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Congress repeatedly flirts with government shutdowns, and military families face crisis fatigue

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks with troops at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on Feb 23, 2024. Since Johnson became Speaker in October, Congress has dealt with multiple government shutdown threats as the House has struggled to pass long-term budget legislation.<br/>
Seth Watson
U.S. Air Force
U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks with troops at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on Feb. 23, 2024. Since Johnson became speaker in October, Congress has dealt with multiple government shutdown threats as the House has struggled to pass long-term budget legislation.

Each threatened shutdown can lead to stress in the military community about missing paychecks and losing access to federal programs.

Some military families say they feel caught in the middle from the repeated threats of federal government shutdowns, which could leave them without paychecks, suspend federal programs they rely upon, and shutter facilities on military bases.

“It's one thing if it happens randomly, but it seems like it's happening more and more frequently," said Heather Campbell, the spouse of an Air Force officer in Hampton Roads, Virginia. "On the mental load of a family, it's really exhausting."

Campbell's family moved to Virginia eight months ago, and she estimates they spent $5,000 of their own money on the move. She said they need her husband's steady paycheck to pay their bills.

“We know that military families are struggling to afford housing or struggling to afford food,” she said. “We know that each move costs thousands of dollars out of pocket, so it's really unfair to ask military families to plan for themselves for a shutdown that they can't even prevent.”

Congress averted a federal government shutdowns when it passed temporary spending bills in January and again in February. But the short-term deals only kicked the can down the road to more funding deadlines in March.

There have been four government shutdowns since 2010, but many more close calls. And even when Congress has averted shutdowns, it has often done so by passing stop-gap bills that freeze the budget at previous levels. That can prevent the Pentagon funding base housing improvements and other initiatives, said Cory Titus, a former Army officer and a policy director for the Military Officers Association of America.

“So especially if there's a need to start a new project, their hands are definitely tied in ways that they do not need to be right now,” he said.

Troops also get a bump in pay when they live in more expensive parts of the country, but Titus said the latest increases have been on hold. Likewise, troops separated from their families get an extra $250 a month to help with the expense of running two households. Congress raised that to $400 in the last defense bill, but the Pentagon hasn't implemented the increase.

"That additional $150 when your service member is away at training would make a big difference for a family,” Titus said. "It hurts servicemembers in a way they don't necessarily realize."

Many of the federal programs troops rely on aren’t in the defense budget. More than 200,000 military families qualify for food subsidies under the Women, Infant and Child (WIC) program, which is run by the Department of Agriculture. Advocates for military families say each threat of a government shutdown puts these families on edge.

“We're asking more and more of our service members and their families, it's painful to have these conversations with families, not have the answers,” said Besa Pinchotti, who heads the National Military Family Association. “I feel like we're banging our head up against the wall.”

If Congress can avoid halting critical services - or troops missing a paycheck - then the impacts may be minimal. But the constant worry can lead some people to consider leaving the military, Pinchotti said.

“They know that signing up to do the job is going to be a sacrifice for their family. But we do it every day, and we do it for our country," Pinchotti said. "There just comes a point where that sacrifice can't be worth it. When you don't know if you're going to be paid.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

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As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.