Senior defense leaders are expected to update members of Congress soon on the issue of improving National Guard and reservists pay, to ensure better benefits parity between the part-time forces and active-duty troops for similar work.
Last week, in response to questioning on the issue, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said that a “reform effort” on the issue is underway and officials are conducting a review to determine next steps on the issue.
“The joint force — active duty, Reserve and National Guard — it’s a total force,” he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And we have a commitment to ensure that we have appropriate and fair pay and benefits given to our National Guard troops and our reservists.”
Milley could not offer a specific timeline on when new changes or recommendations would be issued, but vowed to lawmakers that Congress would be kept involved in the work.
The issue of Guard and Reserve pay has taken on extra attention in the past year, following unprecedented levels of deployments for the forces.
More than 120,000 guardsmen have mobilized for missions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Last month, the Guard marked 10 million coronavirus vaccinations administered at Guard-staffed vaccination sites across the country since last fall.
In addition to that work, nearly 26,000 troops were deployed to Washington, D.C., in the days after the Jan. 6 violent attack on Congress and before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden. That mission ended in mid-May, after four months of constant Guard presence on Capitol Hill.
Thousands more were called to duty for crowd control work in response to racial unrest protests last summer. Another 3,500 Guard troops stationed on the U.S. southern border supporting Department of Homeland Security activities are expected to wrap up their tours by the end of September
But benefits for those troops has been a confusing labyrinth of paperwork, with allowances and pay issues hinging on various activation and authorization orders.
Last month, the head of the National Guard Bureau said that getting free health care coverage for every guardsman was his top legislative priority for the year, calling it an issue of both strategic and moral importance for the military.
On Monday, the head of the National Guard Association of the United States wrote to President Joe Biden asking for quicker action on the issue, noting that nearly one in five Guard members has no private health insurance “and they are usually not entitled to government-provided coverage when mobilized for domestic missions.”
Three weeks ago, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. and a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, introduced legislation to standardize incentive pays across the military, to ensure that Guard and reserve troops are compensated at the same rates as their active-duty counterparts.
“The complexity of the current slate of duty statuses adds unnecessary confusion to activating reserve component forces,” she said at the hearing with Milley. “The disparity in pay and benefits between different duty statuses can also incentivize manipulating orders to minimize the service members access to benefits.”
“I believe duty status reform is necessary to ensure the National Guard and reserve forces receive equal pay and access to the health care and educational benefits they deserve for the work that they do.”
The issue is likely to be addressed at least partially in the annual defense authorization act, but passage of that is expected to drag until sometime this fall or later. Milley said officials are “working it very hard” and hope to have an update sooner than that.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.