Coast Guard fam­i­lies left ‘an­gry, frus­trated’

San Antonio Express-News - - METRO - By Sig Chris­ten­son STAFF WRITER

Ash­ley Tot­ten’s stress level is ris­ing.

The wife of a Coast Guard petty of­fi­cer sec­ond class who will miss his first paycheck Tues­day un­der the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down, she’s con­fronted with prob­lems from all sides.

Her 3-month-old son, Mad­dox, has a heart con­di­tion, suf­fers from high blood pres­sure and could face surgery at Hous­ton’s Med­i­cal Cen­ter in com­ing weeks. She’s de­ferred two credit card pay­ments but hasn’t had much luck get­ting help from other cred­i­tors.

The Tot­ten’s other son, Brax­ton, 2, was stung by fire ants a week ago. Their res­cue dog, Jaxon, fell se­ri­ously ill. They’ve got food, a roof over their heads and the lights are still on, but there’s no telling how long the shut­down will last. What if the house­hold goes with­out a sec­ond paycheck Feb. 1?

“I think I’m sort of in a fog,” said Tot­ten, 31, who has ap­peared on na­tional and lo­cal TV to raise aware­ness of the strug­gles Coast Guard fam­i­lies are fac­ing be­cause of the shut­down. “I truly thought there would be some Hail Mary in the end to have us paid on time.”

The shut­down af­fects 42,000 ac­tive-duty mem­bers of the Coast Guard, which is part of the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment, one of the agen­cies af­fected by the im­passe over Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­mand for $5.7 bil­lion to ex­tend the bor­der wall.

The stand­off frus­trates Tot­ten, Erin Pi­cou and Robyn Reyes. All Coast Guard wives in the Hous­ton area, they think their hus­bands and oth­ers in the ser­vice, now work­ing with­out pay, should be treated the same as those in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Ma­rine Corps who also put their lives at risk ev­ery day.

The bud­gets of those armed ser­vices were ap­proved last fall.

“I am an­gry, frus­trated, anx­ious and con­cerned,” said Pi­cou, 37 of Texas City. “We need to get Congress to pass a bill say­ing that the Coast Guard is in the same cat­e­gory as ev­ery other branch of the mil­i­tary. Ev­ery other branch is be-

ing paid.”

The Coast Guard de­clined to fa­cil­i­tate in­ter­views with uni­formed per­son­nel or pro­vide ac­cess to bases in Texas, cit­ing the sen­si­tive na­ture of the shut­down. Its sta­tions along the Texas coast sup­port op­er­a­tions rang­ing from ma­rine en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and port se­cu­rity to law en­force­ment, drug and mi­grant in­ter­dic­tion, and search and res­cue.

Around 800,000 fed­eral work­ers have missed a paycheck, among them mem­bers of Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, air traf­fic con­trollers, Trans­porta­tion Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion screen­ers and FBI agents. Civil­ians in the FBI, Coast Guard and other agen­cies have been fur­loughed. A TSA slow­down, caused by an uptick in agents call­ing in sick, threat­ens to worsen this week.

The wives talked freely, on con­di­tion that their hus­bands not be iden­ti­fied.

Pi­cou, a real es­tate agent, thinks she will be able to pay most, if not all, of the bills if ev­ery­thing works out. But if her hus­band, a 17-year vet­eran who has risen to chief petty of­fi­cer, doesn’t get paid soon, things are go­ing to get rough, she said.

“We’ll pay the most im­por­tant things, the most im­por­tant bills. I’ll keep the lights on,” said Pi­cou. “The mort­gage is the main thing.”

The mort­gage pay­ment on the home they bought six months ago is $2,400. His check was sup­posed to cover it.

There are no sav­ings left. They were used for the pur­chase.

“It’s pretty scary. I don’t want the bank to take my new house,” Pi­cou said.

Reyes said her power com­pany is giv­ing gov­ern­ment work­ers af­fected by the fur­lough a 60-day grace pe­riod, but not want­ing to take chances, she paid the util­ity bills any­way. The cou­ple who owns their home promised to work with them on rent.

