When the Coast Guard stopped receiving pay during the recently ended 35-day government shutdown — the longest in United States history — Fremont native Christian Osborne was hit hard. And it wasn’t just because he and his wife Jessica had to go without a paycheck.
It was because the 24-man unit that he supervised out of his Curtis Bay station in Baltimore were hurting, and they were coming to him for help.
“It was agonizing,” said Osborne’s mother, Fremont resident Nan Rix. “He had a really hard time.”
But as the Osborne’s Baltimore unit faced new pressures, allies from the west began to mobilize — with Rix leading the charge.
On Friday, Osborne’s unit received its first paychecks and backpay since the government reopened this week. But they also picked up another delivery: a shipment of more than $3,000 worth of groceries for Osborne and all of his men. The groceries were purchased with money that was raised by family and friends in Fremont and beyond, in an effort spearheaded by Rix and affectionately dubbed “Operation Pantry.”
“Being a mom, I just needed to help them,” she said. “When I told him what the total of the grocery buy was, he was just astounded, and I said, remember we’re a small town that loves you and cares about your men. Can’t get much better than that. Just know that we’re here.”
Osborne could not comment for this story, but a picture provided to the Tribune shows his unit posing with groceries and signs that read “THANK YOU.”
As part of the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard was the only military branch to miss a paycheck during the shutdown, which began in December after President Donald Trump and congressional leaders failed to come to an agreement over funding for border security. Other military branches fall under the Department of Defense, which maintained its funding.
Being a service member without a paycheck poses unique challenges, Rix said. Coast Guard paychecks also include a housing allowance. Some in Osborne’s unit were wondering how they’d pay for rent, food, children’s birthday parties and more.
“When you join the coast guard, as with any other branch of the service, you belong to them for the number of years that you sign up for,” Rix said. “So it makes it hard for them, they can’t go out and get another job because they have to be on call. If there’s an emergency, they have to be able to respond.”
Rix was eager to help, and quickly found family members and friends who were willing to join in, offering to send gift cards or cash.
“Christian was known in this community — this is his hometown — and people all know he’s in the coast guard, and so they would call and they’d say, ‘what can we do?’” she said.
But Rix quickly ran into obstacles — the government would not allow her to send over direct contributions. She could find only one workaround: raising money and purchasing the groceries herself so that Osborne and his unit could pick them up.
She wrote about her efforts on Facebook and got a strong response from family members and friends from Fremont and beyond; as far as Iowa, Minnesota, Wyoming and more.
Being a Masonic family, they found support in fellow Masonic friends and family members.
Christian’s wife Jessica reached out to her sister, whose husband is a law enforcement officer in Kentucky. He and his fellow officers collected around $900, Rix said.
With the money collected, Rix started to hammer out the logistics of purchasing the groceries. She found a Maryland-based grocery store chain called Harris Teeter, with a location in Severna Park, Maryland, near Osborne’s base.
On Monday, she placed an order online for $3,195.70 worth of groceries — everything in multiples of 24 for everyone in Osborne’s unit. On Friday, with the shutdown over, all of the families picked up their groceries and finally, received their paychecks.
“Never, never should an American soldier standing for his country ever not be paid because of the shenanigans going on in Washington,” Rix said.
Recovering from the shutdown
It’s been about a week since Trump signed off on an agreement to reopen the government through Feb. 15. At that point, it’s unclear whether any of the issues that prompted the last shutdown will be resolved. More gridlock could prompt another shutdown.
In the meantime, local entities report that most of the effects of the shutdown have subsided with the reopening of the government — for now.
During the shutdown, Fremont Public Schools had been keeping tabs on how programs funded by federal dollars could have been affected, particularly federal reimbursements for school lunches that are allocated based on poverty levels. Brad Dahl of Fremont Public Schools said that funding was expected to last through March. Now, with the government reopen, those concerns are resolved — “until the next shutdown, of course,” he noted.
City Administrator Brian Newton told the Tribune that the only area where he saw a risk of delays was the project to build a new airport terminal and aircraft parking apron at the Fremont Municipal Airport. That project, currently in the planning stages, involves coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration. But Anna Lanning of the Nebraska Department of Transportation told the Tribune on Friday that Fremont’s project is proceeding on schedule. She noted that there was potential that other DOT projects could see delays, but said that at this point it’s just speculation.
Nebraska’s agricultural sector is working to return to business as usual. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) state office in Lincoln and its 71 county-level offices across the state were closed for a little more than three weeks during the shutdown, but have since resumed operations. The USDA did not respond to a request for comment on whether all of those workers have received backpay, and local representatives declined to comment.
During those weeks, however, farmers in the area would have been unable to apply for the loans and programs that the FSA offers. That includes things like the noninsured crop disaster assistance program, marketing assistance loans and the market facilitation program, which provides financial relief to farmers affected by the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.
The deadlines to apply for all of those programs have been extended to Feb. 14 to accommodate farmers who were unable to apply during the shutdown.
With the government open again, some farmers are now waiting on clarification as to how to navigate changes implemented by the new Farm Bill, which passed in December, just before the shutdown.
Kelly Brunkhurst, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Growers Association, noted that the Farm Bill doesn’t present a drastic change from the past — but commodity programs and crop insurance programs have some changes that farmers need more clarity on.
“Here we are a month into 2019, and nobody’s really been around to start the implementation process of that new Farm Bill,” he said. “Our push now is we need some certainties about what’s going to be the process for the implementation of the Farm Bill, what’s going to be the sign up period for producers, how do they go about that, etc.”
Some of that may be further delayed if the government were to shut down again.
Rix is concerned about the possibility of another shutdown, and how that might affect Osborne. But she says her and her troops are ready to jump into action again if need be.
“A lot of our family has said, OK, if they shut down again, just let us know, and we’ll help as much as we can help,” Rix said.