Restore pay for Coast Guard, part of real wall against drug trafficking

A cherished souvenir of an earlier phase of my life is that I am the sponsor of a Coast Guard cutter, USCGC Bertholf, the first in class national security cutter launched in 2006 and named for Commandant Ellsworth P. Bertholf (1911-1919). This means my initials are soldered on the cutter’s hull, and according to maritime lore, my spirit is linked inextricably to that of the vessel.

So it was with some measure of personal outrage that I learned Coast Guard service members were the first branch of the military not to be paid during the partial government shutdown. The Coast Guard, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), remains unfunded but the  Department of Defense (DOD) fortunately is paying service members of the other military branches.

{mosads}A 2016 trip to San Diego allowed me to visit the men and women of Bertholf, and while all their missions were national security critical, most impressive were their successes in the drug interdiction mission. They have recovered millions of dollars worth of cocaine and other narcotics in deployments off the coast of Central and South America, much of it carried by low-profile, go-fast vessels.

Public reports of a mission in March 2018 by Bertholf in a 77-day drug patrol in the Pacific showed a score of 36,000 pounds of cocaine, worth more than $539 million, representing 17 interdictions made by Bertholf and four other Coast Guard cutters. A 2015 Bertholf mission off Central America yielded 18,000 pounds of cocaine, worth about $205 million, recovered from a homemade submarine; a March 2016 mission yielded 12,000 pounds of cocaine off the coast of Panama. Together, that totals about $1 billion in illicit drugs intercepted before reaching U.S. consumers — with partial or complete credit to a single Coast Guard vessel and its dedicated crew.

Today, the crew of Bertholf and many others like them continue that work, with one difference. The 43,000 Coast Guard employees have been working without pay. Bertholf families looking to the long deployments in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific are anxiously wondering how to meet mortgage and loan payments. Coast Guard Commandant Karl L. Schultz said in a statement: “To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time in our nation’s history that service members in a U.S. Armed Force have not been paid during a lapse in government appropriations.”  

Thad Allen, a respected former Coast Guard commandant, in a speech at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, called the government shutdown impasse “disgraceful” and “insulting,” and noted that although the service members and their families are resilient, ultimately, readiness will be affected. Already, Coast Guard families are relying on makeshift food pantries such as the one Allen toured at New London.

President Trump’s fixation on a border wall, and his willingness to leave the “Legends” of the Coast Guard unpaid shows just how bankrupt his policy prescription is for border security. A real strategy would support enhanced patrols by the Coast Guard, surveillance at the southern border, and investment in root cause-efforts to stem the flow of drugs and the victims of drug-gang rule from Central and South America.

The Coast Guard is part of the real wall that defends the United States against the entry of illicit drugs. It is not a wall that relies on miles of desert land — it is a virtual wall that relies on technology, intelligence and dedicated service members.

Meryl Justin Chertoff is executive director of the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. She served in the Office of Legislative Affairs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), participating in the agency’s transition into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

Tags Coast Guard Commandant of the Coast Guard Donald Trump Ellsworth P. Bertholf Legend-class cutter Military Person Career Quotation United States Coast Guard USCGC Bertholf

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