As Congress just passed a bill, stopping the government shutdown from happening just one day shy of their deadline, everyone seems to be talking about the implications should another government shutdown actually occur. The last such shutdown happened in 2013, and though they passed a bill to pay military personnel that year, that particular bill only applied to the year 2013. In case you didn’t know, the government is under no obligation to pay their military in the event of a military shutdown.
I was in the military, deployed to a combat zone in Afghanistan during the shutdown in 2013. We were still paid in full, but the fear lingered that one day we would check our bank accounts and see no extra numbers. Rumors (though unfounded and untrue) abounded that the bill wouldn’t apply to us for various reasons.
I have been asked several times what I thought about all that, and my answer? Well, to be honest I didn’t really care much back then.
I was 23 years old, on my fourth deployment in the middle of Afghanistan; I was going out on frequent special operations missions that required all of my faculties. I probably checked my bank account twice the whole time I was there. The principle of the thing bothered me to a certain degree (and in retrospect it bothers me a whole lot more), but I was never under any illusion that the politicians in D.C. actually cared about me a whole lot.
More than anything, I was busy doing my job. I put any potential worries about my pay on hold because I had to check and make sure my radio batteries were charged, that my guys knew what they screwed up on and did well last mission, and that we put in some training if we weren’t going out on a mission.
However, the more obvious reason for my apathy is the most important one: I was single with no dependents.
A lot of people join the military for one big reason, and that is financial stability. If you’re in your 20s, have a few kids and are struggling financially — if you’re in good enough shape to make it through basic training, the military might just be a safe option for you. On top of that, you get to serve with a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and it seems like a win-win.
That’s all true, and as long as you don’t get in major trouble, you can expect your paychecks to come in regularly, rain or shine. However, the military isn’t known for paying its personnel in any sort of excess, and there are very few privates in the Army in any danger of getting rich — if you cut even one of these guys’ paychecks, it can really affect their dependents who, spoiler alert, depend on them. The kicker? They still have to go to work.
I’m not talking about your fiscally responsible guy who got married after three years in, had a child once they got their E-6 and then had his next when he got his E-7. I’m talking about the guy that joined because of the stability. The E-3 who, for better or worse, has multiple kids and yet has still sworn the same oath as everyone else. Those are the people who stand to suffer, and go to work while their family back home isn’t getting any cash-flow for rent or groceries.
For those people, I am glad the bill passed protecting military pay in 2013, and I would hope a similar bill would pass again should we be faced with another shutdown.
On that same deployment, several of my friends were killed and I had the honor of escorting their bodies back home. There were issues when it came to paying the families of the fallen their allotted SGLI payments due to the shutdown as they were killed right in the middle of it. Again, another example of something that I had problems with on principle, but was dealing with other things at the time.
If you want to read more about the specifics and mechanics of the circumstances in which military personnel can go without pay, check out the DFAS website’s information on federal government shutdowns. The biggest takeaway states:
In case of a potential government shutdown, the Department of Defense has no legal authority to pay any personnel – military or civilian – for the days during which the government is shut down.”
Images provided by the author.
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