'Steady as she goes:' Amid shutdown, Mattis says military operations will continue
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: January 20, 2018
The U.S. military faced a variety of consequences as a result of a federal government shutdown Saturday, with U.S. troops working at least temporarily without pay, thousands of civilian employees furloughed and Republicans and Democrats alike saying their opponents should do better for the troops.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a memo released by the Pentagon on Saturday that the U.S. military will continue to carry out operations across the world, but the shutdown already was prompting the cancellation or delay of training for reserve units and having other effects. Mattis pledged to do his best to mitigate disruptions and financial impacts on military families.
"We will continue to execute daily operations around the world – ships and submarines will remain at sea, our aircraft will continue to fly and our warfighters will continue to pursue terrorists throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia," Mattis wrote. "While training for reservists must be curtailed, active forces will stay at their posts adapting their training to achieve the least negative impact on our readiness to fight."
Mattis added: "Steady as she goes – hold the line. I know our Nation can count on you."
There are more than 740,000 Defense Department civilians. Mattis said Friday that about half of them would be furloughed. Attempts to get more specific numbers from the Defense Department on Saturday were unsuccessful.
Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said the shutdown would not have a significant impact across the Middle East, where U.S. troops are conducting operations against militants in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, and where the U.S. military has a host of major bases.
The command "remains mostly unaffected because our warfighting mission," Thomas said.
President Donald Trump accused the Democrats on Saturday morning in a tweet of "holding our Military hostage over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration," a reference to the dispute that is at the heart of the shutdown.
But the situation wasn't that simple. While Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans blamed the Democrats, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., made an effort shortly after midnight to get the troops' salaries and death benefits paid through the shutdown.
"I want to make sure that tonight we send a very clear signal that we don't want one moment to pass with there being any uncertainty of any soldier anywhere in the world that they will be paid for the valiant work they do for our national security," McCaskill said, calling for a resolution to pay the troops.
McConnell scuttled the effort, objecting to her motion.
The pay situation threatened the financial well-being of service members, whose annual salaries begin at less than $30,000. As McCaskill noted, Congress has historically given the military back pay when a shutdown occurs or passed a bill that pays them during a work stoppage. U.S. troops are paid twice a month, and the next check is expected Feb. 1.
As Mattis predicted in public remarks Friday, military reservists across the country traveled in preparation for scheduled training this weekend, only to be sent home after the shutdown at midnight. While some live close to their units, it's common for reservists to travel several hours to bases for drilling.
Bryan Salas, a Marine Corps veteran, said his son traveled from West Virginia on Friday to report to training this weekend at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, only to turn around hours later.
"He just went back to West Virginia about a half-hour ago," Salas said around noon Saturday. "It's just time wasted. He's a student, but there are others who have jobs and their own businesses who planned for this training."
A soldier assigned to the Army's 450th Civil Affairs Battalion in Maryland said his unit is preparing for a month-long exercise in March and was planning to work on weapons qualifications this weekend in advance. The battalion includes numerous congressional staff members, he said.
"We have dozens of mission-planning tasks to complete since we just got our initial operations order for the exercise on Thursday," said the soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to be candid. "Not to mention all the equipment that needs to be prepared to move by rail. This puts us really far behind with only two days scheduled in February to prepare for a monthlong training."
Other effects also were felt across the military. One particularly sensitive one is the temporary suspension of $100,000 payments promised to military families in the event their loved one dies so that they can travel and prepare funerals. Several nonprofits, including Fisher House and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), offered to assist families that might be in need.
The Armed Forces Network, which carries television broadcasts of sporting events and other programming, was taken off air at midnight, leaving deployed U.S. troops without one common way to watch National Football League playoff games this weekend.
Defense Department outreach efforts also were curtailed, including aerial flyovers at sporting events, band performances and related travel, according to a memo by Dana White, Mattis' assistant for public affairs.
The Washington Post's Missy Ryan contributed to this report.