Shutdown Damages Military More than Staff Reductions

Blow to morale follows decision on who is essential and who gets furloughed.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, left, on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at a U.N. truce village building that sits on the border of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
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As of Monday afternoon, the Defense Department faced "a moment of regrettable and unavoidable uncertainty," according to Secretary Chuck Hagel, as the hours tick down toward a government shutdown.

Opponents in Washington held fast on Monday, ahead of the midnight deadline for Congress to pass a budget, or face the legally mandated closure of all non-essential government workers.

Military members still man their posts, per the law, as do any civilians actively supporting those missions. Contractors still enjoy appropriated funding from before the shutdown took place and will also keep working. This leaves about 400,000 civilians, roughly half of that force, out in the wind if Congress fails to act.

This ratio affects areas of the military differently. Florida-based Southern Command, for example, would have to continue its joint missions in the Western Hemisphere without 70 percent of its civilian staff, a Defense official says.

Hagel took the time Monday afternoon to soothe the under-appreciated staff who do not have one of these essential positions.

[READ: Republicans, Democrats Prepare for Shutdown Blame Game]

"I want you to know that furlough decisions are dictated solely by the law, which only permits us to direct civilians to work if they are required to continue supporting military operations or if they are required to protect DOD personnel and property," he said. "The furloughs are in no way a reflection of the importance of your work, the hard effort you put forth every day, or your dedicated service to our department and our nation."

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale remarked on Friday that the Pentagon stopped using the term "essential" versus "non-essential" in these kinds of situations for fear it would ding morale among the 800,000 civilian staff.

Supervisors at U.S. military facilities throughout the world spent the few days leading up to Monday offering similar explanations as they prepare their respective staffers for a possible impending shutdown. Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday this accounts for "thousands of hours on complex planning," regardless of whether a shutdown actually takes place.

"There's a lot of anxiety and apprehension on people's parts," says Donald Carr, director of Public Affairs at Fort Belvoir, just outside of the D.C. beltway in Virginia, and home to 10 different Army commands and 26 Defense agencies.

"There's a certain kind of mindset that has chosen to be in public service," he says. "They want to be in the office doing that work."

A sense of anxiety accompanies these situations, says Carr, who worked for the Department of the Army during the last government shutdown 17 years ago. Civilian staffers need to make mortgage payments and anticipate emergencies like urgent medical attention for their families.

But they also don't get to provide backup support to the military members who will continue to work without the high ratio of civilian support.

[READ: Shutdown Looming, Public Splits Blame on Obama, Congress]

"That's a frustration for those people to know that they're not there to pull their share of the load for that supporting soldier, or that airman or that sailor or Marine," he says.

Civilians are also coming off of a summer in which they thought they would have to endure 11 days of furlough due to sequestration. Pentagon planners were able to whittle that number down to six after some creative budgeting.

These furlough notices included instructions for appeal, particularly if an employee believed that their work was actually considered mission-essential.

A government shutdown complicates that process, as these furloughs are legally mandated, not budget-based.

"This is an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction from our mission of defending the nation," Hagel said on Monday, while in South Korea visiting U.S. troops stationed there. "I know the uncertainty of a possible shutdown only adds to the anxiety that I'm sure many of you and your families are feeling."

More News:

  • 400,000 DOD Workers Lose Pay if Congress Fails to Pass Budget

  • Updated 9/30/13: This story has been updated to clarify how the shutdown’s effects vary within the military.