The reasons why we can’t forget the Coast Guard during the shutdown
For 42,000 members of the Coast Guard, money is extremely tight right now. As the daughter of an active duty coastguardsman, I would know.
We face the longest government shutdown on record. The list of victims grows daily: national parks trashed, safety inspections halted (think: hazardous waste and drinking water), critical scientific research put on pause. You name it. The impacts of the shutdown will last for months, if not years, to come.
But in the middle of the chaos, there’s a story that’s not being told, largely because they’re off at sea and not on television: the United States Coast Guard is the only branch of our armed forces not receiving reliable compensation during the government shutdown.
Why? The Coast Guard, unlike other branches of the armed forces, operates under the Department of Homeland Security — not the Department of Defense. This means the Coast Guard isn’t on the same appropriation bill as the Department of Defense. Nonetheless, the 42,000 “Coasties” are considered essential personnel to the U.S. government and must report to work, paycheck or no paycheck. Just yesterday, Coast Guard families were told they can “have garage sales” to cope with potential financial insecurity.
I want to tell you a bit more about the Coast Guard I know and the values I learned growing up.
The history of the U.S. Coast Guard is as long as that of our nation. In fact, it’s the nation’s oldest contiguous seagoing service. It was founded on August 4, 1790, at the request of the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who lobbied for a small fleet of vessels to enforce tariffs (a critical source of revenue for the new nation).
From 1790, when the Continental Navy disbanded, to 1798, when the United States Navy was created, this fleet of ten cutters was the country’s only maritime force.
“Remember Savannah: Semper Paratus. We’re always ready.”
Words shared by my father while we rolled our eyes and hunted for beach chairs on vacation; when we stopped to help fellow hikers; or while he explained to us young kids why he wouldn’t be home for soccer games, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. I’m curious: have other Coast Guard families adopted the agency’s official motto as their own?
Coasties are always ready. For anything. They have to be.
Think about it: they have such a unique role in the armed forces, with responsibilities spanning from rescuing mariners in distress, to conducting port safety inspections, to being first on the scene for explosive oil spills, stopping tons of drugs before they reach land, breaking ice in the South Pole, responding to record-breaking hurricanes, and preventing terrorist attacks. They are essentially the search-and-rescue team for every inch of coastline in the United States.
According to Military.com, on an average day the Coast Guard will:
- Conduct 109 search and rescue cases
- Save 10 lives and assist 192 people in distress
- Protect $2,791,841 in property
- Launch 396 small boat missions
- Launch 164 aircraft missions, logging 324 hours
- Board 144 vessels
- Seize 169 pounds of marijuana and 306 pounds of cocaine worth $9,589,000
…and so much more.
Courage to Care
“We treat each other and those we serve with fairness, dignity, respect, and compassion,” states Commandant Karl Schultz within the Guiding Principles for the Coast Guard. During a moment in our country’s history when we crave integrity, it’s refreshing to see a federal service truly mean what it says, no matter the circumstance. I’ve witnessed this firsthand, and you have too.
Most recently, the Coast Guard was thrust into the spotlight when President Trump announced on Twitter that the military would “no longer accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity.”
The Coast Guard Commandant at the time,Admiral Paul Zukunft, didn’t hesitate to reaffirm the Coast Guard’s values and commitments to its members. When the news broke, Coast Guard officials reached out personally to their transgender service members to express support and ensure that they “will not break faith” following the President’s announcement.
“The United States Coast Guard has probably seized more drugs than any agency in the history of this country,” said former Commandant Admiral Thad Allen on NPR yesterday.
That’s huge. And not surprising. As the United States’ primary maritime law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard enforces immigration laws at sea, thereby interfacing with thousands of illegal immigrants at sea and highly dangerous smuggling operations.
These are norms for Coasties at sea. I grew up with sea stories: once my father described a time his ship intercepted an old fishing vessel smuggling cocaine in hidden compartments. He and a small team spent days and nights on board, only cockroaches to keep them company, rendering the filthy ship seaworthy and steering it to shore. He jokingly called it his ‘first command.’ He also spoke of finding desperate, miserable migrants in dangerously overcrowded boats, and of how proud he was of the way the Coast Guard crew managed the difficult task of enforcing the law without violating the dignity of the men, women, and children they encountered.
International waters have always been a critical artery for illegal immigration and smuggling into the United States, making the Coast Guard’s presence that much more critical. As recent as this November, the Coast Guard seized 18.5 tons of cocaine with an estimated street value of more than $500 million from smugglers in the Pacific Ocean. The operation was massive — narcotics were confiscated from 15 vessels in international waters and 49 suspected traffickers were arrested. US officials believe about 90% of the cocaine shipped to the US traverses the sea at some point.
Police of the Seas
In addition to their many hats, the Coast Guard has been a global steward and protector of the maritime environment for over 200 years. It’s a job they’ve held with pride since the 1800s when the service’s mission expanded to protect endangered species, regulate intensive fishing, whaling and sealing, and, in the early 1900s, enforcing the Oil Pollution Act. Today, the Coast Guard responds to at least 20 oil or other hazardous chemical spills, totalling 2,800 gallons.
Here are just a few of the things we can thank the Coast Guard for:
● Taking the helm during Deepwater Horizon.The Coast Guard played a leading role in overseeing the spill’s containment and clean up. Thousands of Coast Guard active duty, reserve and volunteer auxiliary personnel from around the country mobilized to combat the approximately 3.2 million barrels of oil discharged. According to former Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft, it was the largest activation for a domestic emergency in Coast Guard history.
● Safeguarding our coral reefs. In 2017, the Coast Guard partnered with NOAA to remove submerged sailboats threatening coral reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria. They also partnered with the Florida Department of Environmental protection and Nova Southeastern University to literally change the design of the Miami Port to better protect more than 600 acres of coral reef.
● Protecting the environment, even in times of war. In February 1991, Iraqi forces sabotaged oilrigs in the Persian Gulf causing fires and massive oil spills. According to Coast Guard Historian William Thiesen, the Coast Guard immediately assembled an oil-spill assessment team. They mapped “every drop of oil on the water” across 40,000 square miles and provided daily-updated analysis of location, condition and drift projections of the oil.
Service Above Self
The Coast Guard will continue to secure our borders, protect our environment and uphold our national security. All without the promise of a paycheck.
Just this week, shutdown or no shutdown, they interdicted suspected smugglers off the coast of Florida, rescued a sunken towing vessel on the Tennessee River, and responded to a container ship on fire near Bermuda. I called my dad on Sunday and he was driving to headquarters to get in a few extra hours of work. My mom can tell you this kind of attitude is a blessing and a curse. Coasties just don’t quit.
“They’re doing their job. And they’re dependent on the American public and the people that run this government to make sure they’re paid on time,” stated former Commandant Thad Allen on NPR yesterday morning.
Thanks in part to a sharp officer and her team at Coast Guard Headquarters, the Department of Homeland Security was able to identify the legal loophole necessary to pay members on December 31st. Their upcoming paycheck is uncertain.
If you feel so moved, I invite you to join me in signing this petition requesting Congress immediately pass legislation that will fund the Coast Guard’s pay so that they can continue their critical missions without fear of getting food on the table, paying their babysitter, or missing a mortgage.
Or, simply thank a Coastie.
For more information on how to take action, I invite you to check out my latest post on the Coast Guard and the 2019 Government Shutdown.
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