ROME — The mood was light at Slider's Pizza and Pub as half of the restaurant filled with young couples.
Kids were jumping up and down, wolfing down pieces of pizza. The adults were exchanging small talk. One child, 2, wanted nothing to do with the pizza and ate some applesauce. Sounds like a typical night out, but it wasn't. Instead, the families were all members of the local U.S. Coast Guard station in East Peoria, who are feeling firsthand the effects of the government shutdown.
And the fun and the food belied the fact that none of these families have been receiving paychecks for almost a month but still have to report to work.
"I feel like the political parties, both of them, are acting childish," said Bethany McCluskey, whose husband, Shawn, is a machinery technician 2. As her two children, 5-year-old Braiden and 3-year-old Samantha, munched on the free pizza provided by Slider's, she sighed. It's been a stressful few weeks, having to tap into savings and take out a loan to make ends meet.
Down the table and holding her 2-year-old son, Braxton, Sarah Perrin of East Peoria minced no words. She's upset and angry at the idea that her husband, a 13-year veteran of the Coast Guard, is working without pay. To her, the Coasties, as they are often known, aren't pawns in this political chess game, but merely numbers.
"We are just numbers on a page. We don't even rate high enough to be pawns," she said as she fed her son.
So far, they have weathered the storm, as their family has helped. But unlike Perrin, who is finishing her final semester as a physical therapy assistant student at Illinois Central College, others aren't so lucky.
The Coast Guard is the nation's smallest armed service, with about 50,000 active duty members and reservists. Officially, it falls under the Department of Homeland Security, but during times of war can be transferred to the Navy, a rare move. The last time the Coast Guard fell under the auspices of the Navy was in World War II. And it's that designation that is the rub for these families. They are deemed essential, so they have to report to work. Yet, they are slated to miss a second paycheck next week if the White House and Congress can't figure out how to end the impasse.
There are about 26 active duty members based in East Peoria, making it a fairly large station for this part of the country. Yet many, including a neighbor of the station, nestled next to the Steak 'n Shake restaurant on East Peoria's riverfront, don't know they are there. There are also several members of the Coast Guard Reserve, but they are not working during the ongoing shutdown.
Will Harper, the co-owner of Slider's with his father, Wally, said he wanted to help the people who were keeping the waterways safe. In addition to providing free pizza and drinks to the families, 15 percent of proceeds from Thursday night's meals went to the Chief Petty Officers Association, which is the official charity that is helping the Coast Guard members make it through this period. A jar was passed throughout the restaurant, and patrons at tables and at the video gaming machines dropped in bills to help the families.
Perrin and McCluskey were clear in that they don't dislike military service because of this, but they want the political gamesmanship to end.
Brad Adams, a retiree with 20 years in the Coast Guard, got his start at the East Peoria station. He's passionate about helping the current crop of GIs there, saying many are "junior," meaning they are among the lower ranks and, thus, not as well paid as the higher ones. They live check to check, many of them, and this hardship is just one more thing that can distract them or add to their stress. It's wrong, he said, that the federal government has "divorced" itself from taking care of the people who are required and who are motivated to serve.
Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @andykravetz.