The looming government shutdown is already affecting our active military. The Good Men Project talks to an Army Reservist stationed in Afghanistan about our troops’ reaction to Washington’s games.
Today we talked via Google Chat with an Army Reservist stationed at Forward Operating Base Salerno, in Khowst Province, Afghanistan. Back home in Boston, Massachusetts, Major James Callahan (not his real name) is a lieutenant in the Boston Police Department. He was first deployed to Kandahar in 2003–2004, and returned to FOB Salerno in February 2011.
This morning, when he saw that his most recent Leave and Earning Statement (the Army’s direct-deposit receipt), it showed that—in anticipation of a government shutdown—just half of his normal paycheck will be deposited on April 15. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke to troops in Baghdad on Thursday, assuring them they would be paid. But until a compromise is worked out in Washington, Callahan’s April 15 check will be his last.
When he emailed his wife this morning, the subject line read, “Save Your Pennies,” and he joked, “at least we still get free food.” Callahan can joke because, unlike many younger soldiers who live paycheck to paycheck, he has savings that will provide a few months of cushion. Even with that breathing room, the shutdown and pay freeze means his family faces added uncertainty—on top of all the other uncertainties that come with being deployed. Still, he knows it will be much tougher for some of his fellow soldiers. “I imagine that no soldiers thought that they would have to worry about a steady paycheck making its way to their family, so many probably have no contingency plan.”
GMPM: This is your second tour?
James Callahan: Yes. I was here in ’03–’04 and I’ve been here [for this current deployment] a couple months now.
GMPM: So, getting to the topic at hand: Gates was in Baghdad yesterday, telling troops they would get paid, but that “if the government is shuttered, troops will get half a two-week paycheck and would see future pay delayed until the political debate is settled,” according to Reuters. So am I correct that you already had your check halved? And has this happened to other guys, or just you?
Callahan: My understanding is that it has impacted guard and reserve soldiers’ first, because they’re in a different pay system. My most recent Leave and Earning Statement for April 15 indicates that half of my normal pay will be deposited on the 15th. My read is that this will be my last check until they reach a compromise in Washington.
GMPM: So active duty guys will see the change next pay period, probably?
Callahan: Right, I think active guys are going to see the impact a bit later, but the pay stops for everyone at the same time. I suppose the active guys could be spared if there’s a last-second reprieve.
GMPM: What does the pay freeze mean for you and your family?
Callahan: I have two daughters and it would be a significant burden if I thought I was adding a financial uncertainty to all of the other uncertainties a deployment brings.
Thank God I’m actually in good shape financially. I have no short-term concerns about paying the bills.
GMPM: Are the other guys sweating it? What’s the mood there? What are guys saying about Washington and politicians?
Callahan: Anecdotally, I’ve heard that some are actually very concerned for their families and younger soldiers. My unit has been proactive; they informed everyone of some of the legal protections of the Servicemen Civil Relief Act (no one can be foreclosed upon, etc., while deployed)—not because we think it will go on so long that it will matter, but to reassure our people that they have help if it’s needed. I really haven’t heard too much anger, but the disappointment expressed was toward politicians in general. There’s a sense of disbelief regarding the situation.
GMPM: That makes sense. But guys aren’t saying, “goddamn democrats,” “goddamn republicans”—it’s more just, “those jerks in Washington”?
Callahan: In the military there’s a line most soldiers try not to cross. Officers know better than to be openly critical of the civilian leadership of the country. The main criticism is of both parties’ failure to compromise. Everyone I’ve talked to views it as political posturing, not a reflection of true economic crisis.
GMPM: Going back a bit, you said, “It would be a significant burden if I thought I was adding a financial uncertainty to all of the other uncertainties a deployment brings.” Can you talk about those uncertainties? You say it as though the loss of pay would somehow be your fault.
Callahan: Well, it’s my responsibility to provide for my family. Even though the situation is certainly unexpected and beyond my or any soldier’s control, I would still feel that I let my family down. I may be absolutely blameless in the cause of the financial hardship, but that would provide little solace.
I was very concerned about the impact on my girls when I left and about their adjustment to the year-long absence of their father. Thanks to their great mother, they’ve adjusted well. I know they worry about my safety and how I’m doing here, and I know they miss me. I spend almost all of my free time with my family; there will be a whole year without that interaction and it’s tough for all of us.
I believe, thanks to my wife, that they will grow and become stronger and will have greater capacity to deal with adversity, greater empathy for people who have challenges in their lives—but only time will tell. Fortunately I saved enough to carry me a few months. I stocked up on life insurance.
GMPM: For you and other guys who might not have the cushion of a couple months’ pay, what’s it like not having control over the situation? I’m assuming you’re in touch with your family on a fairly regular basis?
Callahan: If you can’t tell your family back home not to worry, or if they can’t reassure you that they’re OK, the conversation will only add stress. Unlike being home, you can’t get a second job here to tide you over or pick up some overtime. Any problem at home is amplified because you are, almost literally, half a world away. If you can’t make something better over the phone or Internet, then there isn’t much you can do to help.
GMPM: What was your first tour like? Six years in between is a long time—did you think you’d have to go back?
Callahan: The first tour was only six months and the girls were a lot younger, so I feel like I am missing more of their lives now. They are more acutely aware of my abscence and they have things that they accomplish in school and sports that I will miss and that won’t be repeated. So it seems harder this time around.
Maybe because I’m living it now, looking back six years from now it may not seem so bad. I thought I would end up here or in Iraq sooner than now, I would not have predicted that we would still be here when in 2011 when I left last time.
My job is more dangerous now, I am out and about more, and I guess the environment is more dangerous than last time, But there are lot more soldiers and better equipment (we were in soft-sided humvees last time) so I guess it balances out somewhat.
GMPM: How old were your girls then? How often do you talk to them, and what do you talk about?
Callahan: They would have been 3 and 4 when I left, I was stateside for six months and in Afghanistan for six months, so they were 4 and 5 when I returned. I talk to them two or three times per week, often by Skype. With my oldest, it’s more to the point, a quick chat about school or whatever she’s doing.
My youngest can go on for an hour, starting with school and then going wherever her thoughts take her. We spent a good portion of one Skype session trying to decode sentences made solely from emoticons that we typed in between conversations. They also talk about what we will do when I get back which is always a good theme.
GMPM: Do you try to keep those conversations upbeat?
Callahan: I do try to be upbeat and I would exclude anything that would cause them concern. I don’t hide the fact that I am out in the villages and on the road quite a bit, but I try to be matter of fact about it, which actually isn’t hard. I really don’t talk about the dangers with anyone at home; I don’t want to worry them and I probably don’t want to acknowledge the reality more often than I have to.
GMPM: Do you ever discuss with other guys these kinds of issues, like what you do/don’t tell your family?
Callahan: Not really, we are a team that was assembled for this specific assignment, from all over the country and from the Army, Air Force, and Navy, so I’ve only known them from one or two months, depending upon when they arrived. We aren’t a typical reserve unit that has trained together for months or years. So given the pace of things and just getting to know each other, most don’t have kids, it’s never really come up, although it probably will at some point.
GMPM: So is family something that’s not generally talked about?
Callahan: Family is talked about to an extent. I know who has kids and who doesn’t, but their interactions with their family, what they tell them, and how they react is something that we haven’t shared thus far in a group/work setting. But I’m sure some people do, especially if they are having difficulty at home and want advice or just to vent.
[GMPM will be checking in with Major Callahan again next week, to talk more about life in Afghanistan and how guys cope with being away from their families.]