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Sailors say they're suffering while D.C. stays deadlocked

Oct. 7, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Thousands of dollars in re-up bonuses have gone unpaid. Travel plans have been interrupted, canceled and, in some cases, left sailors desperate for reimbursements. Base clinics have canceled checkups for spouses and kids, adding to the anxiety.

The federal shutdown has brought farther-reaching effects than anyone anticipated. And service members are feeling like pawns in Washington’s latest high-stakes showdown, heightening the stress on an overstretched force.

The Navy may be run by chiefs, as the saying goes, but the administrative wheels are kept spinning by tens of thousands of often-overlooked civilians. That became apparent in the wake of the shutdown, when they were sent home en masse, grinding much of the Navy’s personnel and support systems to a halt.

“It’s ridiculous,” said one petty officer first class assigned to a Groton, Conn.-based attack submarine, who asked for anonymity to criticize Washington. “Service members count on the money that we get in. We don’t make a lot, so that’s how we catch up. ... So while they squabble about bull----, we are struggling to get everything in order. We count on that money.”

Even though Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered that most Defense Department civilians return to work Monday, the effects of the shutdown will linger over weeks as civilians slog through the backlog of issues, from screwed-up pay to missed moves. In only three days, the shutdown’s toll rippled across the Navy’s many corners. Some of those hit:

■Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Jeffrey Jankowski, a reservist who is demobilizing after a deployment to southern Afghanistan, said many of the outprocessing personnel are civilians who have been furloughed.

“I’m confused by the whole scenario,” he told Navy Times on Oct. 4 in an electronic message, a day before he was to fly home to Sun Prairie, Wis.

■Thiago Fern, a petty officer moving back to the mainland from Hawaii, said he was out $1,700 from his travel claim and didn’t know when he would get it.

■Chiquita Lankford Turner, whose granddaughter was set to graduate from A-school in mid-October, said they weren’t sure if she’d be able to come home to Nashville, Tenn., for a week because there are no civilians to process her paperwork.

“I’m hurt beyond words,” she wrote in a Facebook comment after Navy Times asked for personal stories about the shutdown’s impacts.

Especially frustrating were the conflicting statements. Sailors wouldn’t get their bonuses and danger pay until the shutdown was over, the Navy said, then later reversed itself. But the Defense Department’s paymasters didn’t get that message: They told anxious sailors that they weren’t authorized to pay bonuses, no matter what the Navy’s top personnel officer said. While officials assure sailors that they will eventually get all their pay, many are worried about what the Oct. 15 paycheck will yield. Or when they’ll see their bonus.

“We signed the contract saying you’re going to receive this on this date,” said Fire Controlman 2nd Class (SW) Don Sands, who is out his $2,800 bonus. “And then we were told up till even before the shutdown that we were going to receive it and we were all planning for it. I was planning for it. And now it’s just like, are we going to get it? When are we going to get it? I don’t know.”

Navy officials called for calm and asked sailors to alert their chain of command to any issues they have, as military personnel specialists and yeomen attempt to close the myriad gaps open by the absent civilians. Officials say they know this is causing stress and are working to fix as many problems as they can.

“It is clear from the feedback we are getting from social and traditional media that this shutdown has added to the anxiety already felt by our sailors, civilians and families — we regret this and greatly appreciate their patience,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel. “Navy personnel authorities continue to work closely with Defense Department pay officials to interpret pay and benefit policies and to determine when any missed or delayed payments will be made. All owed monies will be paid as funds become available. We will continue to aggressively share information as we get it to reduce uncertainty where possible.”

'I was in tears'

Jen Embry realized that a big paycheck was missing Oct. 1. Her husband, Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Jason Embry, was entitled to a $7,500 enlistment bonus — money that didn’t arrive, as it hadn’t for thousands of other sailors. Embry read that sailors would get their payments on time, but then was told by Defense Finance and Accounting Services that the money hadn’t been authorized for release. It was confusing.

The Embrys had been planning to use their bonus installment to pay for the adoption of their daughter and were understandably upset that they didn’t know when they’d get the money they’d counted on.

“I’m extremely frustrated that the Congress, the chief of naval personnel, and DFAS do not appear to be on the same page about what pay and allowances will and will not be paid,” she told Navy Times in an electronic message. “Not knowing if we’ll receive the bonus tomorrow or in months is making it hard to plan out our budget.”

Dozens of sailors said they’d experienced a shutdown-caused debacle. They were missing bonuses or owed back pay; lacked reimbursement for travel; or had experienced delays in previously arranged moves. Many felt stressed. A disabled Navy veteran worried that she’d lose the money to pay her rent if she doesn’t get her checks from the Veterans Affairs Department. A sailor who was retiring said his last paycheck was tied up by an audit that was likely delayed.

Michelle Mong said her husband, a petty officer based in Pennsylvania, didn’t get his base pay or housing allowance Oct. 1 and worried that there would be no civilian pay clerks to help them get it fixed.

A number of Navy moms were upset that their base clinic told them no appointments would be available for their kids until the government was reopened.

One of the moms was Cindi Murphy, a Navy spouse who said her child had a skin cyst and needed to see a pediatric dermatologist.

“Dr. said it may not be completed till the shutdown is over,” she said in a Facebook post on Navy Times’ page.

A few unfortunate families found themselves in the middle of permanent change-of-station moves when the government shuttered, closing much of the housing and relocation services they were depending on. The Barnes family was caught in a particularly nasty catch-22.

Sept. 27 was a big day in the Barnes household. Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class Christopher Barnes had finished his nuclear-power training and that’s the day that he, his wife, Valerie, and their three young children got on a plane bound for his first duty station: Hawaii.

The beaches, the views, the weather, the lack of mosquitoes — everything seemed perfect. Then came the shutdown.

The Barneses had been staying at a hotel, and when Valerie arrived at the housing office to get an on-base house, the coordinator told her she was leaving for the day and couldn’t help.

“She’s like, ‘Well, technically, that’s not my problem. You know, I don’t even have a job. I’m not getting paid today,’” Valerie said Oct. 3 in a phone interview, the tension straining her voice. “And I just looked at her. I was in tears. Living in Hawaii on South Carolina pay is not going to cut it. At all.”

Valerie said a janitor took pity on them and let them into one of the houses. But the problems didn’t end there. The hotel payments were quickly adding up and burning through the $900 they had in the bank, which was exacerbated by the fact that EM3 Barnes hadn’t received his $10,000 bonus.

What’s more, the family lacked all of their household items — indefinitely. They had only the clothes and items they’d carried on the flight.

“The movers contacted us and said the military didn’t pay us so when we do dock, your stuff is going to be docked until the government opens up,” said Valerie, whose children are ages 7, 5 and 1. Their neighbors loaned them air mattresses and pots and pans. They got rides with others to pick up groceries from Wal-Mart, as the commissary is closed. On his E-4 pay, they don’t have money for a rental car.

“We got here thinking everything would be OK and honestly, it’s not,” she said.

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