffing food banks and delivering food – as well as performing fly-bys in order to boost morale in communities stricken by the pandemic.
"This is America's National Guard, risking their health – and risking their family's health, in some cases – to serve their communities," Goheen said. "So people are noticing that. They appreciate them. And we're gonna deny them these benefits? That's what we're really gonna do?"