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Coast Guard advocates aim to avoid a repeat of the last government shutdown


The last time there was a government shutdown, members of the U.S. Coast Guard lined up at food pantries while they worked without pay. This time around, advocates are trying to avoid that. Steve Walsh with member station WHRO in Norfolk has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: It's a quiet weekday afternoon at VFW Post 3160 in Norfolk, Va. The tables are mostly empty. Rob Pedersen was post commander during the last shutdown in 2019. He says he can picture the place back then.

ROB PEDERSEN: We asked one of the chiefs over there at the Coast Guard what age kids all of his people had, you know, size diapers they needed, all that kind of stuff. And we set up, like, a Walmart with tables. They could just walk through and get what they needed, whether it was diapers, toilet paper, paper towels.

WALSH: Mainly young members of the Coast Guard and their families living paycheck to paycheck. They came into the post located just a couple of blocks from the Atlantic for supplies and a spaghetti dinner.

PEDERSEN: It's amazing when somebody gets a tear in their eye because there's a package of toilet paper they can take for free because they don't have enough money to go buy it.

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WALSH: Jon Ostrowski, a former coast guardsman and president of the Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association, says the office is already getting calls from members asking what they can do to pay their rent if they miss a paycheck again. During the last government shutdown, Congress passed a defense budget, so most of the military was paid, but not the roughly 50,000 members of the Coast Guard, most of whom still had to report for duty without pay.

JON OSTROWSKI: We probably have thousands of men and women right now on board cutters, patrolling over in the Persian Gulf. And, you know, we have units all over the place. And we kind of get forgotten, you know, because we're part of homeland security.

WALSH: Another shutdown will make recruiting and retention even harder, he says. The Coast Guard has missed its recruiting targets in each of the last four years. Like other branches of the military, Coast Guard families can be isolated, as they are asked to move around the country and even around the globe.

OSTROWSKI: At the same time, they're out there doing their job and worrying about paying their bills or worrying about their credit because they're going to be late on a payment or something.

WALSH: 2018 to 2019 was the longest government shutdown, lasting 35 days. This time around, if there is no movement in Congress, the military won't be paid either. Congresswoman Jen Kiggans, a Republican from Virginia, is sponsoring a bipartisan effort to require all active duty members of the military to be paid during a shutdown, including the Coast Guard. A former Navy pilot, Kiggans says she's getting emails from groups who work with military families, telling them to get ready.

JEN KIGGANS: It creates a lot of anxiety for our men and women in uniform. And that's really the last thing they need to be worried about.

WALSH: So far, the bill has not received a hearing in the House. Back at the VFW past post Commander Doug Hoffman worries they will be overwhelmed.

DOUG HOFFMAN: But this time, it's going to be a larger impact. I'm sure we will help out, but it will be a lot harder because of the amount of people. We were able to provide so much because there was very few people. This time, it's going to be more people and less supplies.

WALSH: Hoffman, who is also a federal shipyard worker, says he hopes Congress can avoid the shutdown altogether.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in Norfolk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.