"Pay The Guys With The Guns First"

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A soldier on duty in Afghanistan / Army photo by Ashlee Lolkus

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a savvy guy. “A smart thing for government is always to pay the guys with the guns first,” he jokingly told U.S. soldiers Thursday in Baghdad. But it’s not really funny: he warned 175 U.S. troops — on behalf of more than 1 million of their comrades — that their mid-April paycheck might be only 50 percent of what they’re expecting. If the shutdown continues, there would be no end-of-month paycheck. Not surprisingly, the impending shutdown was the subject of the first question Gates got as he spoke with troops at Camp Liberty. He stressed that any pay shortage would only be temporary.

Bet that’s what the Taliban tells their guys, too. Can you imagine being a young soldier some 7,000 miles from home, and being told by a top official of the U.S. government that your next paycheck is going to be short? Even tougher to imagine is making that phone call home to the spouse to share the news. “This is going to hurt my family really bad,” one wife posted on Facebook. “My husband due to deploy next week, we wont be able to pay our bills properly cause of this.” Added another: “I’ve been worrying myself sick over this we even warned our rental company about the possibility of not being able to pay and the lady who handles our housing tried to threaten us with eviction! We told her its out of our control and we need money for food so I’m hoping they back off cause it’s not our fault this is happening.”

As Democrats and Republicans engage in their game of fiscal chicken, troops on the battlefield are scratching their heads. Sure, they’re an all-volunteer military, but they didn’t think Congress would take that literally. Except that’s what’s going to happen starting, if the federal government shuts down, at 12:01 a.m. Saturday EDT. Their mid-month paychecks will include only their pay for the first week of the month.

“A lot of these young troops live pretty much paycheck to paycheck,” Gates told reporters afterward. “When I start to think about the inconvenience that it’s going to cause these kids and a lot of their families, even half a paycheck delayed can be a problem for them.” Anyone who has ever spent much time outside the front gate of a military post — with its private, and costly, check-cashing shops, rent-to-own businesses, and pawnshops, knows military families need that money to keep flowing.