For months, U.S. residents have seen National Guard troops fan out across communities — testing patients for COVID-19, answering calls at state unemployment offices and, more recently, standing in riot gear before Americans protesting structural racism and deaths in police custody.
Those troops, many of whom hold full-time civilian jobs outside of their Guard roles, usually are called up for domestic duty by governors, not by the Department of Defense, and — just as with other state workers — their pay and benefits vary widely even as they do similar jobs.
“One of the big challenges for both states and federal government, is that when people see a National Guard soldier … on the street, they have zero sense of these … multiple pay statuses,” said Brian Nussbaum, a professor of homeland security at the State University of New York at Albany.
“In some states it’s [the] governor deploying with state money, others it’s governors deploying with federal money,” he said.
If troops are injured on the job, health coverages may differ, and some rely on state workers’ compensation programs, which vary widely. Only if they are federalized by presidential order do National Guard troops receive equal pay and benefits.
The pressures and disparities among National Guard troops drew attention when President Donald Trump in May said he would deactivate troops after 89 days — one day short of the 90 days needed to qualify for some benefits, including G.I. Bill-type college support.
Trump reversed himself and later announced that he’d keep troops on duty through mid-August.
On June 5 this year, nearly 84,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen were activated for duty in the United States, surpassing the record of 51,000 Guard members who responded to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, the Washington office of the National Guard Bureau said in a news release.
Some 41,500 of them were directed to civil unrest, while about 37,000 were supporting COVID-19 efforts. Counting Guard members overseas, 118,000 total were deployed at the time.
But disparities — both among states and when compared with active-duty troops — are baked into the system, because National Guard organizations are based in states. In most cases, particularly when deploying to a single state as for a local flood, National Guard members deploy under “state active duty” status — deployed and paid by the same state. In deployments of Guard units from multiple states, those separate pay scales can create inequities.
In the Montana National Guard, for example, an E5 (the equivalent of a sergeant) with six years of experience, on state active duty is paid $206.30 a day for the first 15 days of duty, and $148.07 a day thereafter. The same member deployed under federal authority (Title 32) would get $103.15 a day across the board. Expenses such as travel and housing are handled separately.
In a hypothetical activation to California to fight a wildfire, Montana Guard E5s would make their $206.30 while California National Guard members of the same rank and experience would get $336 a day, and $403 a day if they are reporting for “hazardous duty,” as defined by the governor.
If the request is through the federal Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), the pay could be the same for all Guard members, but it doesn’t have to be, as states still control their Guard.
Most times, big emergencies like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 or large wildfires trigger a disaster declaration by the president and result in the EMAC, according to National Guard spokesperson Master Sgt. Mike Houk in Washington.
And, if that wasn’t complicated enough, Guard unit members are compensated differently than active duty servicemembers in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines.
Army Major Gen. Matt Quinn, adjutant general of the Montana National Guard and president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, said part of the state control of the Guard stems from its origins in the Constitution: Each state was charged with having a “militia.” But, he said, that has led to a “basic inequity of benefits, especially if injured on duty.”
Quinn said he and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, like to tell a hypothetical story of three military personnel — an active duty Army member, an Army reservist and an Army National Guard member from Montana all sent to help with hurricane damage in Puerto Rico. If a tree falls on all three of them, “two, the U.S. Army active duty member and the reservist, would have federal benefits available; but the Guard member would have to fall back on state workers’ compensation.”
Frank Yoakum, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, said compensation for members of the Guard “depends on how much money a state has.” He said that some potential Guard members, especially if they live close to a state border, shop around for the best Guard deal.
“If you are looking for parity between the states, it does not exist,” he said.
Large multistate deployments are usually swept under Title 32, meaning the federal government controls pay and benefits. That’s not what happened in the current COVID-19 response and when National Guard troops for 11 states were detailed to the District of Columbia (to monitor protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer), because of the city’s unique status in not being a state.
At the height of the protests at the beginning of June, Guard troops were activated across the country — including from Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington state, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin — Guard officials said.
Retired Army Brigadier Gen. David Sheppard, who is now a professor of public service at the State University of New York at Albany, has overseen large domestic National Guard deployments. He said while the average Guard member may not be trained in responding to civil disturbances, Guard military police units are. Those are the types of units that get the call to come to demonstrations, he said.
That said, “the use of the military is an absolute last resort for anything,” he said in a phone interview.
“It’s just not a good picture when you bring in the military. People remember Kent State,” he said, referring to the 1970 protest march against the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio in which 13 demonstrators were shot — four killed — by National Guard members. “A lot of guardsmen are nervous,” he said “they are facing their own people. It’s difficult.”
A move in Congress to equalize some Guard pay and benefits for active duty troops fell short last year.
But without action to extend more benefits to the Guard, “it comes down to the legislatures of the states who control, along with the governor, the activities,” said Robert Sanders, professor at the University of New Haven who retired in 2018 as a captain in the Navy after 34 years. “Budget constraints play a big part.”
Some states think of the Guard as tangential to the state’s priorities, he said. “Of course, until they are needed, then they become central to everything that’s going on.”