By Aniela Szymanski and Cory Titus
Since the spring, a number of news stories have looked at the pay and benefits of National Guard members who are either called up to respond to the pandemic or to protests around the nation. Many of these stories have highlighted that even though National Guard members are serving in critical capacities and in dangerous duty assignments, they are not receiving the same pay and benefits as active-duty servicemembers.
This has been an ongoing problem for over a decade. There are over 30 different varieties of duties that an active-duty or National Guard member may be assigned to, each with its own set of rules for determining whether the member’s time counts toward Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility, allows his or her family to use DoD health care, and more.
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DoD has promised for several years that a duty status reform package was headed to Congress that would dramatically reduce the number of duty statuses to four and simplify benefits eligibility rules. Now, it seems that the efforts are finally moving forward, but there is no comprehensive view of what the end result will look like because DoD has not shared their plan with military service organizations.
What we do know is that in 2013, the Defense Reserve Forces Policy Board recommended that the primary feature of the new duty status system be “a day of duty is a day of duty.” The board recommended the elimination of varying statuses, with duty predominantly performed on active duty, and inactive duty reserved for “virtual”-type duty.
This recommendation would include doing away with two drill periods being used for one full day of reserve duty and would, likewise, impact the compensation a reservist receives for that day of duty. While the board mentioned that varying statuses also have varying rules about what benefits a servicemember and his or her family are eligible for, it did not make recommendations about changes to those rules.
During a March 2019 House Armed Services Subcommittee hearing, lawmakers expressed concerns about the fact that active duty would be separated into two categories, each with different benefits associated with them.
Expectations within the DoD and National Guard Bureau were that duty status reform would be included in the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but no changes were introduced. Sources say the reform was not included due to Office of Management and Budget objections stemming from Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. None of these objections have been publicly shared, however.
Although the end state of duty status reform has not been shared with the public or military service organizations, DoD has already constructed a website devoted to it. The site does not contain any details about the benefits associated with what it states will be “4 categories and 8 duty authorities.” When asked about the site, a senior DoD official said it was a “mock-up and not intended for public use yet.”
Some Guard and Reserve members are very concerned about what the outcomes of duty status reform will be. For example, will there be changes to what types of duty count toward eligibility for the Post-9/11 GI Bill? Also, will all duty status count toward a reduced age retirement, or will certain types be excluded, as occurs now?
The pandemic brought to light many challenges facing the reserve component. The coronavirus has crossed the line between duty statuses in a way no other activation has.
Reserve component members responding to the pandemic were placed on multiple order types within the course of months. What started as drill orders turned into state active duty (SAD) orders, and eventually became Title 32 orders. Despite the response involving the same national emergency, each of these orders came with different benefits and protections.
When DoD activated members under Title 32 orders, these orders were only effective for 89 days — ending one day short of the critical 90-day mark when members gain early retirement credit and access to Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits.
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Duty status issues cause challenges not only for servicemembers. During a call with service organizations in May, Army North commander Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson was asked what is the one thing that needs to change for the next crisis. She said, “access to Reserve enablers was not what it should be.”
Part of the challenges of access stem from orders and duty status with the reserve component.
While the coronavirus has brought many of these issues to light, these challenges for servicemembers in receiving fair benefits are longstanding. For example, a servicemember attending the National Training Center (NTC) or Joint Readiness Training Center will be cut orders for 14 and then 17 days, despite continuous training and service.
During annual training of over 30-plus days, it is common for members of the Guard to see two or three different types of orders, breaking up their service and reducing the benefits they are owed. This practice eliminates the need to pay basic allowance for housing, separation pay, and other special pays for those training.
With duty status reform looking like it will be a potential issue for the FY 2022 NDAA, approaching it in a way that addresses these challenges is essential, given how rarely these issues are touched.
Of the 30-plus types of orders, only five have been added since 1980, with the last major changes nearly a decade ago. Once they are updated, Congress and DoD may be reluctant to update them for a long time after major changes.
With enormous changes looming, transparency is essential to ensure reducing the number of order types not only makes it simpler for the government and easier for access when call-ups are needed, but also better for servicemembers who are earning their benefits.
Aniela Szymanski is the Senior Director of Legal Affairs and Military Policy at Veterans Education Success. She is a MOAA Life Member and a member of the MOAA Southern Nevada Chapter. Cory Titus separated from the Army in 2017 as a captain and is MOAA's director of veteran benefits and guard/reserve affairs.