WASHINGTON — Veterans advocates are pleading with congressional and White House leaders to find an end to the government shutdown, no matter what it takes.
“They can and must do better for our country,” Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander B.J. Lawrence said at a Capitol Hill rally Tuesday afternoon. “Lives are being affected by this shutdown.
“We have Coast Guard members securing the border and protecting us on a daily basis, but in the background they’re worried about making (mortgage) payments and putting food on the table … The American people expect better.”
Joining VFW to plead for an end to the shutdown during a Tuesday rally were a wide array of veterans groups, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans and the U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association.
The government shutdown has now lasted 25 days, longer than any other federal work stoppage in American history. Congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump remain unable to find a compromise on his demand for more than $5 billion in funds for a controversial southern border wall project.
As a result, about 400,000 federal workers have been furloughed and another 400,000 forced to work without pay.
Last Friday, most of those workers missed their first paycheck of the shutdown. For members members of the Coast Guard, their first unpaid pay period didn’t come until Tuesday. Advocates blasted both milestones as gross negligence by political leaders to take care of the nation’s public servants.
Employees of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs aren’t directly affected by the shutdown, because their budgets were finalized last fall. But about one-third of the federal workforce previously served in the military, meaning the shutdown has meant lost paychecks and financial problems for veterans in other federal agencies.
Lawrence said his organization has heard from numerous suffering veterans since the shutdown began last month, including a single mother who is facing eviction because her landlord rejected a request for temporary rent relief.
Melissa Bryant, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said her organization is fielding calls from veterans with similar housing problems. They’re also looking for food banks and other assistance to make it through the month.
“If you say you support veterans, then you need to support ending the shutdown,” she said. “We know financial stress is a compounding factor in veterans mental health. We’re telling our members to do buddy checks, make sure they know if they’re fellow vets are not OK.”
Despite their calls for urgency, none of the groups is taking sides in the political fight. Trump has said that he believes suffering federal workers are supportive of his border security stance. Congressional Democrats have said the president is showing that he does not care about the federal workforce, only winning political arguments.
AMVETS National Commander Rege Riley said the time for that partisan bickering should be gone now.
“They need to find some common ground,” he said. “These (workers) need to be paid. Get your act together and get this resolved.”
House Democrats have already advanced several measures that would reopen all government agencies without the additional border wall funding, but Senate Republican leaders have refused to bring the measures up for a vote.
A proposal to pay Coast Guard members during the shutdown is moving through both chambers, and it has the support of the veterans organizations. But the advocates also said that move alone isn’t enough.
Tuesday’s rally of veterans service organizations came one day after Veterans Affairs officials chastised a federal union local president (and disabled veteran) for suggesting the ongoing shutdown could cost veterans lives.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie demanded a public apology from the union for what he called politicizing veterans’ suicide. Union officials blasted the secretary for himself politicizing the issue and ignoring the suffering of veterans affected.
The department on Monday night posted a list of resources for veterans affected by the shutdown, including VA home loan payment postponements and other financial assistance programs.
Veterans groups at Tuesday’s rally said they are also providing assistance to individuals who reach out to them. They said the impact of the shutdown on the community cannot be minimized.
“We have to do something,” Lawrence said. “We do not want anyone to miss a second paycheck.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.