It is also the only military branch with a wide-ranging law-enforcement role: saving lives, securing maritime trade and navigation, supporting scientific research, protecting maritime borders, and preserving the marine environment.
It is the guardian of more than 100,000 miles of U.S. coastline and inland waterways, about 10 times more area than the Canadian and Mexican land borders combined.
And like our other branches of the military, the Coast Guard’s operations are global, as is its reputation as a premiere service after which many nations choose to pattern their coast guards and navies.
Given those facts, the Coast Guard’s importance to our nation and the unique roles it plays in national security should make uninterrupted funding for the service a no-brainer. Sadly, that has not been the case.
The Coast Guard in this shutdown has furloughed about 75 percent of its civilian workforce. Worse, its roughly 41,000 active duty military members, and 2,000 civilians, must continue to work without pay.
In my opinion, there are three implied messages that Washington, DC, politicians are sending to the Coast Guard during this shutdown. Aspects of these messages may also apply to every federal worker, regardless of their department:
Politicians believe their agendas are more important than the Coast Guard’s mission and well-being of its members. This is evidenced by the lack of urgency in Washington to resolve the shutdown, resulting in its record duration. It conveys a disrespect for military service that grows with each day the shutdown continues.
There is no concern for how the shutdown affects present or future morale in the Coast Guard. Junior enlisted members of the Coast Guard with less than two years of service are probably on par with new Transportation Security Officers as the lowest-paid federal employees affected by the shutdown. Politicians who mistakenly believe back pay will negate financial or other damage from the shutdown reveal their ignorance, or possibly contempt, for how their failure to avert it could hurt Coast Guard recruitment and retention rates.
Politicians do not value the Coast Guard as much as the other military services. They are funded while the Coast Guard is not. The Department of Homeland Security lumps the Coast Guard in with 13 other “operational and support components,” when in fact it is nothing like them. It is military, it is global, and no other DHS organization can approach the scope and reach of its mission.
Arguments about whether DHS should be the parent agency for Coast Guard aside, politicians and the general public mistakenly equate “military” with “Department of Defense,” to the detriment of the Coast Guard. One can imagine the public outrage if other military branches were required to work without pay for this long.
In summary, most of the general public and politicians in Washington don’t understand the Coast Guard and take it for granted. That statement probably also applies to every federal worker affected by this shutdown, regardless of organization.
To the politicians we are pawns; to much of the general public we are faceless and unproductive burdens on society. Yet in truth it is we, not the politicians, who safeguard our nation and keep its institutions functioning.
All federal employees deserve better, the Coast Guard in particular.
Geoff Anderson is a U.S. Coast Guard civilian employee in the San Diego sector, a long-time federal worker, and a veteran. His views are his own and do not represent those of the Coast Guard.