WASHINGTON – It gives new meaning to “volunteer Army” if the men and women of the U.S. military stop getting paychecks during a time of war.
And, “Yes, we are at war,” Morgan Brown of the Air Force Sergeants Association reminded about 40 members of the media who had gathered at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday morning.
He said, “Our message is simple: It’s time to end the shutdown.”
The Military Coalition called the news conference to tell the world how the U.S. government shutdown is affecting the nation’s active duty service personnel and veterans, as well as their families, survivors and dependents.
The tone of the event was expressed by Steve Gonzalez of the American Legion, who asked, “Why are veterans first on the list of spending cuts?”
“They have already suffered hardship and sacrifice. It’s outrageous and a disgrace to all who have served.”
The MIlitary Coalition is comprised of 33 armed services organizations representing 10 million service members, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the National Military Family Association.
For now, the main concerns of those on active duty are military readiness and morale. Brown called those problems “significant,” considering how sequester cuts have already hit the armed forces hard.
For veterans, as the shutdown enters its third week and the money begins to run out, there are increasing worries the checks will stop.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testified before Congress last week that compensation checks to more than five million veterans will stop being issued on Nov. 1.
As many as 433,000 fully disabled veterans might not receive payments.
Wounded warriors worry their health services could be delayed, with nearly 8,000 Veterans Administration workers furloughed.
Many of the speakers expressed deep concern that survivor benefits could be cut off for the loved ones of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Ray Kelley of the VFW said they were there to “speak for all who have no voices of their own,” the fighting men and women who never made it home.
There are 360,000 surviving spouses and children of wartime veterans.
“Veterans make up 27 percent of the federal workforce and don’t know when they will get to go back to work,” said the Military Coalition in a statement.
Those serving in the reserves are already getting hit hard, losing pay because their weekend training has been suspended. And, unlike federal workers, they will not be receiving retroactive pay.
Retired Maj. Gen. Andrew Davis of the Reserve Officers Association said the reserves equal half of the nation’s defense force, about 1.1 million men and women.
“Reserves already feel like second-class citizens and the shutdown proves them right,” Davis ruefully observed.
There were no celebrities or politicians among those who spoke on this clear and crisp autumn morning, just men and women who had put their lives in between danger and Americans.
The speakers were nonpartisan and blamed both Democrats and Republicans, the administration and Congress. They said it was not about politics, but they certainly didn’t like the spending priorities of many politicians.
The emphasis was squarely on the men and women who have served their country and their needs. “They served, now they need your support and the support of the administration and Congress,” said Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Kathleen Moakler of the National Military Family Association reminded the crowd, “Service family members have to show strength and resilience in the best of times, and this makes it so much harder.”
She noted how families of the fallen had to rely on donations for burial until Congress hastily passed a bill after the shutdown. Now, she said, survviors and dependents don’t know if the checks will keep coming.
Tuesday’s event follows a more raucous protest at the World War II Memorial on Sunday, when a crowd pushed through the barriers to protest the closing of the memorial and chanted, “Tear down these walls.” Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin were on hand to lend support.
After Tuesday’s rally and news conference, a number of the younger veterans lined the walkway of the entrance on the Pacific theater side of the memorial.
They greeted arriving Korean War vets with applause, handshakes and thank yous for their service, along with expressions of Semper Fi, Go Navy or Go Army.
The older vets, like their compatriots in the Vietnam War, were never welcomed home with parades or much in the way of gestures of appreciation. On this day, they responded to the greetings with delighted surprise, broad smiles and clear gratitude.
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth