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Shutdown at Ground Level: A Soldier's Eye View

Shutdown at Ground Level: A Soldier's Eye View

President Obama signed a last minute bill on Monday night, approved by the House and Senate, to ensure that even during a government shutdown members of the military would still be paid. But that bill came too late to stave off the hurried preparations that occurred on every military base in America yesterday as everyone from top leaders to junior soldiers got ready for the impact. Nor did the bill make clear exactly how many DoD civilians and contractors with jobs related to the military would be protected. According to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pay will continue for civilians with jobs that “are providing support to members of the Armed Forces.” But support is a broad term and may not cover many of the ancillary functions that are essential to day-to-day activities and quality of life within the military but are not deemed essential for conducting critical operations.

With all the uncertainty, here’s a bit of perspective on how the shutdown looked to members of the armed services and the civilians whose livelihood is tied to the military.

There are three things people in the military did yesterday in anticipation of government the shutdown.

Budgeters bought enough supplies—from printer cartridges to bullets—in a hasty end-of-year spending spree so the “essentials” could do their jobs today as the government shut down. But we do that every year.

Leaders were in never-ending meetings about how to still accomplish their missions even with minimal manning and no guarantee of filling equipment shortfalls.

Everybody else held their post, worrying if their paychecks would come on time after the government shuts down. Uniformed troops know they will get paid, but will the systems and people be in place to pay them on time? Many reservists prepping their uniforms yesterday expecting to be on orders today were told last night not to show up.

All three distractions could have been averted had Congress passed a budget. Rest assured though, if called, aircraft would launch, the carrier group would sail and brigades would deploy. Despite the political crisis, the Defense Department will not hurt America’s national security by compromising readiness. What may be compromised are the multitude of supporting tasks that sustain the military’s ability to conduct its core mission. Many of those jobs, ranging from administration to maintenance, are performed by DoD civilians and contractors who may not be protected by the president’s 11th hour bill continuing soldier’s pay.

An exclamation point on this claim was the Pentagon comptroller’s statement to reporters this week about a potential strike against Syria. “If … the president were to authorize some action against Syria,” Robert Hale said, “it would be a military operation approved by the secretary, and so it would be an excepted activity and, yes, we could go forward with it.”

Given that the critical missions will go on, it may seem that the shutdown doesn’t mean much for the military. Nothing is further from the truth.

The first-order consequences of this uncertain budget drill have been rehearsed for years. Even when Congress has passed a continuing resolution, everybody in the Pentagon down to the remote Tooele Army Depot in Utah has stocked up on enough office supplies to sustain operations. It’s akin to squirrels hoarding nuts for the winter.

Besides ensuring there’s enough paper to at least print out operations orders, concerns regarding the shutdown’s potential effects on readiness loom. But to a wrench-turner on a flight line, or grunt in the field, it mostly translates to a slower tempo and anxiety about essential services not related to their paychecks. Mid-level leaders will creatively mitigate effects on their own units but will have to waste energy addressing the most menial tasks, like: will the trash be picked up tomorrow?

The brass drew a fat, red line on their priorities immediately dropping non-essentials from the to-do list—because there’s nobody to do the work. Anything that could be delayed is now delayed. Contracts not signed yesterday likely won’t be today—so that leaky roof on the chow hall is going to leak for a few more months.

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