A push to extend the orders of more than 39,000 National Guard members long enough to secure their federal retirement and education benefits now has growing bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of Pentagon leadership.
The current orders set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency end June 24 -- one day shy of the 90 days needed to qualify for these benefits. In an appearance on NBC-TV's "Today" show May 22, Defense Secretary Mark Esper gave his qualified support to extending those orders.
"If they have a valid mission assignment that's verified by FEMA, my view is we should extend those tours of duty," Esper said. "I'm not worried about the number of days. What I'm worried about is making sure we win the fight against coronavirus."
In a May 22 letter to Esper, President Donald Trump and FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor, 129 members of Congress, including 29 Republicans, urged an extension and warned that the mission of the Guard in battling COVID-19 won't be done by the current cutoff date.
"We believe that the service of National Guard members during this unprecedented emergency is deserving of the recognition intended by educational and retirement benefit programs in the spirit in which they were created," the letter said.
Retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association of the U.S., also pointed to the need to continue the mission.
"Guard soldiers and airmen on the front lines of this fight want to complete their missions, but this can only happen with the support of the federal government," Robinson said in a statement.
Bills to extend the service of Guard members were also introduced in the Senate and House last week by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, an Army veteran who lost her legs serving in Iraq, and Rep. Annie Kuster, D-New Hampshire.
"The Trump administration's repeated attempts to nickel and dime members of the National Guard would be wrong under any circumstance, but it is particularly offensive when these troops are responding to a deadly COVID-19 pandemic," Duckworth said in a statement.
Kuster called cutting off orders just shy of the 90-day threshold for federal benefits "misguided and downright unpatriotic."
In his Memorial Day address Monday at historic Fort McHenry in Maryland, Trump noted the sacrifices of the Guard, active duty and reserve troops in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
"Once more, the men and women of the United States military have answered the call and raced into danger," Trump said.
"Tens of thousands of service members and National Guardsmen are on the front lines of our war against this terrible virus, caring for patients, delivering critical supplies and working night and day to safeguard our citizens," he added.
However, a FEMA spokesperson said in a May 20 statement that the June 24 cutoff date still stands, leaving more than 39,000 Guard members activated under Title 32 of the U.S. Code without federal benefits.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.