Even After Years In Uniform, Some National Guardsmen Don’t Get Veterans Benefits

Spc. Afeez Amusan of the Texas Army National Guard, right, inspects a tractor-trailer alongside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent at the U.S.-Mexico border in Pharr, Texas.
Spc. Afeez Amusan of the Texas Army National Guard, right, inspects a tractor-trailer alongside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent at the U.S.-Mexico border in Pharr, Texas.
JON SOUCY / NATIONAL GUARD BUREAU

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In April 2018, President Trump ordered 2,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to aid Homeland Security.

During a tour on the border last October, Border Patrol spokesman William Rogers complimented the California National Guard troops who were working inside the Border Patrol station in San Diego, acting as dispatchers and monitoring cameras.

"What's most important about it to us is the fact that prior to the National Guard soldiers filling these spots, we had to have sworn agents filling these spots," Rogers said.

But despite the positive words, some of those guard troops who worked along the border in uniform may never meet the federal definition of a veteran.

To qualify for Veterans Affairs benefits - like health care or GI Bill education benefits - troops must serve 180 days continuously on active duty. That means being requested by the federal government under specific circumstances, said Daniel Elkins, a California National Guard Special Forces operator with a unit based in Los Angeles.

"This affects many of the National Guard. For example, currently there is a federally declared border crisis that's going on," said Daniel Elkins, a California National Guard Special Forces operator with a unit based in Los Angeles.

Most of the time, guard troops are under the control of a state's governor, who can call them up to help with natural disasters like the wildfires in California. But there are a variety of orders that can be used to mobilize Guard members.

Even though President Trump called guard troops to the border, and the federal government paid for the operation, Elkins said that in the majority of cases, the kind of orders they were under do not qualify those troops for benefits. 

Elkins also works for the Enlisted Association of National Guard United States. The association is lobbying to bring greater parity between active-duty troops and those in the guard and reserve.

Rep. Mike Levin, a California Democrat, chairs a veterans subcommittee that recently held a hearing on the issue.

"We haven't followed a very basic principle," Levin said, "which is if you're expected to be doing the same sort of thing, putting your life on the line for whatever particular mission, I believe you should be able to get the same pay and benefits."

Levin said Congress has been slow to respond to the changing role of the guard, which has been used more consistently since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"The expectations and the demands placed on our national guard and reserves that perhaps weren't there previously, we have to make sure that federal policy reflects that," he said.

In 2016, Congress changed the law so anyone who retires from the guard or reserves after 20 years has honorary veteran status, regardless of how much time they spent in active service. But the law did not allow them to qualify for federal benefits.

Some members of Congress expressed concern about the cost of provding full veterans benefits to more people.

Elkin said he talks to former National Guard troops who applied for benefits under the GI bill after reporting to help out in response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

"They serve, they deploy, they're being told that they are being deployed. And they assume they have the same level of benefits," Elkins said.

But they don't. Advocates for greater benefits say the current system impacts retention in the guard, but the consequences also can run deeper.

The federal benefits that guard troops often aren't eligible for include long-term mental health care in the VA health system, Elkins said. The VA estimates that there were 919 suicides in 2017 among guard and reserve members who never achieved veteran status.

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.