Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and the 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
As talk of a government shutdown began, President Donald Trump, his staff and myriad politicians on both sides of the aisle began interjecting “paying the troops” as a primary rallying call to invoke support for their respective sides of the issue. What’s frustrating to many who wear the uniform is this: Most who are invoking the symbolism of “supporting the military” don’t actually know how the shutdown affects that support. There’s more involved than getting a paycheck.
Given that, it might be helpful to provide those who haven’t served with some facts and insight into what, thus far, has been primarily an emotional outcry from those who are uninformed.
Having been a commander during previous government shutdowns, I had to address both the pragmatic issues related to funding and operations and the anxiety-filled questions from military personnel, Department of Defense and Department of the Army civilians, and – most importantly – the families of all these people who selflessly serve their country.
We should start with the fact that the average wage of soldiers at any rank is not substantial. The monthly wage for a private is less than $2,000; the average staff sergeant with 12 years service makes about $3,600, the average captain about $6,000 a month.
There are benefits – like savings accrued at the commissary or housing allocation paid with specific allowances based on the geographic area – and those help. But it’s not an insult to any military personnel to understand that most live paycheck to paycheck, and can’t afford to miss their salary for any extended period. After all, none of them serve for pay; they serve to defend the country.
It’s also important to understand that in a professional military most personnel are married, and a large percentage have families. That provides a very different dynamic from any country that has a draft and doesn’t understand the stabilizing force of career service to country. Those families are certainly affected financially and emotionally.
During a shutdown, operational missions do not change or stop, and those who serve in the active force will continue to “go to work.” During a government shutdown, without additional legislation, military personnel will continue to accrue pay, but they will not receive the money until the shutdown ends or appropriations are approved.
It is true, as has been noted on the floor of the Senate this weekend, that death benefits will not be paid to any family if a military member is killed in action until after the shutdown. That is heinous and reprehensible, and it should be fixed with legislation.
Then there are the civil servants who serve the military. Civilian workers are furloughed – as they are in all other departments of the government – and they do not have the potential to make up for lost paychecks.
When I commanded the US Army in Europe, there were about 67,000 soldiers in the command, but there were also about 40,000 civilians who worked in a variety of support activities. During a furlough, the great majority of them would go home, not collect a paycheck or back pay. I refused to allow the use of the term “nonessential personnel,” but that is what they are sometimes called. But they are all essential to the mission.
Who are these civilians? Some are contractors, who contribute to medical facilities as nurses, dentists, doctors, radiologists, etc. Some are teachers in the Department of Defense schools, or child care providers at the Child Development Centers.
Others work in the commissary or post exchange, some serve as guards at the gate, even more contribute in the dining facilities or in supply exchanges, on the ranges, or as safety officers. There are, in fact, too many jobs to list.
A military community is a bubble of self-supporting activities, a literal supply chain of individuals who support those in uniform whose main job is to fight our nation’s wars. Most of those supporters will not be paid, because most of them will not be coming to work.
In many cases, the shortage is compounded because military personnel must take the place of those furloughed to just keep things running. When that happens, it’s inefficient, ineffective, and it takes away from the military’s primary mission of defending our country, defending our Constitution.
What else is affected? All conferences and unnecessary training – that is, things that are not related to current combat operations – are canceled or scaled back. Travel to important events or schools is also put on hold.
If you’re passing through the Atlanta, Washington, New York, San Francisco or Charleston airport on any given day, you’ll likely see a lot of young people in uniform traveling from one of myriad bases, posts or stations.
All that will stop or be reduced, and as a result the backlog for training and filling operational units, the need for replacements in units, is affected. Most National Guard or Reserve units will not meet during the shutdown. That also effects readiness.
Truthfully, my hardest job as a commander during the shutdowns I experienced was counseling the families and providing continuous information to them to calm their anxieties: what services had stopped, what facilities were open, when were they going to be paid, when were they coming off furlough.
The spouse who has a job and can’t go to work because the child care center is closed is a crisis event for a family.
The requirement to go to the off-base grocery store instead of the commissary challenges a young family because of the increased costs and because the store owners speak German, Italian, Japanese, Korean or another language a young person might not know.
The cancellation of medical or dental appointments, or the longer lines at facilities or even at the gate are continuously frustrating. All these are hard to explain because these young people can’t understand why their government isn’t doing their job to support them.
If you’re a politician, and your JOB is to pass a budget, do your JOB. Stop wasting time in giving speeches that use the military as either a shield to make excuses or as a tool to drive a political agenda. Those in uniform can see right through that. Plus, they have other, more important things to do and they need your support, not your pandering.