msnbc.com news services
updated 7/30/2011 4:53:24 AM ET 2011-07-30T08:53:24

A half a world away from the Capitol Hill deadlock, the economy and debt crisis are weighing heavily on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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And the top question on their minds Saturday even as bombings rocked the city around them, was one the top U.S. military officer couldn't answer.

Will we get paid?

"I honestly can't answer that question," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told troops at Kandahar air base in southern Afghanistan, as several expressed anxiety over budget wrangling in Washington.

Mullen also told them they would continue to go to work each day.

But he offered a bit more optimism than defense officials have acknowledged when those questions have come up in recent weeks. He said he believed that troops would be paid eventually, regardless of what happens.

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"I have confidence that at some point in time, whatever compensation you are owed, you will be given," said Mullen, who is making his 15th trip to Afghanistan, just two months before he retires. But, he noted, "There are plenty of you living paycheck to paycheck so if paychecks were stopped it would have a devastating impact very quickly."

"I'd like to give you a better answer than that right now, I just honestly don't know," he said.

Questions on military spending and how the ongoing budget struggles will impact them dominated the morning meeting at the Kandahar base, and it was the first one Marines asked when he moved on to Camp Leatherneck.

The U.S. has warned that it will run out of money to pay all of its bills after August 2 without a deal from Congress to raise a $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Where U.S. troops fall in priority for payment in a default has not been made clear.

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With $172 billion of revenue between August 3 and August 31, the U.S. Treasury could fully fund Social Security payments, Medicare and Medicaid, interest on the debt, defense vendor payments and unemployment insurance, found a study by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.

But that would leave entire government departments — such as Labor, Commerce, Energy and Justice — unfunded, and many others unpaid, like active-duty troops and the federal workforce.

Focus on money, jobs
Troops pressed Mullen on how much the Pentagon is spending on contractors, when many tasks could be done by military members. They questioned whether the budget pressures will focus on pay or equipment and other acquisition. They bemoaned what it could cost to implement the new policy repealing the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military. And they wondered if their retirement pay was safe.

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For his part, Mullen said the cost of repealing the gay ban was very limited. And he said there were no immediate plans to affect retirement benefits.

Mullen was visiting troops across southern Afghanistan on Saturday, a region that has been pummeled by violence and suicide attacks in recent weeks.

But there were only a smattering of questions on the military strategy or the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which is beginning with a 10,000 drawdown by the end of this year.

Instead, it was all about money and job.

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Mullen warned the troops that as time goes on, budget restrictions will pare down the size of the military, and he told them to keep that in mind as they pursue their education and try to further their careers so they will have a better chance of re-enlisting.

But in the end, he punted the questions back to Capitol Hill.

Asked whether Congress members would cut their own benefits if they acted to cut military pay, Mullen triggered chuckles when he recommended the troops e-mail their representatives with that query.

"They're the ones that can answer that particular question," he said at a town hall-style gathering of soldiers in Kandahar.

While a group of congressmen pushed forward a bill this week to ensure that the active military servicemen still get paid in the case of default, there's no firm plan yet.

The White House hasn't made any assurances and neither has the Treasury Department.

Some financial organizations that service military clients, like USAA and the Andrews Federal Credit Union, have stepped up to say that they will advance pay if there is a default.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Soldiers anxious over debt debate

  1. Transcript of: Soldiers anxious over debt debate

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: the US passes the Tuesday night deadline without a deal to increase the debt ceiling, then the government is going to have to make some very tough choices as to what gets paid and what doesn't. That's causing anxiety from Wall Street to the battlefields of Afghanistan , as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , Admiral Mike Mullen , discovered for himself today. NBC 's Jim Miklaszewski is traveling with him.

    JIM MIKLASZEWSKI reporting: Lester , here in southern Afghanistan at the hot spots at Kandahar and Helmand provinces, American soldiers and Marines are still dodging bullets, rockets and roadside bombs every day. But amazingly, when they had a chance to throw questions at the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , Admiral Mike Mullen , their number one concern was the ongoing debate back home over the debt ceiling.

    Admiral MIKE MULLEN: You know, the checkbook is not unlimited.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: Admiral Mullen told soldiers at Kandahar that if the talks failed, they'd still have to fight but they might not get paid.

    Adm. MULLEN: There are plenty of you that are living paycheck to paycheck. So if -- so if paychecks were to stop, it can have a devastating impact, and it can have a devastating impact pretty quickly.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: At Camp Leatherneck , Mullen told Marines that given the state of the US economy , all the services face a cutback in the size of the force, and maybe even military benefits.

    Adm. MULLEN: We're going to have to tighten our belts, and we're going to have to prioritize, we're going to have to make some hard decisions.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: So here in the middle of a war zone, like many Americans, these service members are worried about their jobs and are asking what the heck is

    going on back in Washington. Lester: Jim Miklaszewski in Afghanistan . Our

    HOLT:

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