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Shutdown could leave service members without pay

"Don't these people understand?" As the Pentagon prepares for a possible government showdown, service members and families are frustrated and looking for answers.
/ Source: Melissa Harris Perry

"Don't these people understand?" As the Pentagon prepares for a possible government showdown, service members and families are frustrated and looking for answers.

SFC Kyle Leonard gets a hug from his daughter Haley and his mother Sharon Yohn at a homecoming ceremony for his unit, the 713th Engineer Company of the Indiana Army National Guard, at the Army Aviation Support Facility on September 26, 2012 in Gary, Indiana. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Members of the military and their families could be collateral damage in Congress’ fight over a government funding bill. Without a deal, the 1.4 million active duty service members, their families, and some 400,000 civilian defense workers could face furloughs, reduced support services on military bases, delayed paychecks, and even death benefits for the families of those killed while on active duty.

The way the law is written, jobs that protects lives and property must be done even during shutdowns, which means all members of the military must report to work on Tuesday no matter what happens with the funding bill the House is arguing over this weekend. That means soldiers and civilian employees deemed critical to protecting military lives and property will be on the job. Paychecks for the beginning of the month will be deposited before the shutdown, but mid-month payments could be jeopardy if the shutdown continues past October 7.

Civilian Department of Defense employees who are not classified as essential and contractors will face furloughs beginning Tuesday, and without congressional authorization, will not be paid. This could leave families already living paycheck to paycheck in dire financial straits. Speaking at a press conference on Friday about the Pentagon’s shutdown planning, Undersecretary for Defense Robert Hale called a shutdown “one more blow to the morale of our civilian workforce,” and one that could affect military readiness.

For the families of men and women deployed around the globe, the shutdown talk feels like an insult. “We have people fighting a war, we have lots of dangerous places. We have service members in harm’s way. Our leaders are worrying about how to plan a shutdown rather than how to protect our national security and they shouldn’t have to do that,” said Joyce Raezner, executive director of the National Military Family Association.

Raezner told MSNBC that spouses and children are already in a precarious position. After a summer of reduced services in job assistance, child development services, and access to base commissaries, further cuts will ripple through communities. Without those services, families must hope that landlords and local businesses are willing to negotiate. “We know from previous examples that communities have tried to do what they can,” Raezner said, “but it’s still a huge hassle.” At Friday’s press conference, Hale did not specify how services will be affected, so it is unclear exactly what will happen to families starting Tuesday.

Some institutions have plans in place to fill the gap, and some banks and credit unions have said they will work with service members and families. The Navy Federal Credit Union, which serves all branches of the military, announced Tuesday that it would cover those mid-month direct deposit payments to active duty military members itself.

The situation is less dire for veterans–VA health care is funded one year in advance and so won’t be affected–but a shutdown could threaten what progress has been made in processing the massive backlog of VA claims. “The thing we are really concerned about is how it will impact the proactive initiatives the VA has been taking to deal with veterans issues,” Kate O’Gorman of the Iraq and Afghan Veterans Association told MSNBC. The VA has been able to keep some claims processors working during past shutdowns, O’Gorman said, but “we don’t know what sort of levels of support they’ll have.”

Members of Congress have proposed legislation that would protect benefits for service members and veterans, but with all efforts focused on continuing resolution negotiations, progress on those bills will not be made until after the current crisis comes to an end. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a first-term Democrat from Hawaii and a veteran of two tours in the Middle East, introduced a bill on Thursday that would guarantee uninterrupted funding to pay service members and certain civilian workers no matter how deadlocked Congressional negotiations remain. Another bill awaiting a floor vote in the House and a committee vote in the Senate would fund the entire VA budget in advance.

Veterans, families, and government officials are angry about having to spend resources planning  around the current legislative brinksmanship. Speaking at a press conference on Friday about the Pentagon’s shutdown preparations, defense undersecretary Hale said, “Unfortunately we’re getting good at this.” For the families Raezner and her NMFA works with, “there’s frustration that once again, how can we be at this point? There’s frustration from these families: ‘Don’t these people understand?’”