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Trump extends National Guard deployments after outcry over benefits

Members of the Illinois National Guard perform vehicle checks on their convoy before sunrise March 26, 2020, in the parking lot of Rivers Casino to begin the day's work. The Guard is running a coronavirus testing facility open to first responders on the Northwest Side. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

President Donald Trump said Thursday he would extend federally covered National Guard deployments to deal with the coronavirus pandemic through mid-August amid an outcry that an earlier cutoff date would deny members access to benefits.

“The men and women of the National Guard have been doing a great job fighting the Coronavirus. This week, I will extend their Title 32 orders through mid-August, so they can continue to help states succeed in their response and recovery efforts,” the president tweeted.

The Title 32 designation means that the Guard’s activations are federally funded, saving the states from the cost of utilizing Guard members. Trump’s previous extension of Guard deployment lasted until June 24 — one day before thousands of members would have qualified for education and retirement benefits.

Administration critics questioned whether the original date was set intentionally in an effort to avoid awarding benefits, including access to the post-9/11 GI Bill, that become available after 90 days of activation in a federal emergency.

“While today’s decision to extend the service of our men and women in the National Guard is a step in the right direction, it shouldn’t have taken this long or required public pressure,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of Moline.

Bustos was among more than 70 members of Congress who sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper more than a week ago asking for an extension of Guard deployment.

“This pandemic has no end date, which is why we need these servicemen and women,” Bustos said of Trump’s latest extension. “They are vital to our response to COVID-19 and should be activated for the duration of the president’s emergency and disaster declarations.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois last week introduced legislation to mandate the deployment benefits in light of the situation Guard members faced.

“After four letters and a new bill, Trump finally got my message: The 40,000 National Guards troop responding to the COVID-19 pandemic deserve full benefits for putting themselves at risk to protect the rest of us,” she said. “I’m glad that, after repeatedly trying to nickel and dime our troops, he finally abandoned his cynical ploy to cut off the Title 32 authorization at 89 days to deny members of the National Guard access to federal benefits that require 90 days of service.”

The president’s deployment extension also came after 42 governors signed a letter to him requesting the continued Guard activation. The letter was signed by the bipartisan leaders of the National Governors Association and included the signature of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“As states and territories move toward recovery and reopening, our National Guard will be critical in supporting operations such as testing, distribution of personal protective equipment, supply and food chain support, augmenting staff at nursing homes, and supporting warehouse operations,” the letter said.

“Likewise, our National Guard are perfectly positioned to support the federally defined core state preparedness responsibilities outlined in your Guidelines for Opening Up America Again,” it said.


© 2020 the Chicago Tribune