President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next secretary of the Army believes that the National Guard may be stretched too thin and nearing the breaking point, given a year of nonstop activations for the force.
“I am concerned about the possibility of unreasonable demands [on] the Guard. I would want to look closely on how that strain is manifesting,” Christine Wormuth told senators at her confirmation hearing Thursday.
Wormuth, who would be the first woman to hold the role, highlighted the delicate balance Guardsmen must maintain between full-time civilian jobs and their military careers. The Guard has seen an unprecedented volume of domestic deployments over the past year while also serving overseas.
“I think we have to be mindful they are balancing military service with civilian careers and, from a recruiting and retention standpoint, if we’re over taxing them, it can be damaging,” she added.
Currently, there are 32,000 Guardsmen supporting pandemic efforts and just over 2,300 on civil disturbance missions, including the U.S. Capitol security mission in Washington, D.C. Roughly 20,000 troops are deployed abroad in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, according to the National Guard Bureau.
Wormuth’s concerns mirror comments made last week by Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville when he told lawmakers that a combination of two decades of war and activations at home might be too much.
“Our force has been heavily committed over the past 20 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and around the world,” McConville told lawmakers during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on the service’s budget. “My concern is we want to make sure we reduce the op tempo of our troops, including the National Guard who have been heavily employed, whether that’s home or overseas.”
Wormuth also noted the benefits gap between the National Guard and active-duty troops, highlighting a confusing bureaucratic maze of different types of orders that can mean wildly different things in terms of pay and benefits.
For example, state active-duty orders do not provide any health care benefits or housing allowance for troops, potentially worth thousands of dollars per month. On those orders, Guardsmen also do not accrue federal benefits such as the GI Bill or become eligible to use the Department of Veterans Affairs if injured. And they are not legally protected from discrimination by civilian employers, meaning there is little recourse for soldiers who may be fired for deploying.
However, Title 32 orders, which are also used for domestic missions, entitle Guardsmen to all the benefits and legal rights associated with active duty. Title 32 and state orders are used for the same missions, but Title 32 uses federal funding.
If confirmed, Wormuth said she would “look into the status of benefits.”
Congress has been increasingly looking into bringing Guard pay and benefits closer to parity with the active duty, mostly through proposed bills making it easier for Guardsmen to earn GI Bill benefits.
Gen. Daniel Hokanson, head of the National Guard, told lawmakers last week that the lack of a free and premium health care service for troops is a key issue, one that Congress may need to address.
“What happens if they get sick or injured when they come off orders?” he said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on the Guard’s budget. “One of my most pressing concerns is premium free health care for every Guardsman who serves in uniform.”
— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
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