A Modest Proposal: Move Coast Guard Under Navy So Coasties Get Paid

A Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team crew, temporarily deployed from San Francisco, provides an escort for the USS Cole as the Navy destroyer returns to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. (U.S Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class David Weydert)
A Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team crew, temporarily deployed from San Francisco, provides an escort for the USS Cole as the Navy destroyer returns to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. (U.S Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class David Weydert)

As legislation that would provide for the Coast Guard to get paid amid a partial government shutdown has stalled again in Congress, more than 11,000 have signed on to a White House petition proposing a more radical move to get Coasties their paychecks: temporarily make the Coast Guard part of the Department of the Navy.

Who would propose such an unconventional idea? None other than Charles "Skip" Bowen, 10th master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard.

"For the first time in our nation's history, members of one of our armed services are performing their duties without compensation while they serve this country around the globe, from the Polar Regions to the Northern Arabian Gulf," Bowen wrote in the petition. "Although some are serving under the Department of Defense Combatant Commands they are denied a paycheck while members of their sister services are being paid while participating in the same mission."

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The Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, no longer has funding to pay its members, thanks to the shutdown, which began Dec. 22. Uniformed Coast Guard members missed their first paycheck Jan. 15; they are likely to miss a second at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, operations have continued; on Jan. 20, the Coast Guard cutter Bertholf departed for a six-month deployment to the Western Pacific to support national defense operations, leaving family members at home uncertain when the next paycheck would arrive.

In a Facebook post promoting the petition, Bowen emphasized that the proposed action was temporary. The Coast Guard, he said, could reimburse the Navy once the government shutdown ended.

Bowen declined to speak with Military.com about the petition, created Jan. 22; but another retired master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard, Vince Patton, said he supports the proposal and believes it feasible.

Patton, the 8th MCPOCG, told Military.com he and Bowen had come up with the idea together.

"There were Facebook messages and people asking, 'what if,'" said Patton, a former employee of Military.com. "I looked into the law, Title 14 USC, Section 3 ... we decided to do it."

Title 14, which provides for the creation of the Coast Guard, contains a clause designating the Coast Guard as a service within DHS, except when operating as a service in the Navy.

"Upon the declaration of war if Congress so directs in the declaration or when the President directs, the Coast Guard shall operate as a service in the Navy, and shall so continue until the President, by Executive order, transfers the Coast Guard back to the Department of Homeland Security," the statute reads. "While operating as a service in the Navy, the Coast Guard shall be subject to the orders of the Secretary of the Navy, who may order changes in Coast Guard operations to render them uniform, to the extent such Secretary deems advisable, with Navy operations."

Simply put, the law can be interpreted to allow the president to move the Coast Guard to the Navy at any time, for any reason. And since the Navy, which falls under the Department of Defense, is still getting paid, the move could constitute an end run around the budget impasse.

Circulated on Facebook, the Whitehouse.gov petition has netted more than 11,000 signatures in just a few days. If it receives 100,000 signatures by Feb. 21, President Donald Trump will be required to respond to it.

With some 50,000 Coast Guard retirees set to miss their first check in early February, the petition is poised to pick up steam in coming days.

"The hope that we wanted out of this was raising visibility, and also to push further so people can see the importance of the Coast Guard as a whole," Patton said. "I'm hoping that cooler heads prevail ... but listening to the news, that doesn't sound like that's going to happen."

Ultimately, Patton said, he's advocating for the Coast Guard to get paid by any means; the petition is a way to keep visibility on the issue.

"We're watching this horrible situation where we see our people getting food from food distribution pantries," he said. "Fundraising events to get people food or pay the rent ... we're going to be a voice for all the people in the Coast Guard.

Many former MCPOCGs have spoken out in recent days, signing on to strongly worded editorials at Military.com to express their outrage at the Coast Guard's predicament.

Patton said he and other retired master chiefs wanted to be a voice for active Coast Guard leadership, who were more restricted in what they could say about the current situation.

The commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Karl Schultz, has been amplifying his rhetoric, however, publishing a video to his social media accounts Jan. 22 in which he called the service's being forced to work without pay "unacceptable." His message quickly went viral.

Coast Guard officials declined to comment to Military.com on the White House petition.

In recent days, Navy leaders have also become more outspoken in their support of the Coast Guard.

"All Sailors share a deep bond regardless of the uniform they wear," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in a tweet Jan. 23. "Whether you're in the @USNavy or one of the 41,000 U.S. Coast Guard @USCG Sailors, you know what it means to protect from the sea."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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