Unexpected Orders Aim to Get Full Benefits for Some Mobilized Guard Members

Members of the Maryland National Guard set up a tent outside at Adventist Health Care White Oak Medical Center.
Members of the Maryland Army National Guard set up a medium tent outside the emergency room at Adventist HealthCare White Oak Medical Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, on March 19, 2020. (U.S. Army National Guard/Sgt. Elise Moore)

Some members of the Maryland National Guard were surprised Friday to learn that, instead of receiving orders under U.S. Code Title 32 that would entitle them to more pay and a bigger housing allowance, they were being put on five-day orders with lesser pay and allowances.

But, officials say, it's a move expected to make them eligible for the full military pay and benefits rarely afforded to Guard members.

A letter signed by Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead and reviewed by Military.com says Guard officials expect the White House to authorize an expanded FEMA Mission Assignment timeline -- increased to 45 days from 30. Crucially, Guard troops must be mobilized for 31 days or longer to receive the higher Basic Allowance for Housing rates and health benefits through Tricare.

As recently reported by Military Times, the 30-day order limit means troops far from military medical facilities might have to pay out-of-pocket for their own medical care while mobilized.

Related: Trump Orders VA to Stop Withholding Money from Veterans

"Our five-day order provides the ability to pay us at the mid-month federal pay cycle and make Line of Duty medical claims," Birckhead wrote in her letter. "In the next five days, if we receive an increased [mission assignment] for 45 days, we will start an additional order with full entitlements."

Currently, there are more than 1,500 Maryland National Guard members mobilized to support novel coronavirus pandemic response efforts, and more than 700 more on eight-hour alert, said Maj. Kurt M. Rauschenberg, spokesman for the Guard, adding that these troops are supporting the state departments of health, transportation and general services, among other functions. Across the nation, more than 18,000 Guard members have been mobilized.

"Our members are on the frontlines for COVID-19," Rauschenberg told Military.com. "They're out there helping in every possible way they can. It's paramount that they receive the benefits and entitlements that are deserved."

On March 30, President Donald Trump authorized Title 32 support for state governors' use of the National Guard, allowing mobilized troops to receive federal pay rather than state allowances. This offered relief to state budgets and standardized pay, but didn't give troops the 31 days necessary to start full benefits, BAH and entitlements -- a typical scenario for mobilized Guard members.

And the difference in BAH can be dramatic. A sergeant with no dependents in the Maryland Guard on state orders receives just $749 in monthly housing allowance, while, depending on location, one on Title 32 orders for more than 30 days can receive $2,163, according to information reviewed by Military.com. The state allowance is a flat rate, while military BAH varies by zip code, rank and number of dependents.

Frank Yoakum, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, told Military.com he understood there were plans underway to lift the current 30-day mission assignment limitation by next week, and replace it with a 45-day limit, as Birckhead's letter indicated. The five-day orders, he said, would allow personnel officials to then cut 40-day orders when the authorization came through, ensuring troops get the benefits they need.

"It's kind of smart on the part of Maryland to say, 'We'll just keep you on state active duty until we get the length of time we need,'" he said. "They're saying, what's best for the individual here ... I think it's smart to do it once and do it the right way."

The response among mobilized Guard members was mixed, however.

One noncommissioned officer who spoke to Military.com on condition of anonymity expressed frustration at the mixed communication from the Guard and the delay in getting placed on Title 32 orders.

"We have an important mission and are eager to serve. However, state orders simply don't cut it for a lot of soldiers. The pay is shockingly low, and soldiers don't accrue critical benefits like the GI Bill, retirement and the clear ability to use VA and file for disability if injured," the soldier said. " ... This hurts the soldier's ability to pay rent, and take care of their children. Now, we have some vague promise at the last second of 31-day orders. We should've been on 32 from the beginning."

Another mobilized member of the Maryland Guard expressed appreciation of efforts to ensure full benefits for those in need of the resources.

"Many National Guard members are without work because of this crisis; those who are still employed will rapidly exhaust their military leave and be forced into a leave without pay status, many earning less on T-32 than in their civilian roles," the Guard member said. "Taking care of the Service Members working alongside medical personnel and emergency responders means authorizing full benefits. We must ensure these Service Members can make ends meet at home while they protect Americans at home."

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify BAH calculations.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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