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Troops face crisis fatigue as Congress tries to avoid another shutdown

Congressional delegation visits USS Washington in Norfolk. May 5, 2017. Department of Defense
Congressional delegation visits USS Washington in Norfolk. May 5, 2017. Department of Defense

Military families say they feel caught in the middle from the constant threat of federal government shutdown, which could leave them without paychecks. Programs designed to help them are left in limbo during the budget debate. 

“It's one thing if it happens randomly, but it seems like it's happening more and more frequently. And on the mental load of a family, it's really exhausting,” said Heather Campbell, who is a spouse of an Air Force officer. 

Her family moved to Hampton Roads eight months ago. Campbell estimates that they spent $5,000 of their own money on the move. They need her husband's steady paycheck.

“We know that military families are struggling to afford housing or struggling to afford food,” she said. “We know that each move costs thousands of dollars out of pocket, so it's really unfair to ask military families to plan for themselves for a shutdown that they can't even prevent.”

Congress last week averted a federal government shutdown when it passed a temporary spending bill. The deal only kicked the can down the road a few weeks to two more funding deadlines on March 8 and March 22.

There have been four government shutdowns since 2010, but there have been many more close calls. Last week is the fourth time since October that Congress has had to pass a short term spending bill to avoid a shut down. 

Stop-gap bills, called continuing resolutions, freeze the budget at last years’ level. That means the Pentagon doesn’t have additional money to fund some of the new quality of life projects passed by Congress, said Cory Titus, a former Army officer and a policy director for the Military Officers Association of America. 

“So especially if there's a need to start a new project their hands are definitely tied in ways that they do not need to be right now,” he said.

The Navy is searching for money to replace and refurbish barracks for young servicemembers. Troops also get a bump in pay when they live in more expensive parts of the country, but the latest increases have been on hold, Titus said.

“It hurts servicemembers in ways they don't necessarily realize because things could be better. In regards to a barracks, their pay,” Titus said. “If Congress was able to get their funding bills done in a timely manner.”

Troops separated from their families get an extra $250 a month to help with the expense of running two households. Congress raised that to $400 in the last defense bill, but the Pentagon hasn't implemented the increase, he said. 

“That additional $150 when your service member is a way of training would make a big difference for a family,” Tatis said. 

Many of the programs troops rely on aren’t even in the defense budget. More than 200,000 military families qualify for food subsidies under the Women, Infant and Child (WIC) program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“We're asking more and more of our service members and their families, it's painful to have these conversations with families, not have the answers,” said Besa Pinchotti, who heads the National Military Family Association. “I feel like we're bangging our head up against the wall.”

The situation is worse in parts of Virginia, California and other places where the cost of living is higher, she said.

“We're hearing how military communities are banding together to support each other and families that they know are having a hard time because they don't know where to go for resources,” Pinchotti said. “Or in a lot of cases, don't feel comfortable raising their hand and saying that they need help.”

If Congress can avoid halting critical services - or troops missing a paycheck - then the impacts may be minimal. But the constant worry can lead some people to consider leaving the military, Pinchotti said.

“They know that signing up to do the job is going to be a sacrifice for their family. But we do it every day and we do it for our country. There just comes a point where that sacrifice can't be worth it. When you don't know if you're going to be paid.”

She said the dire headlines have come up so often that crisis fatigue has set in, because all military families can do is wait. 

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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