Ohio National Guard troops responding to COVID-19 may fall one week short of veteran status

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COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Membership in the National Guard is a way to serve your community and the country while staying close to home. At the same time, it can provide you access to benefits veterans enjoy if you check off the appropriate requirements along the way.

Not every soldier or airman leaves the Guard with Veteran status, according to Colonel Matthew Woodruff. Woodruff is currently overseeing the pandemic response missions here in Ohio and is the Joint Task Force Commander for the 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team with the Ohio National Guard.​

He explained that he is aware of a number of guardsmen who did not reach the required number of days of service on federal orders to be recognized as having veteran status before they left the Guard. He estimates that a large portion of its members do not have Veteran status.​

Normally, if a unit is deployed overseas, the members will be on federal orders well past the 90 day requirement and when they return, they will have earned immediate Veteran status.​ Should they not serve 90 days consecutively, they will have to wait until their service accumulates 90 days total.

Other opportunities to earn days toward that status include deploying on Federal Orders for natural disaster relief in the case of hurricane recovery. While typically shorter in length, each day served in this manner counts toward the Guardsman’s lifetime total. When one day is served, it is banked and counted toward the 90-day requirement.​ The same applies to the pandemic response. Each day on federal orders counts toward the 90-day requirement. ​

Achieving veteran status is important, because it opens up opportunities for the Gaurdsman.

“With that, you would have the opportunity to get the GI Bill, you would have the opportunity to get VA entitlements, you could go to the VA to be seen for medical issues,” explained Woodruff.

He explained being considered a veteran would also allow members to access VA loans for housing.​

The State of Ohio activated its National Guard on March 22, and until April 1, Guardsmen were serving on State Orders. The state was footing the bill for the Guard’s support services, but then it changed.​

“On April 2, we were given the authorization to switch to federal funding, so once April 2 hit, that’s when the clock would start for those individuals on orders and on missions,” said Woodruff.​

For several weeks now, members of the Ohio National Guard have been serving on Federal Orders on missions across Ohio. They have been supporting the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) as well as the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS).​

Most of their missions with the ODRC have been completed, and sent Guardsmen into prisons to assist with a number of things from watching over inmates to providing support to medical teams for testing and treating inmates for COVID-19.​

Missions to state prisons in Marion and Pickaway counties have ended, but the mission supporting ODRC at the OSU Wexner Medical Center is not complete. The missions supporting ODJFS do not appear to be ending soon, as Guardsmen are helping food banks and pantries with distribution of food to families in need.​

Woodruff said the missions at food banks are probably the ones that will endure the longest, due to the nature of the situation. ​First, the spike in need was more than most food banks could handle.​

“It increased pretty dramatically for about the first month that we were there,” said Woodruff.​

The Mid-Ohio Food Collective provided this statement: ​

“Through the Ohio National Guard’s tireless work, efficiencies and humanitarian efforts, we were able to increase pounds of food distributed throughout our 20 county area by 37% in comparison to the same time period last year; our nearly 700 agency partners saw a 33% increase in visits, with over a third of those being first time customers. Our on-site pantry saw an even higher demand: service visits in the same comparative period, increasing by 128 percent; new households increased by 325%; and pounds of food distributed through the pantry grew from 560,162 to 1,120,283 (100% growth). To give you an example — the soldiers were serving a customer every 33 seconds at our on-site pantry! All of this is in spite of having to change our operational model, facing uncertainty in the food supply chain and other obstacles. Without the expertise and on-site assistance of the Ohio National Guard and Military Reserve, we would have struggled mightily to meet this increase demand.”​

After that initial month, demand fell as federal CARES checks were distributed. However, according to Woodruff, the lull was temporary.​

“That has risen back up to what it was at probably peak levels and it does continue to stay about that same need,” said Woodruff.​

The next mission the Guard undertakes will be to support the efforts in nursing and long-term care facilities. According to Woodruff, that mission should last for a few weeks. ​

Funding for the Federal Orders to the National Guard is set to expire on June 24. The total number of days on Federal Orders at that point would be 83. This is one week short for guardsmen to receive veteran status.

It should be noted that the funding has already been extended twice. It was originally set to expire on April 30, and was extended to May 22, and then again to June 24. Woodruff does not know if it will be extended again.​ If it is extended, the Guard who have been deployed on Federal Orders since April will likely meet the 90-day requirement. The colonel explained that if a second surge occurs and the Guard needs to be activated again by the Federal Government, that, too would be an opportunity to earn more days towards Veteran status.​

As for Woodruff, he does not argue against that.​

“I think there’s a lot of good that can come from that and taking care of soldiers,” said Col. Woodruff. “If there’s a way that we can take care of them and benefit them in the long run, I am all in.”​

Woodruff tours the state every two weeks or so and visits each of the missions’ locations where the Guard is supporting missions in communities across Ohio. He says the members of the Guard are doing exactly what they were designed to do: serve their communities, their friends, neighbors, and relatives.

“They’re stepping out there,” said Woodruff. “They’re at many times putting themselves at risk whether it’s in a medical capacity, or in a prison setting, to places where we know there is a high propensity for COVID and they’re doing a phenomenal job.”

Coronavirus in Ohio resources:

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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