My family has a strong ethic of service; we believe in helping vulnerable people. My grandfather served in the Navy, my father served in the Coast Guard, and my husband and I met while serving in the Coast Guard. When I left the armed forces to become a licensed mental health practitioner, he remained on active duty.
Over the years, we had grown somewhat used to the threat of a government shutdown. We also came to expect that politicians would settle their disagreements and broker some kind of deal before the military went without pay. On Jan. 1, when it seemed like Department of Homeland Security just barely “identified a way” to cover that first pay period for military personnel, the gravity of our situation sank in. My husband and I scrambled to rework our finances. On Jan. 15, for the first time in U.S. history, a branch of the armed forces missed a paycheck.
Every day this shutdown continues, I get angrier. Every day drives the point home that the political agendas of our leaders are more important to them than the people who put them in office. I’m not sure that we are living in an actual representative democracy anymore. And the longer this goes on, the more precarious my family’s situation is.
I began putting in as many extra hours as possible at the veteran service program where I work. My husband called AT&T and DirectTV so we could defer payment until the shutdown ends. Friends forwarded us notices from companies offering free diapers and pet food to federal workers, to help fill in the gaps. My monthly income will only cover our mortgage and some of our bills. To pay for other needs, like day care and food, we’re spending down our limited savings and turning to food banks.
Our town has a strong network for meeting basic needs in an emergency. Every day of the week, there’s somewhere you can go for a hot meal, and almost as many days where you can find an open food pantry. I know this because just a few months ago, I had compiled a spreadsheet for clients about how to access these resources. Now, I find myself forwarding this list to fellow Coasties, federal workers and others who’ve reached out to me, and posting it on Facebook so others can find it without having to ask. Our community has shown immense support by donating groceries and gas gift cards — but the need for this help brings me great sadness. It’s strange to send that sheet out to people who never thought they would need it. It’s painful to need it ourselves.
Recently, we also learned that Coast Guard retirees may miss their monthly pension check on Feb. 1. I work with veterans who plan their lives around that income, who deserve it — and now, I’m sharing my resource list with them, offering them rides to food pantries and telling them how to apply for special grants from the state or the American Legion. I also call and email to offer emotional support. This situation has been incredibly tough on my clients: They have always put others first and lived with fierce self-sufficiency.
On social media, I’ve gotten comments shaming my family for using food pantries and accusing us of not preparing for an event like this. But people join the military expecting stability. My husband and I live well within our means, setting aside money for retirement and for emergencies. Before the shutdown, that emergency fund had to replace a vehicle engine and stabilize the foundation of our house — and just as we were starting to build those savings back up, our leaders created a whole new emergency. Every day, I grow more willing to embrace progressive policies that ensure food, housing and health care for all; it has grown clear that they’re not accessible to enough people, even if they work full-time or in the military.
What’s shameful isn’t that we must ask for help. It’s that we’re forced to do so because of our own government’s failure to represent our interests. Ironically, the very same individuals responsible for ensuring homeland security — performing drug interdictions and assisting people through our immigration process — are going without paychecks because of this political dispute. When I was on the Tahoma, we made some of the largest cocaine and heroin busts in recent history. That’s how you keep drugs from entering the country; we are the wall. It’s a disgrace that 41,000 dedicated individuals, who freely enlisted in service to their country, are not getting paid for their labor and sacrifice.
I joined the military, in part, because of my faith in our country and its drive to continually improve itself. While the United States may not always live up to our values and ideals, the attitude of perseverance, of striving toward a more perfect union, was always there — now, I’m just not sure whether these collective values still hold. The shutdown has eroded much of my optimism. Over the past few weeks, many in my community have shown kindness and compassion in the face of this dysfunction. I believe in ordinary people working for one another, but I no longer believe that our government works for them.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.