Government shutdown weighs heavily on off-base residents
By MARK PATTON AND GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 7, 2011
WIESBADEN, Germany — With a potential shutdown of the federal government looming and the likelihood that their paychecks will be delayed, U.S. servicemembers overseas have begun to worry about interruptions in their off-base housing allowances — and their ability to pay their rent.
Frustration was mounting Thursday at bases overseas as questions about the implications of the shutdown grew and officials declined to provide answers.
Most overseas commands queried Thursday by Stars and Stripes said that they were waiting for guidance, or referred questions to other officials higher up the chain.
Spc. Fotuotamatane Toluao with the 1st Armored Divison’s Special Troops Battalion in Wiesbaden, Germany, said his command has issued no guidance or spoken to the troops.
“It’s very frustrating for the lower enlisted,” said Toluao. “They know the information, but they’re not passing it down. They need to at least let us know in advance.
“I have a family to take care of, diapers aren’t that cheap,” said Toluao as he glanced at his son Terrence.
European Command is “not at liberty to say anything right now,” said spokesman John Tomassi. He said EUCOM might have guidance Friday but are waiting to hear from higher commands and “did not want to jump any levels today.”
Spokesmen for Installation Management Command-Europe, and base representatives across Europe also said Thursday morning that they were in the dark about what to tell soldiers regarding the shutdown.
Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said the DOD was hoping to publish guidance to commanders of various components with the department on how to carry out a shutdown, but as of Thursday morning none had been made public.
The first question soldiers stationed in Iraq asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his Thursday stop had to do with military pay.
Gates said if the government shutdown begins on Friday and lasts for one week, troops would get half a paycheck midmonth. If it continues from April 15 to April 20, he said, troops would not get a paycheck.
In that scenario, all troops eventually would be back-paid in full for the affected time, Gates said.
“When I start to think about the inconvenience that it’s going to cause these kids, and a lot of their families, even half a paycheck delayed can be a problem for them,” he later told reporters. “So I hope they work this whole thing out.”
Troops outside the United States receive Overseas Housing Allowance, while stateside personnel get Basic Allowance for Housing. OHA is paid to approximately 60,000 servicemembers overseas, at a yearly cost of $1.8 billion, according to DOD.
And having a nest-egg of three or six months’ expenses might not be easy for junior servicemembers, especially for those stationed near large populations centers.
At South Korea’s U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, in the middle of Seoul and surrounded by some of the city’s priciest neighborhoods, the overseas monthly housing allowance ranges from $2,666 for E-1s with no dependents to $3,580 for accompanied O-6 officers, according to the garrison website.
In Tokyo, housing allowances range from $8,600 for a junior enlisted with no dependents to $10,597 for an accompanied O-6, according to the Defense Department’s Web site.
In the Ramstein, Germany, area, housing allowances range from $1,498 for E-1s without dependents to $2,946 for top-ranking officers.
Pfc. Jeremy Hutchins with the 1st AD lives in the barracks, but finds the situation frustrating.
“If you want us to believe in freedom, we need to get paid for it,” Hutchins said. “If I’m not getting paid, I’m not going to work.”
Where to get help
As the military overseas waits for formal Pentagon guidance on how to handle troop pay questions and concerns in light of a possible government shutdown, the services’ relief funds are gearing up to help out affected personnel.
If an airman has a financial emergency due to the government shutdown and loss of pay, the Air Force Aid Society can assist, according to Susan Monteverde, the group’s emergency assistance department loan officer.
“If someone can’t buy food because they are not getting their paycheck, we would help them buy food,” she said.
Should a shutdown happen, AFAS headquarters would consult with individual bases to ensure that personnel there have the ability to assist and write checks, she said.
Monteverde said if airmen are having trouble paying their bills, they should work with local credit counselors to contact credit card companies to explain the situation and get due date extensions.
AFAS offers “Falcon Loans” of $500 or less that can be used for emergency needs such as basic living expenses, car repairs, emergency travel and other needs, she said. The streamlined application process requires no budget information, backup documentation or command approval.
“All our loans are interest-free and repayment is based on a person’s ability and situation,” she said. “Usually (airmen) pay back the loans through allotments out of their paycheck.”
Soldiers facing hardship due to a government shutdown can contact Army Emergency Relief for financial assistance.
There are no limits to the group’s financial assistance, but there is a $1,000 ceiling for an expedited payment, according to Andrew Cohen, the group’s treasurer and deputy finance director.
Cases beyond $1,000 would still be addressed, but not under an expedited process, Cohen said in an email.
Cohen said the organization will continue to operate as normal under a government shutdown and will work to meet a potential increased demand.
“Should it be necessary to provide assistance to a large number of soldiers due to a pay disruption, AER will provide no-interest loans for basic living expenses up to $1,000 based on individual need,” he said in an email. “AER assistance is not intended to serve as pay replacement, but only to ensure soldiers and their families have resources for basic items such as food and transportation.”
The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society will also remain open with normal hours in the event of a shutdown.
Quick, short-term, interest-free loans will be available to sailors and Marines for essential items such as food, gas and other necessities, according to society vice president John Alexander.
Pre-approved checks of $300 for single sailors and Marines, and $600 for Navy and Marine Corps families are available, Alexander said in an email.
Clients will need to show a military ID card and sign a repayment document to receive the loans, he said.
“This situation will be treated as we would a natural disaster,” Alexander said, “requiring rapid financial assistance without reviewing budgets or providing financial counseling.”
Stars and Stripes reporters John Vandiver, Ashley Rowland, Dan Blottenberger and Kevin Baron contributed to this story.