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Shutdown causing uncertainty among the Coast Guard’s newest members

The Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Gerczak conducts sea trials off the coast of Key West, Florida, on Dec. 14, 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard/Released)
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Coast Guard recruits are the latest casualties in the ongoing federal government shutdown, retired Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger, former vice commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said during a congressional panel discussion Thursday about the impacts of the crisis on Department of Homeland Security personnel.

The partial shutdown, which is about to enter its fifth week, is creating uncertainty with Coast Guard recruits who want to serve the public, but also need work that pays, he said.

“We are beginning to lose people who have talent and are capable,” said Neffenger, who was also a former administrator of the Transportation Security Administration.

For Coast Guard members who began basic training prior to Dec. 31, they have received one paycheck at least. But for the rest, they are training for a job for which they are uncertain when they will be paid.

“There is a point at which you have to take care of yourself,” Neffenger said.

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The partial government shutdown began Dec. 21 when Congress failed to pass a budget for certain departments, including Homeland Security. Other military branches are unaffected by the shutdown because they are part of the Defense Department, which is fully funded through fiscal year 2019, which ends Sept. 30.

Stretching beyond one month, it is now the longest government shutdown in history as the White House and congressional Democrats cannot work out a compromise. President Donald Trump has said he will not sign a funding bill without $5.7 billion designated for a border wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Democrats refuse to provide money for a wall. Bills to reopen the government continue to stall on Capitol Hill.

The Coast Guard was able to pay its members Dec. 31 paychecks, but missed their next payday Jan. 15. If the shutdown continues through next week, the nearly 42,000 members of the Coast Guard will miss a second round of pay Feb. 1. On that day, roughly 50,000 Coast Guard retirees and their survivors will miss their first check, as they are paid monthly.

At the Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May in New Jersey, the service is having trouble getting graduates to their next duty station. The center hosts a graduation ceremony on about 42 Fridays out of the year with about 100 graduates at each ceremony, said Chief Warrant Officer John Edwards, a spokesman for the training center.

During the shutdown, graduates whose new units are unable to accept them are either being sent back home for hometown recruiting or are staying behind at Cape May until the shutdown ends. So far, Edwards said no recruits have stayed behind, they’ve found somewhere for them to go.

It’s all about the logistics of moving, he said. If a graduate is moving to a duty station that doesn’t have housing available, they won’t send a new servicemember there who can’t financially support themselves and secure housing.

“If they’ve been here since Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, they have at least one paycheck and have not had much opportunity to spend it,” Edwards said. “We work with them to ensure they are financially able, if [they] choose to go to that unit, and can afford to do it.”

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On Friday, another 67 recruits will graduate and face this same dilemma.

Eventually, Neffenger said there will come a breaking point.

“I don’t know what the breaking point is, but if you can’t put fuel in an aircraft and you can’t put food on the ships … it’s hard to maintain recruitment,” he said.

The panel discussion also examined the impacts of the shutdown on other frontline homeland security personnel.

“Almost all of our frontline workers at (the Department of Homeland Security or DHS) are working with no pay,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, who hosted Thursday’s discussion. “Quite simply the shutdown of DHS has undermined the department’s ability to secure the homeland, protect the American people and pay its frontline officers and agents.”

Jeh C. Johnson, the former secretary of Department of Homeland Security, said he’s seeing the impacts of the shutdown through his son, a member of the Coast Guard.

These Coast Guard members and recruits are suddenly facing new, difficult choices, he said.

“My own son’s shipmates I fear are going broke,” Johnson said. “At basic training in Cape May, New Jersey, recruits are deciding to go to another military service.”

He said a breaking point could come for many of them who are now facing another missed paycheck this year. Johnson reiterated a line that he used when he once led Homeland Security, saying the department’s people are its most valuable resource.

“We are in the midst of a security crisis and it is one of our own making, frankly,” he said. “The very people we depend on for our security are made to suffer by this shutdown by inflicting stress, hardship, anxiety and anger into their personal lives and the lives of their families.”

The damage from the shutdown, Johnson warned, could linger for a long time.

“If this shutdown ended tomorrow, I fear that the damage already done to our security will be months, if not years,” he said. “As a result through high attrition, lack of re-enlistment, recruitment efforts have all been set back.”

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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