How are our Coast Guard military members and their families weathering the partial government shutdown? This question was recently posed to me by Kristina Tanasichuk, Executive Editor at Homeland Security Today. I was afforded the opportunity on January 21, 2019 at the Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Association (CPOA) Headquarters to spend the entire day on the phone asking just that question. I called dozens of CPOA and Coast Guard Enlisted Association members around the Nation and overseas. I was joined in the CPOA Crisis Action Center by CPOA President Jon Ostrowski, CPOA Executive Director Randy Reid, and CPOA member Mary Endicott.
U.S. Coast Guard Around the World
All of the association members I called happened also to be Coast Guard active duty military members. I reached out to these patriots serving across the United States as well as Puerto Rico and Guam. I was unable to reach Coast Guard members deployed at sea in places such as the Persian Gulf, the Arctic, and Antarctica. I also was unable to reach Coasties ashore in remote assignments such as Russia, Cuba, Africa, and Europe.
Making Ends Meet Without Pay
I asked how their families and shipmates were making ends meet without paychecks. I asked how they were able to focus mentally and emotionally on their duty assignments while distracted by the financial bind imposed upon them through lack of pay. I heard about service members, especially those with only one or two years of service, who had not yet been able to accumulate enough savings to compensate for their Government’s failure to pay them as contractually promised. Some young families with small children had no idea how they were going to find funds to buy baby food and diapers. Some service members were single parents with only one household income, so the pay stop represented a complete income stop. Feelings of desperation were fast approaching. I also recognized the great difficulty for many of these proud American patriots to ask for donations or assistance of any kind. They felt pride in being ‘America’s life-savers,’ in being those who helped the needy. This time, through no fault of their own, they found that they themselves had become the needy. The United States Government has never in its 242-year history withheld pay from its military due to a shutdown. When each Coast Guard member raised their right hand and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States, they did so with the understanding that the Government promised to pay them so they could support their families in return.
While the unprecedented nature of the pay failure caught me by surprise, the resilient nature of our Coasties and their families met my expectations developed during my 37-year Coast Guard career. I recognized the severe challenge before them to make ends meet and keep their faith. My pride in them welled as I heard of their continued outstanding service even without pay. I learned of Coast Guard members and families, including single parents, seeking out the neediest among them and targeting needs with whatever resources they could. I learned of community organizations, including CPOA chapters, CGEA branches, churches, and many military and veteran service organizations, tapping and in some cases draining their available resources to financially and physically support those in greatest need.
Don’t let it rent space in your head.
When faced with challenges, I recall a mantra of one of the most effective leaders of our time. Admiral Thad Allen, the 23rd Commandant of the Coast Guard, has advised, “Don’t let it rent space in your head.” Distractions such as worry about pay can endanger military members and their missions. Admiral Allen’s advice is intended to keep one from wasting time on the things they cannot change and focused on the things they can control, on the positive opportunities before them.
What can we do?
Plenty. Take care of shipmates. Seek out those most in financial need. Direct them to resources. Look for signs of emotional and mental stress; lend an ear; and direct to a chaplain and/or professional psychological support. Within financial capacity, donate to support organizations such as Coast Guard Mutual Assistance.
Consult your local CPOA chapters and CGEA branches (links below) to provide or get help.