Modern American Heroes: Let's Not Lose Sight of the Nameless Government Workers


Jan 14, 2019

A TSA employee checks the documents of a traveler at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2019

A TSA employee checks the documents of a traveler at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2019

Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on USA Today on January 12, 2019.

As the president and congressional leaders continue to negotiate the details of funding the government, much has been said about the 800,000 nameless government employees that didn't receive paychecks last week.

Unfortunately, too little has been said about what those employees actually do in their jobs and the critical functions they play in making America safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous. They are more than mere cogs in some larger government machine. They are real people, performing critical roles, all in service of their country on whom many aspects of our day-to-day lives depend.

Not only will they be hurt in missing paychecks — the first of these was Friday — but the critical functions they perform are being curtailed to various degrees by the shutdown.

Here's just a very small sampling of those people, in particular, a selection of those who work in security and safety fields, who are performing critical roles for our country:

  • Members of the FBI's joint terrorism task forces who work with state and local agencies and are on the lookout each and every day for threats to their fellow citizens.
  • Crews on U.S. Coast Guard ships, some still in their teens, that keep America safe from threats from the sea; keep mariners safe on America's waterways; and are ready at a moment's notice when the mayday call goes out.
  • Members of U.S. Customs and Border Protection who screen nearly 1 million visitors and 67,000 cargo containers that enter the country each day. Without them, trade across our borders would cease.
  • Members of the U.S. Secret Service who provide personal security details to current and former presidents and their families, and also play a critical role in investigating financial crime.
  • Consular officers in the U.S. foreign service who are posted at U.S. embassies and consulates across the globe and are responsible, among other duties, for screening all visa applications and ensuring terrorists don't gain access to the United States.
  • Members of the Federal Aviation Administration who certify all commercial aircraft and ensure the 87,000 flights across the United States each day are managed safely and without disruption.
  • Members of the Food Safety and Inspection Service who continuously screen (PDF) meat, poultry, and eggs to ensure they are safe for human consumption.
  • The U.S. attorneys who investigate and prosecute violations of federal law, including drug trafficking, child pornography, and explosives and firearms violations.
  • Members of the National Weather Service who provide the data, satellite images, and weather models on which all of our local weather forecasts depend.
  • Officers of the Transportation Security Administration, who screen more than 2 million passengers on an average day and all air-delivered cargo.

It is time that we move past the discussion of 800,000 nameless government employees and talk instead about the critical roles these people play and the sacrifices they are making on behalf of all Americans. It is no exaggeration to consider them modern American heroes — fellow Americans who are committed to their country and the well-being of all of us. They have earned their paychecks and a whole lot more.

Andrew Hoehn is senior vice president at the RAND Corporation. He served from 1989 to 2004 as a civil servant at the Department of Defense.

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