This senseless government shutdown is harming Coast Guard families
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This senseless government shutdown is harming Coast Guard families

January 24, 2019 | Updated on December 1, 2021

A longer version of this article was originally published in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine. Read the complete article on the U.S. Naval Institute’s website.

Today, with the government shutdown in its fourth week, it is beyond troubling that Coast Guard men and women are being unnecessarily subjected to financial hardship while they freely accept operational tasking and perform their duties as part of their oath to their country. 

These are the Americans who flew over the rooftops of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, saving thousands from flooded homes. These are the heroes who responded to the worst marine environmental disaster in the nation’s history. These are the men and women who provide critical medical support to other Department of Homeland Security agencies, including screening incoming air passengers during the Ebola crisis and doing the same today at our southwest border. And these are the service members who are now doing this work without pay.

I recently turned 70 and have had 47 addresses in my life. I am the son of a Coast Guard chief petty officer and brother of a Coast Guard spouse. Our family’s life has revolved around the service my parents revered. While they, and later my wife and I, treated each new transfer as an adventure, we persevered through challenges.

In the early 1950s my father got a no-notice transfer from Mobile, Alabama to remote Ketchikan, Alaska after it became clear our family was not a good fit in the segregated South. Out there, my father had long deployments on a large buoy tender as far as the Bering Sea. Before modern pay systems, service members at sea without bank access were often paid in cash and unable to transfer money to dependents. Families had to carefully plan around deployments. My mother prioritized—food and rent came first, and she dealt with other needs as she could. The single most searing memory of my childhood, even more than the time in Mobile, was watching my mother cope with my father’s unanticipated extended absence and little cash. My brother, sister and I had been given locked banks for Christmas by family friends. One day, we found our mother in the kitchen crying with a hammer, trying to open the banks so we would have milk money for our lunch. Despite these trials, my mother and father believed until the day they died that the Coast Guard was the best thing that ever happened to our family. 

Coast Guard men and women have always served a cause greater than themselves based on the service’s core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty. Honor is the compact you make with yourself and how you will demonstrate your character by your behavior. Respect is the compact you make with those around you—your family, community, fellow service members, and citizens. Devotion to duty is the compact you make with your country to support and defend the Constitution of the United States as a part of the “Long Blue Line.”

That Constitution begins with “We the people” and sets clear guidance to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare.” I never believed it would be necessary to remind the leaders of all branches of government of their constitutional responsibilities, but it appears they have subordinated the “general welfare” of their fellow citizens to parochial interests. While this political theater ensues, there are junior Coast Guard petty officers with families, who are already compensated at levels below the national poverty level, not being paid during this government shutdown. There is no reasonable answer as to why they must endure this hardship at a time where there is no national emergency. I don’t know how I would tell a spouse at Arlington National Cemetery that his or her survivor benefits might be at risk—again, for no reason. I’m glad my mother and father are not alive to see it.

Admiral Thad W. Allen served as the 23rd commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and is a member of the Partnership’s Government Leadership Advisory Council.

(U. S. Coast Guard photograph by Auxiliarist Trey Clifton/Released)