Congressman Brian Higgins, D-NY-26, is part of bipartisan group of U.S. House of Representatives members and Senators fighting to see that National Guard members “receive the benefits they deserve.”
Higgins said, “Our office has been in touch with members of the New York National Guard assigned out of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station currently serving in and around New York City, home to the most severe COVID-19 outbreak in the nation. Their duties are heroic, humbling and heartbreaking. This is a mission that will change their lives forever. They 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.”
National Guard members are currently assigned to duty under temporary "Title 32, Section 502(f)" (T32) status to help with COVID-19 response. Under T32 the federal government funds the full-time activation of those members, working under the governor’s direction.
According to published reports, the Trump administration could terminate the order to fund troops when the current order expires on June 24, leaving National Guard members serving on the frontlines of the pandemic response ineligible for federal benefits – as well as leaving states continuing to deal with the pandemic without federal National Guard support.
New York’s Title 32 authorization began March 28. New York Guardsmen deployed for coronavirus response full time since this date are qualified for 88 days of service, just two days short of the 90-day threshold to make them eligible for veteran health care and education benefits under the post-9/11 GI Bill.
In a letter to the president, secretary of defense and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) the Congress members wrote:
Our national success in flattening the curve will not be possible without the contributions of the National Guard. We believe it is critical to ensure that all National Guard personnel are taken care of during this crisis and after, recognizing that the threat of COVID-19 will not immediately go away and the National Guard is likely to be called on again in the future. Therefore, we urge you to consider our recommendations for addressing the following concerns immediately.
•Federal Status: We ask that you consider keeping all National Guard servicemembers supporting the COVID-19 mission on 502(f)(2) status rather than transitioning to State Active Duty (SAD) orders regardless of future FEMA reimbursement. This will ensure robust healthcare commensurate with the work they are performing is available. This will also ensure they are able to continue support to the nation’s effort without uncertainty of status. If orders are to be extended on a month-to-month basis, we ask that all orders are 31 days or longer in duration and that the announcement of extensions be made early in the month in order to allow for preparation by each state’s leadership teams.
•Leave: We ask that you consider ensuring that National Guard members not be required to take leave during their Department of Defense-required quarantine. Additionally, we ask that you provide options for Guard members to either sell back unused leave without penalty or roll over accrued leave to another activated status, if needed due to external constraints on taking their leave in conjunction with current orders. Finally, we ask you to consider allowing leave accrued to roll over to another activated time and ensure there is necessary federal funding to support.
•Healthcare: We ask that you ensure the National Guard members activated in support of COVID-19 are provided Transition Assistance Management Program (TAMP) benefits for 180 days after coming off orders, similar to their Reserve counterparts.
•GI Bill and Retirement Benefits: 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. We encourage you to be inclusive of pandemic response affiliated military service to ensure that National Guard personnel are not being inappropriately prevented from accessing the benefits earned by their service.
Higgins also joined a letter led by Reps. Cheri Bustos and Max Rose, a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, expressing concern about the policy and calling on the administration to consult with governors to assess the needs of states before ending National Guard deployment. They said, “This deadline would leave many guardsmen just shy of the 90 days of service required to qualify for certain benefits, like the Post-9/11 GI Bill. While we hope this is a coincidence, not policy, we request an explanation of the choice of expiration date. 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.”
In addition, Higgins pushed for and won inclusion of mental health benefits for National Guard members in the Heroes Act approved by the House of Representatives on May 15.