All Along The Watchtower

All Along The Watchtower

“… There must be some kind of way out of here,
Said the joker to the thief
Too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
But none of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth

No reason to get excited
The thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now
The hour is getting late…”

-Dylan

For much of my life, my running joke was that the next US Coast Guard member I saw would be the first one.

Through 9 years serving in the Army (and 16-ish years growing up as an Air Force brat), I’d managed to almost never see the Coast Guard.
Roughly 78,000 souls (42,000 on active duty) serving faithfully on land, in the air, and on the sea – somehow, invisibly.
Uniformed ‘Waldos’ and ‘Carmen Sandiegos’ – hidden in plain sight.
I couldn’t tell you what their uniforms looked like. Or where their bases were. Or where they trained. I’d heard quite frequently that their Basic Training was second only to the Marines in difficulty; yet, ironically, I’d had the most difficult time meeting a real-life Coast guard member to actually confirm it.
To me, they were the ‘fight club’ of the US military.
I’d never seen a single Coast Guard ad on television, in print, or online. I’d never driven by one of their recruiting offices. I couldn’t say for sure that they even had recruiters.
What I eventually learned is that they don’t do much marketing – because they don’t really need to.

The Coast Guard is like that person we’ve all known who seems universally attractive (quietly), and never at a loss for would-be dates and mates. They don’t generally pursue romantic interests – because they’re always being pursued. High demand, low supply.
By the numbers, they are the smallest branch, but offer arguably – for many – the biggest upside (in terms of benefits, duty stations, diverse missions, etc).
And to whom much is given, much is expected.

They are the first line of defense on the homefront; however, guarding our coasts, ports, and waterways is only a fraction of their function. A Coast Guardsman is equal parts military, law enforcement, first responder, search and rescue, and environmental protection. They combat drug trafficking, human trafficking, natural disasters, would-be international incidents, and medical emergencies – sometimes all in the same day. They are all along the watchtower.
They are the watchtower.
But they are frequently out of sight and, consequently, out of mind.
Coast Guard women and men have served in every American war since 1790, but they fall (in peacetime) under the jurisdiction of the Dept. of Homeland Security – alongside TSA, Customs, FEMA, and others.
All along the ‘watchtower’ of border security.

For me, the sad irony of this particular government shutdown (25 days and counting) is that many believe it to be about border security. Somehow, the troops tasked directly with this mission (border security) have spent nearly a month doing this work without pay – and they will miss their first paycheck today. ‘Coasties’ have continued to work the watchtower during these days and nights, while trying to figure out how to feed their families (and keep their lights on). Fighting to guard our homes, while also fighting to stay in their own homes – unable to pay their mortgages.
They have had no relief. No reason to get excited about a compromise.
There are few things more soul-crushing to a service member (and their loved ones) than feeling like the country you’re risking your life to serve isn’t serving you.
Even those politicians who truly believe that a wall on the US-Mexico border is the answer must know that a wall – any wall – requires people willing (and able) to secure and defend it.
Preferably, highly-trained souls with clear heads and hearts – who aren’t worried about coming home each night to fear-filled families and/or eviction notices.

The even sadder irony of this government shutdown (in my humble opinion) is that the highest levels of government are still getting paid. Congress is paid permanently by the Dept. of the Treasury (most of whose workers are presently unpaid). Both the House and Senate are funded whether they can agree to fund the rest of the government’s federal workers or not (roughly 800,000 souls – if you count the furloughed).
What real incentive is there to come to the bargaining table if your own family’s dinner table is unaffected? Why would there be any urgency to resolve the confusion? What’s it really worth to them?
Lawmakers along both party lines are still very much able and willing to eat, and to drink their wine – and to joke, apparently.
Many laughing all the way to the bank.
In theory, our senators and representatives are also free to take any of their paid time off. Free to catch a flight somewhere nice – and be checked in by TSA folks, who are working for free. Free to catch a ride on a space shuttle, provided they can fly it (most of NASA is presently furloughed). Free to fly over any national parks (many are currently closed to the public) – although if they happen to spot a fire from the air, they’d have to try to put it out themselves (many Forest Service firefighters are furloughed). Free even to cross any of our nation’s borders – secured by highly-trained souls who are, for the moment, involuntary volunteers.

We (UUCC) had a very minor shutdown this past Sunday.
Mother Nature made her wintry presence felt and we, for safety reasons, decided to cancel both of the morning’s worship services.
I’d enlisted a handful of highly-trained musicians for that morning’s music. They’d practiced, learned all of the compositions and arrangements, and rehearsed with me the day before. The snowstorm was an act of nature – it certainly wasn’t their fault. If we’d been open, they would have played.
On Sunday morning, they were out of my (and your) sight – but not out of my mind.
I made sure to pay them accordingly – because I still got paid. I have the good fortune to be a salaried employee funded through UUCC’s treasury. Many musicians (particularly the freelance kind) only receive pay if they play. When events are shutdown, they are usually shut out (financially).
I’ve been through that more times than I can remember.
I made sure this was not their fate.

I am mindful of principles.
I understand neither side of this stalemate wanting to look ‘weak’, or break ranks and disappoint their bases. Or break their campaign promises – or their pledged allegiances. I just wish they weren’t breaking the backs, hearts, and spirits of so many innocent bystanders in this standoff.
I’d be talking falsely to say that balancing the entire federal budget is anything less than a confusing, complicated, and time-consuming process.
I just wish our government could agree to at least fund the souls that are all along the watchtower – who have sworn to protect and preserve the process with their lives.
They are not pawns. They are queens and kings, serving selflessly as rooks.
Watchtowers.

I still don’t see the Coast Guard much in my daily life.
However, I suspect there is a whole lot of hurt, harm, and danger that I and my family don’t see – because the Coast Guard sees it first.

Semper Paratus, (Always Ready)
Anthony

3 Comments

  1. Michelle Domangue

    Dearest Anthony,
    I was looking forward to the “platinum rule” and cussed Mother Nature for keeping me from hearing it. (However, I have to admit that I was happy to see such a lovely snow–finally!)
    Thanks for this thoughtful, well informed reflection.
    I have met you, but you probably don’t know who I am, other than a UUCC member. No matter– we’re sure going to miss you!

  2. Mark Gorkin

    Very poignant piece, Rev. A. Loved the Dylan lyrics. Hopefully, not enough snow to interrupt the Thurs. mtg. MG

  3. Gail Thompson

    I have been struck by the dramatic decrease in local traffic on Rts 32, 29 and 175, all major commuter routes to Ft Meade and Washington. There are many workers considered essential in both places who must report to work to keep this nation safe and (somewhat) functional.
    Many years ago my cousin’s husband was in the Coast Guard, stationed in Ketchikan, Alaska. Food was terribly expensive as most came by sea. Five dollars in 1952 for a can of peaches. There was a damaging earthquake during their tour. It was the adventure of a lifetime but they did not come home rich. Bless them all.
    We stand on the edge of danger if this power struggle persists. The Senate can end this by representing the people instead of their party.

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