Amid US govt shutdown, some troops work with no pay, reservist training curtailed

Tourists wait in line to see the Liberty Bell in front of the shuttered Independence Hall in Philadelphia after the government shutdown on Jan 20, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) - The US military faced a variety of consequences as a result of a federal government shutdown, with US troops working at least temporarily without pay, thousands of civilian employees furloughed and Republicans and Democrats alike saying that their opponents should do better for the troops.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said in a memo released by the Pentagon on Saturday that the US military will continue to carry out operations across the world, but the shutdown already was prompting the cancellation or delay of training for reserve units and was having other effects.

Mr Mattis pledged to do his best to mitigate disruptions and financial impact on military families."We will continue to execute daily operations around the world - ships and submarines will remain at sea, our aircraft will continue to fly and our warfighters will continue to pursue terrorists throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia," he wrote.

"While training for reservists must be curtailed, active forces will stay at their posts adapting their training to achieve the least negative impact on our readiness to fight."

He added: "Steady as she goes - hold the line. I know our Nation can count on you."

According to a Pentagon planning memo posted this week, all active duty uniformed personnel are to continue their duties, but they will not be paid until after the shutdown is resolved.

Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command, said the shutdown would not have a significant impact across the Middle East, where US troops are conducting operations against militants in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, and where the US military has a host of major bases.

President Donald Trump accused the Democrats on Saturday morning in a tweet of "holding our Military hostage over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration," a reference to the dispute that is at the heart of the shutdown.

But the situation wasn't that simple.

While Mr Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan,Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other Republicans blamed the Democrats, Sen. Claire McCaskill, made an effort shortly after midnight to get the troops' salaries and death benefits paid through the shutdown.

"I want to make sure that tonight we send a very clear signal that we don't want one moment to pass with there being any uncertainty of any soldier anywhere in the world that they will be paid for the valiant work they do for our national security," she said, calling for a resolution to pay the troops.

Mr McConnell scuttled the effort, objecting to her motion.

The pay situation threatened the financial well-being of service members, whose annual salaries begin at less than US$30,000 (S$39,600). As Ms McCaskill noted, Congress has historically given the military back pay when a shutdown occurs or passed a bill that pays them during a work stoppage. US troops are paid twice a month, and the next cheque is expected Feb. 1.

As Mr Mattis predicted in public remarks Friday, military reservists across the country traveled in preparation for scheduled training this weekend, only to be sent home after the shutdown at midnight. While some live close to their units, it's common for reservists to travel several hours to bases for drilling.

Mr Bryan Salas, a Marine Corps veteran, said his son traveled from West Virginia on Friday to report to training this weekend at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, but returned hours later."He just went back to West Virginia about a half-hour ago," Mr Salas said around noon Saturday. "It's just time wasted. He's a student, but there are others who have jobs and their own businesses who planned for this training."

A soldier assigned to the Army's 450th Civil Affairs Battalion in Maryland said that his unit is preparing for a month-long exercise in March, and was planning to work on weapons qualifications this weekend in advance. The battalion includes numerous congressional staff members, he said.

"We have dozens of mission-planning tasks to complete since we just got our initial operations order for the exercise on Thursday," said the soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to be candid.

"Not to mention all the equipment that needs to be prepared to move by rail. This puts us really far behind with only two days scheduled in February to prepare for a month-long training."

While uniformed personnel are largely shielded from the shutdown's effects, civilian employees whose jobs are not deemed critical to defence operations will be furloughed, according to the same Pentagon memo.

There are more than 740,000 Defence Department civilians. Mr Mattis said last Friday that about half of them would be furloughed. The Defence Department did not respond to repeated requests on Saturday to provide a precise number of furloughed employees.

Ms Susanna Blume, who was a Pentagon official at the time of the last shutdown in 2013, said Pentagon leaders may not actually know that number, because decisions about which civilian employees will stay home are often delegated down the bureaucracy, and the roster of furloughed personnel can change day to day given work requirements.

Former officials said that the impact of the shutdown, especially if it goes on for an extended of period of time, may be felt most keenly in military readiness because of its effect on civilian or reserve personnel involved in maintenance and training."Disrupting those schedules often has a domino effect," Ms Blume said. Military intelligence activities, which often rely on civilian personnel, could also be affected, she said.

Mr Mark Cancian, who was a senior budget official in 2013, suggested that if lawmakers resolve the impasse in a matter of days, the episode would be "disruptive but not catastrophic." Even so, he said, the act of planning for a shutdown would cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Already on Saturday, other effects were felt across the military. One particularly sensitive one is the temporary suspension of US$100,000 payments promised to military families in the event their loved one dies so that they can travel and prepare funerals. Several nonprofits, including Fisher House and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), offered to assist families that might be in need.

The Armed Forces Network, which carries television broadcasts of sporting events and other programming, was taken off air at midnight, leaving deployed US troops without one common way to watch National Football League playoff games this weekend.

Defence Department outreach efforts also were curtailed, including aerial flyovers at sporting events, band performances and related travel, according to a memo by Dana W. White, Mattis's assistant for public affairs.

While duties performed by uniformed personnel overseas are not immediately affected, the signal sent to troops in areas such as US Africa Command (AFRICOM), where forces are deployed under hazardous conditions in Somalia, Niger and elsewhere, did not appear to be a welcome one."We hope Congress has our country's best interest in mind," said Col. Mark Cheadle, an AFRICOM spokesman, when asked about the shutdown.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.