That’s a break ju­nior en­listed Coast Guard mem­bers may not get from their land­lords, Reyes and the other wives said, and if the shut­down lasts long enough, ev­ery­one will suf­fer in a va­ri­ety of ways, from pos­si­ble fore­clo­sures and evic­tions to ru­ined credit.

“For us right now, we’re OK,” she said. “The fact of the mat­ter is if it goes on a cou­ple of more weeks or months, no one is go­ing to be.”

Food is an im­me­di­ate con­cern. The Tot­tens have got­ten by on Christ­mas leftovers. Still, in a onein­come house­hold, she care­fully plans ev­ery meal.

As fam­i­lies try to map out how to live with­out an in­come, Coast Guard NCOs are rais­ing money though lo­cal chap­ters of the Chief Petty Of­fi­cers As­so­ci­a­tion to feed their men at work.

The chiefs bought food last week to cook in a gal­ley at their sta­tion on Elling­ton Field Joint Re­serve Base. Know­ing how se­ri­ous things are, they’re en­cour­ag­ing the younger sea­men to take food home.

Not ev­ery sta­tion is do­ing that, Tot­ten said.

“Ju­nior mem­bers are struggling,” she said, ex­plain­ing that they lack sav­ings.

Reyes, whose hus­band is a petty of­fi­cer first class, didn’t worry much about the shut­down when it be­gan. It was a typ­i­cal re­ac­tion — no one thought it would have lasted this long or that, with half the month al­ready gone and the next pay­day a lit­tle more than two weeks away, it would get worse.

“I can’t speak for them, but I my­self think my hus­band has worked his ass off. He needs to get a paycheck,” Pi­cou said. “It’s hard to fo­cus on search and res­cue if you don’t know whether your kids and fam­ily are go­ing to have a roof over their head and food on the ta­ble.”

Tot­ten last week went to Face­book to air her con­cerns af­ter the dog be­gan swelling badly and the dosage for Mad­dox’s med­i­ca­tion was in­creased a sec­ond time with an­other drug added to get con­trol of the fluid on his lungs.

“Do you know how much sleep a mom gets with a baby still eat­ing on de­mand be­cause his body is work­ing so hard he’s burn­ing through his calo­ries faster than it should?” she wrote in a post that in­cluded a photo of her weary face. “Not much.”

Her hus­band will have to land a sec­ond job if things keep go­ing the way they are. In the mean­time, he works in Sabine Pass while she stays at home in League City car­ing for Mad­dox, Brax­ton, Jaxon and Lexie, an­other dog with health is­sues that re­quire med­i­ca­tion.

In her post, she asked for a prayer or two for the fam­ily.

“Not for me, I’ll han­dle it all but for my ba­bies,” she wrote. “Maybe throw my hus­band in there too be­cause de­spite maybe not get­ting paid next week and pos­si­bly even af­ter that if a res­o­lu­tion isn’t found, he’s still go­ing to go to work and do his job.

“Just like over 40,000 Coasties will be do­ing. Some will be risk­ing their lives not even know­ing if they will af­ford their bills the rest of the month. Say a prayer for them too,” she con­tin­ued. “While you’re at it, call your rep­re­sen­ta­tives and de­mand to fund the Coast Guard be­cause there are a lot of fam­i­lies that truly just don’t need this ex­tra stress. Hot mess real life here.”

Brett Coomer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

The Tot­tens, a Coast Guard fam­ily, will miss their first paycheck Tues­day as the long­est gov­ern­ment shut­down ever wears on. The Tot­tens worry about their fam­ily’s med­i­cal bills.

Brett Coomer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Ash­ley Tot­ten, a Coast Guard wife, is feel­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down’s fi­nan­cial pinch. Mad­dox, her 3-month-old son, has a heart con­di­tion that soon might re­quire ex­pen­sive surgery.

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