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400 Hawaii National Guard troops coming off coronavirus duty

The number of Hawaii National Guard troops on federal active duty for the coronavirus pandemic will drop early next week to 800 from 1,200 as part of a Pentagon “right-sizing” ahead of a “hard stop” set for June 24 for the deployment of almost 46,000 citizen soldiers nationwide, officials said.

The move comes as the Pentagon takes steps toward what it called “returning to normal operations,” but as lawmakers around the country continue to raise concern over ongoing security needs.

The Pentagon said Tuesday that a “conditions-based approach” now is being taken to replace and relax the “stop movement” order that had been in effect for troops since March due to COVID-19.

The order halting duty station changes was in place through June 30. Thousands of military members in Hawaii or with orders to Hawaii are affected by the policy. Service members were required to stop movement both domestically and inter- nationally.

While COVID-19 still presents a risk, “varying conditions across the nation warrant this transition to a tailored approach,” Matthew Donovan, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said at a news conference.

The Defense Department said the resumption of unrestricted travel must align with state and regional criteria based on the guidelines of the White House’s Opening Up America guidance.

“Consideration of factors such as removal of shelter-in-place orders and a downward trend of new COVID-19 cases over the preceding 14 days will be used to make a determination for the resumption of movement between states, regions and nations,” Donovan said.

Nearly 80 members of Congress — including U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii — signed onto a May 20 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper noting a previous extension of the federal National Guard duty and asking for another one.

“By now nearly every state, territory and the District of Columbia has federally funded soldiers and airmen in the fight against COVID-19,” the letter states. “Unfortunately, however, the (Defense Department’s) extension runs only until June 24, 2020. We urge you to consult with our governors and extend the (federal) authorizations for the duration of the president’s emergency and disaster declarations.”

Gov. David Ige’s office sent a letter to President Donald Trump almost a month ago requesting a continuance of what’s known as “Title 32” federal duty for the Hawaii National Guard through July 31. “We have not yet received a response,” Ige’s office said Tuesday.

The governor’s office said the extension “is necessary in order for the Hawaii National Guard to continue providing critical support, including airport and community screenings, and to work in a variety of functions to support and protect our citizens.”

Nationwide, officials said, the Pentagon is asking all National Guard units on federal coronavirus duty to drop their troop counts ahead of the planned June 24 end date.

The Hawaii National Guard will be taking some soldiers off federal active duty across all the islands, said spokesman Jeff Hickman.

If lawmakers don’t convince the Trump administration to continue the National Guard federal duty at its current level, June 10 might be the last day of the Hawaii COVID-19 mission because troops need to be outprocessed and medically screened for the virus. Some might need to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Another 125 members of Congress joined in a letter Friday to Trump, Esper and the Federal Emergency Management Agency saying the National Guard “has been critical in executing the nation’s pandemic response efforts.”

The letter, with participation by Case and fellow U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, all Hawaii Democrats, asks that you “consider keeping all National Guard service members supporting the COVID-19 mission on (federal) status rather than transitioning to state active duty orders.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, meanwhile, is a co-sponsor with fellow Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois on the National Guard COVID-19 Response Stability Act.

The legislation would extend Title 32 authority for all troops activated in response to the crisis until the end of the public health emergency.

Some Hawaii Guard soldiers were mobilized on state active duty, which differs from federal duty, in late March. The majority of the 1,200 soldiers went on Title 32 federal duty, pay and benefits — while still reporting to the governor — on April 3, and the remainder followed within several weeks.

Title 32 allows a governor to order Guard members to report for operational homeland defense duties with the approval of the president or secretary of defense, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

News organization Politico noted the White House issued a 24-day extension to June 24 for the federal serv-ice — terminating the deployment midweek and one day shy of a 90-day threshold for some mainland Guard soldiers to accrue educational and retirement credit.

“It seemed kind of weird to me,” retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, told the publication.

Robinson thought it might be a coincidence, but “in the back of my mind, I know better. They’re screwing the National Guard members out of the status they should have.”

The later federal call-up of Hawaii National Guard personnel puts them a bit farther from the 90-day service threshold.

Nearly 46,000 Guard personnel are serving on coronavirus-related missions. About 85% are on federal orders.

The National Conference of State Legislators said the tab can run as much as $9 million per month per 1,000 troops mobilized.

Without federal Title 32 authority, many states will decline to extend Guard deployments under state active duty due to a lack of available funding, the National Guard Association said.

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