Military Pain

10.07.135:45 AM ET

The Government Shutdown’s Hidden Cost to the U.S. Military

Politicians may be trumpeting that service members are being paid during the shutdown, but training, veterans’ benefits, and incentive pay are in the crosshairs, reports Jacob Siegel.

With the news that Pentagon employees are being paid again, the military seems to have been saved from the troubles caused by the government shutdown. But there’s just one problem: it’s not true.

The truth is that the military is not working like it’s supposed to, and things will only get worse if the shutdown isn’t resolved soon.

The Daily Beast spoke confidentially with several members of the military who were largely in agreement about the effects of the shutdown and how it is being perceived in the ranks.

Just a week into the government stoppage, there has already been mass cancellation of training across the Reserve forces; confusion over military pay, including the possible loss of incentive pay awarded to troops in Afghanistan; VA announcements about the impending cutoff of some veterans’ benefits and services; and the cancellation of military training schools.

Essential national-security missions have not yet been affected, but nearly every kind of routine activity, from training to food shopping, is suspended or uncertain. And the prevailing feeling among soldiers is that the longer the shutdown goes on, the worse it will get.

“A week won’t make a significant difference,” said one Army officer. “Two weeks and you might start to see readiness issues.”

The officer also warned of a potential loss of confidence in the government as a stable employer.

“We’ve got great patriots who want to work for the government, but if their pay is in question a few times a year, they’re going to walk away and find high-paying jobs in the private sector,” he said of younger officers and recently separated veterans with whom he works. “These guys are combat vets and want to continuing serving. They want to stay working for the government, but now they’re saying, ‘Thanks very much, but I can’t plan my future on this Congress and the politicians who are holding us hostage.’”

Troubling as the loss of confidence and the potential exit of talented workers are, they are far from the most immediately pressing issues.

Already, Reserve forces unit training assemblies, known as drills, have been called off across the country. Had units been told to go ahead with their training, they would have run into other problems, as appropriations for supplies, including fuel, have been halted.

And while the Reserve forces missing one training event is not necessarily detrimental to overseas operations, even a temporary loss of their capabilities can have serious consequences for missions at home. As Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy showed, the National Guard and Reserves are a frontline force vital to domestic disaster relief.

Without fuel to get planes off the ground and with many Reserve pilots serving in technician positions that were furloughed through last week, the costs could have been steep if Tropical Storm Karen had touched down on the coast, as many feared it would.

Then there is the issue of military pay, which is supposed to be immune from the shutdown.

While base pay for the military appears to be safe, no ruling has been made on supplemental incentive pay, including the hazardous duty bonus paid to service members in combat zones.

According to a Pentagon spokesman, the issue is “under review” and, as of October 3, “no decision has been made.”

That means the 54,000 troops now serving in Afghanistan may have their next check shorted if the government can’t get its act together.

Adding to the uncertainty, the government agency responsible for paying the military, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) has this message displayed at the top of its website:

“We are aware the President has signed the ‘Pay Our Military Act.’ We are awaiting further guidance from the Department of Defense to ensure we accurately implement all elements of the Act. We will update you with additional information as soon as possible. Thanks for your patience.”

When the folks in charge of sending the checks choose to broadcast their confusion publicly, it suggests a serious problem, despite the assurances of continued pay for the military and the act passed by Congress and signed by the president.

Benefits and services provided by the VA are also in question. The VA is funded a year in advance to shield it from funding shortfalls of this sort, but press releases and public statements suggest that the VA has already begun to slow down in providing services that are deemed noncritical and that even basic benefits payments will be jeopardized in the next few weeks if the shutdown continues.

In a general crisis like this, there is no special deal that can be struck or act signed that can spare the military from the fate of the nation. Even if the military exemption was more than just a political ploy and lawmakers really wanted to exempt the armed services from the circumstances they’ve delivered to other government employees, it would be impossible. The federal funding streams are too winding and entwined to keep the money to one agency flowing easily while all the rest are cut off.

In the end, politicians’ boasts that the armed forces are fully funded and unaffected by the gridlock conceal the true extent of the shutdown’s effects and allow them to evade responsibility for the full scope of harm it has already caused.