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Heartless treatment of the National Guard

A member of the National Guard is in

A member of the National Guard is in position to direct traffic as drive through coronavirus testing was set to began shortly after noon on March 18, 2020, in a parking lot on the main campus of Stony Brook University. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

When the deadly seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent, the nation and its states turned to the National Guard, as they so often have in times of need. Those Guard members, once activated, dropped their civilian lives and answered the call.

Now the federal government is preparing to leave them in a carefully calculated and calibrated lurch, looking to save a few bucks at the cost of honor and fairness.

About 40,000 National Guard members are currently doing full-time duty in coronavirus response, helping test patients, disinfect facilities and construct tent hospitals, trace contacts of people who’ve tested positive and performing other crucial tasks. In New York about 3,000 Guard members have distributed 11 million meals, assembled 1 million coronavirus test kits and operated 15 drive-thru test sites. They are serving under a federal law, Title 32, that puts them under the local command of their states while they are part of a federal deployment. Their pay comes from D.C. and they are essentially eligible for the benefits enjoyed by active duty military members while the order lasts.

If the order lasts 90 days, the time they serve would both count as service time for their pensions, for which they normally qualify after 20 years, and reduce that 20-year requirement by one day for each day they serve. Serving under such orders for 90 days also entitles the Guard members to 40 percent reductions in public university tuition, an enormous benefit for soldiers who often seek upward social mobility and financial security.

So what kind of a nation would callously end these troops’ federal service order after 89 days, while the states still badly require both their help and Washington’s commitment to pay? 

The United States of America, 2020 edition. 

On a call on May 12, a senior FEMA official outlined the White House’s plan to end the federalization of the Guard members’ deployments on June 24, 89 days in and one day shy of qualifying for early retirement and the Post-9/11 GI bill. If the Title 32 order expires and the states still need the staffing, they’d have to shoulder the burden, which totals about $360 million a month. If the states can’t afford the cost, lifesaving work might go undone.

But those are just the logistical issues.

The National Guard is the backbone of the nation’s military readiness and its ability to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies. It has its roots in the state militias that secured this nation’s independence from the British, and its members have, over the past two decades, repeatedly answered the nation’s call to face deadly action overseas and undertake lifesaving missions after Hurricane Katrina and superstorm Sandy. 

Mistreating the National Guard is a foolish move that could undermine enlistments and harm national preparedness. It’s also reprehensible. The nation should extend the current federal order for as long as the states need the troops.

“Thank you for your service” deserves more than just lip service.

— The editorial board