Family members of Coast Guardsmen in Maine say they are both furious and terrified about the economic impact they are facing because of the ongoing federal government shutdown.
“It’s very scary to know that our bills are due in a few days and people don’t seem to care if we can pay them,” said Lindsay Scott, whose husband has served in the Coast Guard for nearly 20 years. “It’s just a very big slap in the face.”
Scott said she and her 11-year-old son live in Kittery while her husband remains on duty at one of Maine’s five Coast Guard stations.
“He is gone 200 days out of the year and this is the thanks he is getting,” Scott said.
Maine is home to hundreds of families supported by active-duty Coast Guard members who respond to maritime emergencies and maintain safe navigation along the state’s 3,500 miles of coastline. Unlike other branches of the military, the Coast Guard is part of the Homeland Security Department and not the Defense Department, which means its employees are not getting paid during the partial shutdown of the federal government, which entered its 21st day Friday.
Active-duty personnel and many civilian employees are required to stay at their stations, keep working and to remain vigilant and prepared to respond to distress calls from fishermen or other mariners, among other duties.
Employees are expected to receive back pay when the shutdown ends, but they will not be paid Tuesday as scheduled if the shutdown continues.
Nationally, the shutdown is feeding a sense among some members of the Coast Guard and their families that the Coast Guard does not engender the same respect as other branches of the military despite the sacrifices and dangers that come with the job.
And many families and others were especially angry this week when a Coast Guard family support office produced a tip sheet with suggestions for getting through the shutdown that included holding garage sales, baby-sitting or serving as a “mystery shopper.”
‘RIDICULOUS’ TIP SHEET
Lindsay Scott and the other wives interviewed for this story agreed to speak publicly about the shutdown’s impact on the condition that their husbands not be named in the article. Each woman emphasized that they were speaking individually and not for their husbands.
Scott, who works part-time in the retail sector, said the uncertainty about how long her husband will work without pay has led her family to tighten its fiscal belt, stay close to home and stick to basic necessities.
Scott said she is being forced to ask her family for help and to take out loans to make ends meet. She has an assortment of everyday bills to pay.
“I’m feeling really angry, really frustrated and really scared,” she said.
Scott called the suggestions that Coast Guard families could hold garage sales, work as baby-sitters or become mystery shoppers to make a little extra money were “ridiculous.” Those ideas were included in the five-page tip sheet published this week by the Coast Guard Support Program. The program is designed to help Coast Guard members with mental health issue or other concerns about their lives, including financial wellness.
“I can’t imagine that anyone would think that is a realistic suggestion,” Scott said of being a mystery shopper. “It’s a ridiculous suggestion.
“If there is a prolonged shutdown, the last thing that I want to be doing is shopping.”
‘THE FORGOTTEN BRANCH’
Alicia Auman, another Coast Guardsman’s wife, lives in military housing in Kittery near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and substitutes in the Kittery school system. Before Auman’s husband joined the Coast Guard 12 years ago, he served in the Air Force. They have a 9-year-old child.
“It’s scary to think that next week I may not be able to pay my bills or buy my groceries,” Auman said, referring to the Jan. 15 pay date. “It has been pretty stressful.”
Auman said a lot of people she has spoken with did not realize that the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security and does not get funded during the shutdown unlike the other branches of the military.
“We always have made the joke that we are the forgotten branch of the military,” Auman said.
Auman was particularly disturbed by the tips on how to get by.
“That was the biggest slap in the face,” she said.
If the shutdown is prolonged over several weeks or months, it could mean her husband will be assigned to a patrol mission that could take him far away from home and working with no pay.
“He is going to be risking his life in the middle of the ocean for nothing,” said Auman, whose father was a Green Beret. “It’s extremely disheartening. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, about everything.”
‘HOLDING OUR BREATH’
Holly Kotrba and her husband, a member of the Coast Guard, lived in Kittery for two years before he was deployed to a station in Kodiak, Alaska. They left Maine in 2016, but Kotrba said it was the best two years of their lives.
“Our goal is to make it back to Maine to live, but it’s scary to think that might not happen, that our future plans are at risk due to the shutdown,” Kotrba said. “The rug would be ripped out from under us if this turns into a prolonged shutdown.”
Her husband is eligible to retire in five years. In the meantime, Kotrba said she is struggling from week to week to pay their bills. She has to support three children, ages 10, 8 and 5.
Kotrba said it’s difficult not knowing whether her husband, who has been in the Coast Guard for 15 years, will get paid on time.
“We are holding our breath for it to come through,” she said.
Asked about holding a yard sale to earn extra money, Kotrba said, “It’s sad to think that we have to sell our life possessions in order to survive.”
‘WE ARE HERE FOR YOU’
It’s not clear exactly how many Coast Guard employees are stationed in Maine. Coast Guard sector Northern New England covers Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and has a total of seven stations and about 570 civilian, active-duty and reserve members. The sector is based in South Portland and the vast majority of its workers are in Maine.
While Scott and other spouses may feel like they are being forgotten, that is not the case in Rockland, which is a designated Coast Guard city – the only municipality in Maine to bear that title. A Coast Guard city is chosen by the commandant of the Coast Guard as a place that has demonstrated strong support for its local Coast Guard personnel.
Rockland is home to a Coast Guard station and the city operates the Rockland Coast Guard City Committee, a volunteer group that welcomes new Coast Guard personnel and their families to the region, and helps them identify community resources such as housing and medical assistance.
The Area Interfaith Outreach food pantry in Rockland also stepped up this week by offering food or heating assistance to families affected by the government shutdown.
“The food pantry invites any government employee in Knox County affected by the shutdown who needs food for your family or heating assistance for your home to come to the food pantry located at 70 Thomaston Street in Rockland,” the AIO said in a message on its website. “We are here for you during this stressful time.”