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Coast Guard blasts government shutdown, paycheck freeze

The government shutdown hit home for a Coast Guard crew that left port Monday on a monthslong foreign deployment — the latest example of how the stalemate in Washington is fueling financial and emotional distress for a military branch that is still on duty even as their paychecks remain held up by the 30-day-old budget standoff.

The 170-member crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf left California early Monday to support U.S. military operations in the Pacific. That crew, with the rest of the Coast Guard’s active-duty force of more than 40,000, has been working without pay since Jan. 15.

Coast Guard officials increasingly have been speaking out about the shutdown’s impact on the service and on its member families, many of whom are turning to food pantries and local donation drives to get by. At the Coast Guard’s “boot camp” in Camp May, New Jersey, recent recruits are being held after their training is completed because there is no money in the travel budget to send them to their first assignments.

Internal Coast Guard memos released this month recommended that members consider holding garage sales or getting part-time jobs walking dogs to make ends meet — suggestions that sparked anger on Capitol Hill and across the country as political dysfunction takes a toll on the armed forces.

“It is unconscionable that the brave men and women deploying to protect our country today have to worry about how their families are going to pay rent or afford groceries because of the government shutdown,” Rep. Joe Cunningham, South Carolina Democrat, said Monday.

Four retired Coast Guard master chief petty officers wrote a blistering op-ed over the weekend on the defense news site Military.com, saying the government breakdown left some 56,000 active-duty, reserve and civilian members of the service financially at sea.

“They don’t deserve to have their pay held hostage by their own government leadership, who are refusing to sit down at the table and work out a deal that will get the government reopened and its people paid,” the four men wrote.

Republicans in Congress agreed, using the Cutter Bertholf deployment to stress how embarrassing it is that the nation is not paying men and women who have put themselves in harm’s way to defend the nation.

“The deployment of the USCG Cutter Bertholf today is yet another example of the vital role the USCG plays in protecting our nation, at home and abroad,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, told The Washington Times.

Staying on duty

As the crew departs, officials say their families on shore face the uncertainty of when they can expect their next paycheck. But Coast Guard leaders also stressed that they will continue doing their jobs.

“Today, the 418-foot @USCG Cutter Bertholf departed for a multi-month deployment in support of a @DeptofDefense Combatant Commander,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz tweeted Monday. “Our #USCG members sail across the world to protect U.S. national interests while their loved ones cope w/ financial challenges & no pay at home.”

Adm. Schultz also tweeted out a video that included other officials discussing both the mission and the shutdown. That video underscores the public messaging efforts undertaken by the service as it reminds the White House and lawmakers about the real-life consequences of their inability to reopen government.

“I know it is hard for these crews to be leaving behind their dependents and spouses,” Coast Guard Vice. Adm. Linda Fagan said in the video. “It’s a thousand times more so when everyone is wondering when their next paycheck will be, and how they can support the family that they are leaving behind.”

In Washington, Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Sullivan and a host of other lawmakers of both parties are pushing legislation that would reinstate Coast Guard pay, even if other parts of the government remain shut down. While such measures have strong bipartisan support, congressional leaders have been reluctant to bring the bills to the floor, with neither side wanting to give an inch in the brutal spending battle over President Trump’s border wall.

“Hundreds of thousands of federal employees and their families are being harmed by the partial government shutdown,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican. “This situation is especially unfair for those who must work without pay, including members of the Coast Guard who continue to perform critical national security and lifesaving duties without knowing when they will receive their next paycheck.”

Both parties blame the other side for the inability to pass legislation to fund the Coast Guard, though much of the criticism has centered on Senate Democratic leaders, who have appeared unwilling to budge from their position that Mr. Trump must open the entire government before any talks on his wall can proceed.

Still, lawmakers said Monday that they are optimistic the bills will soon come to the floor and will pass overwhelmingly.

Meanwhile, Coast Guard families from California to Massachusetts are relying on community outreach efforts to feed their families. In San Francisco on Sunday night, the city’s Yacht Club hosted a free dinner for Coast Guard members and their families.

In Massachusetts, the state’s chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars donated thousands of dollars to help feed Coast Guard families, according to local media reports.

In Cleveland, the community is collecting gift cards to donate to the families stationed at the Cleveland Coast Guard station, home to a workforce of about 250.

“I think people just really want to do something,” Susan Zanetti, who organized the gift card drive, told Cleveland.com. “People feel bad. We watch the Coast Guard work. They keep our country safe.”

Other initiatives are underway across the country.

Coast Guard officials have urged members to rely on their communities in whatever ways necessary. They also released formal guidance this month that suggested members cut back on expenses where they can and find other sources of income.

“Finding supplemental income during your furlough period might be challenging, but here are a few ideas for adding income,” the Coast Guard said, going on to suggest garage sales, baby-sitting, dog-walking or acting as mystery shoppers as some ways to make extra money until the shutdown ends.

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