For the past month, Spc. Richardo Benitez has been staying in a hotel outside Los Angeles, while his National Guard unit works at one of the city's food banks.
“Basically I wake up at five,” he said. “I get breakfast at the hotel. It includes maybe a hot coffee with some hot oatmeal, and we just drive out over here.”
The Guardsmen pack meals, which are sent to drop-off sites around Los Angeles County. Benitez doesn't get to see the people he is helping, though, during downtime in his hotel, he checks out the social media accounts of some of the nonprofits that are distributing the food.
“I do see how the cars line up at the break of dawn to get some meals in their trunks,” he said. “So that gives me a little bit of peace of mind where my work is going to.”
The response to the coronavirus is among the largest domestic call ups of the National Guard in U.S. history. Roughly 41,000 troops were mobilized in March in nearly every state and US territory. In addition to helping prepare food, the Guard in L.A. County was dispatched to nursing homes when staff became ill with the virus. In several states, Guard troops are administering COVID-19 tests.
“With everybody locked down, people are afraid to go do that work, but the National Guard is there to step in,” said Frank Yoakum, the executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, a trade organization for people enlisted in the National Guard.
“We will do whatever mission that you give us to do,” he said.
But during several recent missions, there has been a debate over how to compensate Guard members. Advocates in and out of Congress cried foul when the Trump administration called up the Guard for 89 days to respond to COVID-19. That was one day short of the 90 days needed for Guardsmen to qualify for early retirement and GI Bill benefits.
Likewise, earlier during the pandemic, the Guard was called up for 30 days — one day short of when they would qualify for larger housing allowances, as well as medical benefits for their families under the military’s Tricare.
Yoakum wants the federal government to give the Guard the same benefits as active-duty troops within a few days of when they are called up.
"It would put everybody under one status immediately," he said.
The issue with the COVID-19 deployment problem was eventually corrected when the president recently decided to extend the pandemic deployment into August.
“I’m very happy that the administration corrected what I thought was just a terrible decision that seemed designed to deprive benefits from service members,” said Congressman Mike Levin, a California Democrat, who has held hearings on the pay inequity between Guard troops and active-duty troops.
“Now, day in and day out, they’re doing the same things,” Levin said. “They are taking similar risks. As a result, I have believed and will continue to believe that they ought to be getting the same pay and the same benefits as well."
When a similar discrepancy came up for National Guard members deployed to the U.S. southern border, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued a letter that allowed those troops to earn equal time toward GI Bill benefits.
Congress is looking at whether Guard troops should receive hazard pay for their work in the pandemic.
A long term fix to the pay and benefits issue has been elusive, even though more Guard troops than ever are being called up domestically.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.
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