Dustin and I came up with a plan: If we didn’t receive his full military paycheck on April 15 this month, we would dip into our savings.
But what if we didn’t receive the next month’s paycheck at all?
Well, we’d just cross that bridge when it came.
On the night of April 8, thousands of military families were having the same discussion. And although Congress and President Obama came to an agreement (sort of) about the budget at the literal eleventh hour, ensuring that the government would not shut down and service members would receive their pay, the fact that military families had to consider these possibilities will have long-term consequences for the overall health of the armed services.
Military service is built on a trust: Service men and women sacrifice everything — from time with family to their own lives — with the understanding that the government will always take care of them — monetarily and otherwise. Indeed, recruiters often use “job [read: paycheck] security” as a tool to enlist new members.
In the middle of this poor economy, I have heard more times than I can count, “Well, at least your husband is in the military and you’ll always get paid.” And, really, why else would a family put up with yearlong separations, eight moves in 10 years and a job description that often comes with the label “hazardous duty” if they couldn’t count on being paid?
When I have lost all patience with the military lifestyle, when I say that I can’t possibly deal with more deployments and transfers, Dustin usually reminds me of the benefits of service: mainly, financial security. Our one certainty is that Dustin has a job.
Only the military can get away with this seemingly solid and reciprocal exchange of sacrifice and service. Imagine a civilian corporation telling a prospective employee, “We can’t tell you when, where or how often you’ll move. We can’t promise that you’ll be there for your dad’s funeral or your daughter’s birth. We also can’t promise what job you’ll be doing or when. Sound good? Oh, and by the way, we hope that you are ready to die for us.”
The prospective employee’s next question would be: “And you said I’ll make how many millions of dollars for this?”
It is a very delicate proposition, this trust between the military and its members. Service members sometimes report to duty under the worst of circumstances: when perhaps it is more instinctive to stay behind and protect their family, when they know it could cost them their life, and even when they don’t necessarily agree with the mission. What other corporation could inspire such loyalty in its employees? And it’s all because service members have an unshakable trust that their government will take care of them. Always.
That trust came under question April 8. Service members and their families wanted to know: Do I still have to report to duty if I’m not getting paid?
In most instances, yes.
Will I be disciplined if I refuse to follow orders while I’m not getting paid?
Probably. (Ironic, isn’t it? Service members are expected to hold up their end of the bargain; the government is not.)
Can my spouse come home from deployment if he’s not getting paid?
How will Congress and President Obama answer to the first family whose military loved one is killed in action during the military shutdown, while basically working on an “I owe you”?
(I never saw an answer to this. In fact, it was reported that death benefits would cease during the shutdown.)
Luckily, none of these questions and answers were put to the test. But it is unfathomable — if only considering the government’s own self-interest in ensuring the military’s sense of security — that leaders in Washington pushed us perilously close. Whereas before military families never questioned that they would be compensated for their sacrifices, now, for the first time, they realize nonpayment is a viable option. Which is to say, on the morning of April 9, while the government and most of the country rejoiced that a “solution” had been found, you could almost hear the confidence of military families shatter.
On April 10, it was a new military, one where “job security” is not a major selling point and where soldiers hesitate, if even for a second, before embarking on a dangerous mission to question the government’s loyalty to them.
On April 15, Dustin received two paychecks, each for half the amount of his normal salary. That’s because the military, expecting a shutdown, had already prepared half-payments. That’s how close our country came to not paying its military.
And how close did my husband come to not going to work during the shutdown? How seriously did he consider ditching his duties until he got paid?
He never — not for a second — doubted that he’d be at work Monday morning, that he would keep up his end of the deal. Paycheck or no paycheck.
Shame on the government for considering not doing the same.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.