Unlike the Defense Department’s branches of the military, the Coast Guard is operating without a budget, marking the first time in more than a century that part of the armed forces has had paychecks withheld.
While Congress has approved funding for the Defense Department, the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, whose agencies are affected by the shutdown. Active-duty personnel are “essential workers,” working for free with the promise of back pay when a spending deal is passed — but they have no idea when that money will come.
“I can see people panicking, and they have every right to,” said Katelyn Leckemby, 35, whose husband, Stephen, is an electronics specialist who works on the vessels ported in Cape May. Leckemby is 7 1/2
months pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. “It’s scary,” she added. “A lot of people have families, and we’re all just trying to provide for them, and not knowing when the money is going to come in and whether you can provide for them especially, that’s terrifying.”
Hundreds of thousands of federal workers, including more than 6,000 civilian staffers who support the Coast Guard, have been furloughed since the shutdown began last month over President Trump’s demand for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and Democrats’ refusal to fund it.
Service members are prohibited from talking to the media during the shutdown, but several Coast Guard spouses said they are increasingly worrying about paying their bills, cutting spending where they can and visiting an ad hoc food pantry set up on base to feed their families. If the paychecks due at the end of January also are withheld, the consequences will be grave, they said.
Leckemby and her husband already have curtailed their spending on cellphones and gasoline, and they’ve started to use hallway fans to blow heat from a wood-burning stove around their house so they can shut off their heat. The high here Friday was 41 degrees. Monday’s forecast calls for a low of 16.
“We’re kind of tiptoeing around the situation that I’m very late in my pregnancy,” Leckemby said, noting that she often drives an hour one way to meet with doctors. “Our kids are young, but they’re not so young that they can’t understand hurt feelings. So if I get really emotional and start to cry, I have to walk away.”
Deanne Piersol, 27, the wife of another Coast Guardsman, works part time as a teacher’s aide in Cape May while caring for their 4-year-old daughter. Initially, Piersol joked with her husband that she’d cover their bills during the shutdown, but as progress in Washington foundered, she started using the food pantry.
Piersol recently learned that she is pregnant with the couple’s second child. Her husband, Blaine, works about 80 hours per week training recruits, and while she has tried to explain the difficulties they face to friends back home in Texas, such discussions have not been easy.
“A lot of the comments I’m getting is, ‘Well, you’ll get a paycheck eventually,’ ” she said. “Well, yeah. Now, why don’t you take your paycheck and then don’t use it, act like you don’t have it and then still try to pay your bills?”
The situation for graduating recruits adds a new challenge for the Coast Guard amid the shutdown, which turned 28 days old Friday. A service spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, said the Coast Guard has the ability to issue plane tickets to boot camp graduates who have been assigned to units that “have the capacity to support them during the shutdown.” But not all units do, and the situation is more complicated in those cases.
Some graduates will be allowed to return to their hometowns for the leave typically granted to new service members after boot camp. After that, instead of sending them to their units, the Coast Guard will defer the costs associated with permanent transfers by temporarily placing the graduates on recruiting assignments while they’re home with family, McBride said.
Others who do not have the means to go home and who have been assigned to units that can’t afford to take them on will remain in Cape May.
“We are committed to the health, safety and security of our graduates as they begin their service to the American public,” McBride said. “No recruits will depart the training center without an approved transfer plan which accounts for each of their individual circumstances and resources.”
A mentor for the new graduates, Coast Guard Capt. Kevin M. Carroll, briefly referenced the shutdown during their graduation ceremony. He said it is “a very difficult time that you’re entering the Coast Guard,” but he reminded them of their duties as they join the service.
“I’ll tell you right now that our core values — honor, respect and devotion to duty — are not funded with cash,” he said in remarks streamed online. “They’re funded with character. They’re funded with commitment. With blood and sweat and tears. And during our visits I saw all of that from you, so you are absolutely ready to be able to join the fleet, and I welcome you here today.”
The uncertainty has triggered fear and anger among some affiliated with the service. But even in this beach town that is now mostly deserted for the winter, it has also inspired generosity and resolve.
The food pantry was established at the beginning of the year after firefighters in Seaville, N.J., some 23 miles northeast, took up a collection of nonperishable items. A club for military spouses at Cape May initially stocked the food in a closet but quickly realized that it would need more space, organizer Jessica Manfre said.
Within days, the base commanding officer, Capt. Owen Gibbons, found unused space in a warehouse. Four refrigerators from other parts of the base were rolled in, along with a freezer that a teacher in town supplied. With food donations arriving daily, organizers began using gift cards and lines of credit extended by local stores to buy and distribute produce, meat, cheese, laundry detergent, diapers and more.
Manfre, 33, whose husband, Scott, is a senior chief petty officer, said she is naturally optimistic. But she lost hope weeks ago that Washington would reach a quick resolution and decided she had better get to work. Manfre, who has a 7-year-old son and a 15-month-old daughter, now spends about 10 hours per day volunteering at the food pantry and has a growing army of volunteers.
“I think what we have done has given a lot of purpose, at least for me,” she said. “Because I am not a patient person at all. I don’t sit around and wait. So, when I’m doing this, I’m not as stressed.”
The politicians responsible for the shutdown “need to figure it out, and they need to figure it out soon,” she said. “These are our lives.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the food pantry was humming, with dozens of people in and out during the three hours it was open. Some were in the Coast Guard’s distinctive blue working uniform, and others carried children.
Manfre, Piersol and Leckemby were among the volunteers restocking shelves. Manfre sunnily asked visitors if they were there to “shop” and offered each of them bags.
Before the shift began, Piersol recalled crying the first time she visited the pantry. Then tears rolled down her cheeks again as she described volunteers bringing donated food to distribute.
“The people walking in and feeling guilty, I get how they’re feeling,” she said. “They say, ‘Oh, we’ve only missed one paycheck.’ But what if you miss three, and your money has gone to food when you could be saving that money for your future? I want them to realize that. I want to be like: ‘Come on in! Take all you need!’ ”