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October 1, 2013

On the Shutdown: Devaluing the ideal of service to country, before service to self

On the Shutdown: Devaluing the ideal of service to country, before service to self


Written by: Mike Haynie, Executive Director, IVMF

Last night, I received a call from a friend of almost 20 years. We served together in the military, and we have kept in touch since I separated from military service in 2006.  When I answered the phone, I could tell he was agitated and not himself. He said, “I want to talk to you about what I’m watching on TV.”

At first, I thought maybe he was upset about how the series finale of “Breaking Bad” ended, but that wasn’t it. Instead he needed to unload the frustration and contempt he was feeling for a drama that, while fit for TV, wasn’t the invention of Hollywood.  He was watching the news.

Specifically, he had just finished listening to a politician say that, “While it appears that a government shutdown is unavoidable, rest assured that our military members and veterans won’t be impacted.”  My friend – someone who spent 20 years in the nation’s uniform, and who today has a 19 year-old son serving in Afghanistan – was just beside himself.

At first, I was surprised and somewhat perplexed by the emotional nature of his reaction to the prospect of a shutdown, and at this politician’s assertion that “service members and veterans won’t be impacted.”  He knew as well as I did that such an assertion was, at best, shortsighted. The truth is, the implications of an extended government shutdown on members of the military, veterans, and their families could very well be disastrous. For example, consider that:

  • Veterans are significantly over-represented in the federal workforce (while veterans represent just 5% of the U.S. population, they represent approximately 30% of all federal employees). As a consequence, a great many of the 611,000 veterans employed by the federal government are potentially subject to furlough.
  • While the government has taken steps to protect military pay during a shutdown, family support, education, and civilian transition programs will likely be reduced or postponed, and the shutdown could result in an ‘opportunity’ to eliminate some of these programs altogether.
  • It’s true that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has plans to continue processing claims and disability payments during the shutdown (by declaring claims processors essential personnel). However, the agency has privately told members of Congress that an extended shutdown will result in a situation where the VA will be unable to make disability compensation and pension payments to veterans due to lack of available funds.
  • Contrary to popular perception, veterans are consumers of services and programs administrated by a host of federal agencies other than the VA. For example, many veterans leverage employment services provided by the Department of Labor, educational programs administered by the Department of Education, business ownership initiatives administered by the Small Business Administration, and many other supportive services and earned benefit programs situated in federal agencies other than the VA.

Given all of this, I assumed that the misrepresentation of facts espoused by the politician my friend was watching on TV was the source of his frustration. However, the more we talked I came to realize that his grievance was rooted in something much deeper than a politician playing fast and loose with the facts. Instead, he couldn’t get beyond the idea that the drama he was witnessing play out on his television represented a profound failure of citizenship. This is no small thing for someone who has, quite literally, devoted his entire adult life to serving his country in the most intimate and profoundly personal way possible. For my friend, the very idea that the nation’s elected representatives can’t move beyond the politics of power and influence, had the effect of devaluing his lifetime of commitment to the ideal of service to country, before service to self.

Undoubtedly, the institute I direct will receive countless phone calls today from veterans, the media, and others, asking for information about the implications of the shutdown on the nation’s veterans and military families. We’ll happily share the list of programs and services essential to supporting veterans and their families, which will be potentially impacted by the impasse in DC. However, based on yesterday’s late night phone call with an old friend, patriot, and public servant, I’m going to add to that list my friend’s grievance: this dysfunction, gamesmanship, and posturing by our leaders which dishonors the service of all those who have worn the cloth of the nation, today and throughout our history.  It’s shameful.

That, my friends, is the enduring cost of a shutdown for members of our military, veterans, and their families.

Mike Haynie, Ph.D, is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, the Executive Director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF), and the Barnes Professor of Entrepreneurship at SU’s Whitman School of Management. 

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Thank you Dr. Haynie for pointing out that not all will be well because the military and our veterans will still be funded during a shutdown. The example of your friend who dedicated so many years of his adult life is one of millions in this country and whether a veteran served three years or 30, veterans deserve a better, united congress that can make things happen-not shutdown the government. Military members fight and sacrifice so much for a government to be able to do its job and a shutdown is like spitting in their faces.