SALEM, Ore. – Several Oregon lawmakers are putting pressure on the state to address recent claims that National Guard members activated to help with the COVID-19 response are being mistreated.
A letter to Gov. Kate Brown and Major General Michael E. Stencel alleges mismanagement, delay of benefits and pay, and more.
“Such treatment of our service members should be unacceptable,” the letter reads.
It was signed by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and by U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer, Kurt Schrader, and Suzanne Bonamici.
In August, Brown announced up to 1,500 Oregon National Guard (ORNG) members would be brought in to help with the state’s most recent surge of cases.
What allegedly ensued was a chaotic and disorganized activation. The letter claims that once members had completed the normal administrative tasks, the state was not prepared to quickly place members in areas of need and provided contradictory information about where they would serve.
Some were left hanging up to mid-September, according to the lawmakers. Some reportedly had to reserve hotels or other accommodations with their own money and others reportedly found that their travel vouchers weren’t recognized.
Through this all, the lawmakers allege the members were stuck in limbo, unable to go back to their civilian jobs.
“ORNG Members are fellow Oregonians who give their time and sacrifice to serve our communities in times of need. Many ORNG Members have full-time jobs, families, and other responsibilities that they willingly pause in order to serve their fellow Oregonians. ORNG Members’ heroic efforts are bolstering hospitals and helping our communities and loved ones during a deadly pandemic. ORNG members deserve effective and efficient leadership, support, and management, and they deserve to receive the full pay and benefits they have earned,” the letter reads.
The letter also reports that when the initial 30-day activation was coming to a close, the state allegedly intentionally allowed these orders to lapse and issued new orders instead of extending the current one. This prevents members from qualifying for benefit increases and pay that would come from an extension.
Similar concerns have reportedly been shared with lawmakers about previous Oregon National Guard deployments.
The lawmakers called on the state to address the issues set forth in the letter, calling it a systemic problem.
Stephen Bomar, the director of the Oregon Military Department, told KEZI he blames some of these issues on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
"Orders were cut for service members through Sep. 30, then once funding was procured by FEMA to go past Sep. 30, what we ended up doing was having to amend those orders," Bomar said. "So, what that did was it stopped basic allowance for housing to be done correctly. It also created a circumstance where soldiers weren't paid in a timely manner; certainly not the way to do business for sure."
Bomar said the complaints are coming in from all over the state from more than 50 service members. He said he never thought this would happen.
He said they are currently working directly with the National Guard Bureau to solve these issues. He hopes they will be fully resolved within the next few weeks.
He shared a message with KEZI for ORNG Members: "I just want to say thank you to our service members that are out there. Hang in there, we've got your back," Bomar said. "The general is looking into it personally on an individual basis. Again thanks to the employers for their support and thanks again to the hospitals that we have been able to be a part of."
Right now, there are about 1,400 members still on this mission. Bomar said they hope to have everyone out by December.
As far as their normal pay goes, he said it varies based on rank and years of service. A specialist with more than three years of service makes $2,583 a month. With more than eight years of service, they have a base pay of $3,763.
The full letter is included below and can also be read here.