CHARLESTON, W.Va. — President Donald Trump has extended the federal deployment designation of West Virginia National Guard troops on duty as part of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic until Aug. 15.
Gov. Jim Justice announced the continuation of the Title 32 orders by Trump during his coronavirus media briefing Thursday at the state capitol.
“It rewards the members of the National Guard with lots of extra benefits that they deserve,” Justice said.
There were 657 West Virginia National Guard members on active duty Thursday in connection with the coronavirus. They’ve completed more than 1,200 missions since the pandemic began.
The federal designation was set to end June 24.
State Adjutant General, Major General Jim Hoyer said the designation which will carry the Guard members beyond an important 90-day threshold will allow the troops and their families to continue to fall under federal health care coverage, make them eligible for greater GI Bill benefits and make them eligible for early retirement credit.
Hoyer said the designation also saves the state money in Guard paychecks which is being taken care of in full by the federal government.
“Our burn rate is about $3 million a month in payroll for the Guardsmen on duty–so that’s $3 million a month that the state doesn’t have to put out up front,” Hoyer said.
The payroll portion saves the state about $790,000 a month.
The original deployment end date of June 24 would have left Guard members with 89 days of federal service, one day short of qualifying for federal benefits. Justice said he knew President Trump wasn’t going to let that happen.
“There’s no way in the world our president is going to fall into that scenario,” Justice said.
Justice and U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito advocated for the continuation of the designation. Hoyer said the work of the three “made sure this got over the hump.”
Capito applauded Trump’s decision in a statement released Thursday.
“This is fantastic news. Our National Guard plays a tremendous role in our fight against the coronavirus, and they deserve full support and benefits for the vital work they are performing in our communities right now,” Capito said.
Manchin also said he’s pleased with the decision and hopes Trump would support a bill that would continue transitional healthcare benefits for Guard members.
“We cannot leave our National Guard servicemembers without healthcare after they bravely served during this global health crisis,” Manchin said in a Thursday statement. “We must ensure those on the front lines caring for our fellow West Virginians and Americans who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic are taken care of during and after their service.”
Hoyer said there are plans in place to keep 160 Guard members on duty under a state designation after Aug. 15.
“They’ll be needed at least we believe through the end of the calendar year and then it will all depend after that as to where we are with things going forward,” Hoyer said.
He said he anticipates the Guard will pay a role in any large-scale vaccination efforts following the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The federal designation for the West Virginia National Guard is the first since 2005 when 1,000 Guard troops helped in efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina.