WASHINGTON — Until the sequester hit last month, Jeff Maryak, a 39-year-old Army reservist and combat veteran, was just one of the millions of middle-class Americans getting by, but barely.
On the plus side of the personal ledger, Maryak has a new desk job at Fort Meade. It pays him well (around $80,000 annually, before taxes), offers the possibility of promotion, and puts him squarely in the middle class, even in an area like Washington, which has one of the highest cost of living rates in the nation.
But the negative side of Maryak's ledger also added up: He pays $1,900 monthly rent for a small apartment in suburban Maryland; $950 in mortgage and utilities a month on the house he can't sell in North Carolina; $1,000 in monthly child support payments; $250 for his and his daughter's car insurance; $300 a month for an extra insurance policy for his kids; $250 for their cell phones; and a luxury, the more than $500 note on his black 2008 BMW. And, like millions of Americans, Maryak is living under a mountain of credit card debt — he estimates that just to meet the minimum monthly payments, he's shelling out more than $600 a month.
Maryak knew when he took the job earlier this year that things were going to be tight. But he also hoped that uprooting himself from North Carolina for the new opportunity would give him a chance to eventually "pay off my debt and put some money away, like you're supposed to."
Then sequestration slashed Maryak's paycheck by nearly 27%. That cut nearly $900 from the $3,400 he makes a pay period. He responded, first, by picking up a job four nights a week delivering pizza for Papa John's; he then traded in the BMW for a white Chevy Impala, to save money and because he discovered that nobody tips the delivery man in the BMW. And since that miserable combination hasn't quite closed the gap — gas is expensive, and the Impala gets terrible mileage — Maryak, who was awarded a bronze star in Sadr City in 2008, found himself dwelling deeply on one question: "How do I unfuck myself from this situation?"
His answer: He would like to go back to war.
"It's not something a normal, sane person should want to go to do. But it's an overwhelming financial opportunity," Maryak said on a recent Sunday morning over coffee in downtown Washington.
At 6 feet 1 inch and 190 pounds, the Syracuse native is in some ways straight out of central casting to play the part of a middle-class American veteran.
A deployment would mean a tax-free income, a bump of several hundred dollars in hazard and combat bonuses to his pay. Another provision of federal law would take care of that Maryland apartment.
"A deployment would allow me to get back on top of my financial situation to a degree," he said.
But Maryak, who's applied for eight deployments so far, has run into another problem: With the United States out of Iraq, withdrawing from Afghanistan, and wary of putting boots on the ground in Africa and the Middle East, "deployments are ridiculously hard to find nowadays."
The sequester, a mandated cut in spending on most federal programs, has been greeted with a shrug by most of official Washington. That's part because the White House, eager to keep a political advantage over Republicans, vastly oversold its immediate effects on most Americans and warned of hundreds of shuttered airports, and of everything from deep cuts to homeless shelters to canceled White House tours. The economy has not collapsed. There have been no massive disruptions in services. And the sequester, intended as a sort of Sword of Damocles imposed in 2011 to force fiscal action, has instead become a late-night punch line, fodder for the Twitterati to snark about slow Starbucks lines or conservatives to attack the First Family's spring break plans.
But though the cuts didn't produce broad discomfort, they have cut deeply for some. And they fell first and hardest on people who tend not to draw immediate public sympathy. That's a specific class of modestly-paid government employees, people — like Maryak, who reviews security clearances from 9 to 5 at Fort Meade — whose absence wouldn't bring the country to a halt, but for whom the consequences of a sudden 27% pay cut can be devastating — the equivalent, he said, of "putting a BMW car payment on me without giving me the car."
"It's a kick in the teeth," said Maryak. "I'm 40 years old and after working, what, 14 hours, I'm mopping the bathroom in the back of a fucking Papa John's and my car smells like failure."
Maryak's choice to put his life at risk is extreme. But his path to date has been fairly normal. He grew up in Syracuse, graduating from Christian Brothers Academy in 1991, and went to the University of Miami, Florida, partied too hard and flunked out, he says, and returned to Syracuse and began working menial jobs.
Maryak then followed the great migration to the Southwest, heading with his pregnant girlfriend to Las Vegas, where Maryak's brother had told him about lucrative casino jobs. But breaking into the casino game proved to be more difficult than Maryak had thought. Money got tight, and with his wife four months pregnant, he started to look for work, any work.
"I decided, you know what, she's now four months pregnant and she needs to see a doctor. We have no health insurance, no nothing. So I'm going to join the Army because she's at least going to go to a doctor and they're going to give her health insurance. And she can go and have the baby," he recalled.
Joining the Army was a pivotal moment in Maryak's life. "I'd just been living day-to-day," he says. But now he was part of something larger. He learned responsibility, honor, duty, and patriotism, all traits that have long since become central parts of who he is.
Maryak credits his ex-wife for supporting him during the early years of his military career. "To her credit, she suddenly became an Army wife. That was not necessarily what she signed up for. And even worse so, I went through basic training, I get assigned to Germany."
Maryak served in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Egypt. He began to see the Army as a calling.
"I'm savvy enough to recognize the difference between political and reality. And while it can seem political to say that I'm exporting American values… I'm not exporting democracy, I'm not exporting American values. What I am exporting is freedom and fairness," he said.
By spring 2001, Maryak had been in the Army for seven years and had two kids and a wife.
He was discharged in June of that year and found himself back in the civilian world.
"I had gotten my [Microsoft Certified System Engineer certificate]. Microsoft MT 4.0 because that was going to be the future, but yeah, I'm still paying on that debt," Maryak jokes. Still, at the time it helped, and he took a job with Advanced Internet Technologies in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Founded by a couple of former special forces members, the company had contracts with the military, which Maryak liked, and there was a stable future to it. The pay wasn't great — Maryak was working shifts at the local Bennigans — but still, things were good. He'd arrived.
And then, Sept. 11 happened. "They asked people to raise their hand of who was willing to come on board full-time to help, so I of course raised my hand to help," Maryak said, and by November he was back on orders, working part-time for CAPAC, which was in charge of civil and psychological affairs for the Army. For a year and half, he worked as a civilian at Ft. Bragg before he finally took up again full-time with the military.
In 2005, Maryak and his wife divorced, and he spent some time working in North Carolina before eventually heading to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. During one tour in Iraq, he won a bronze star for his part in the siege on Sadr City, an infamous neighborhood in Baghdad. Maryak doesn't much like to talk about that time, insisting he did very little in the end. "A bronze star is not anything awesome," he said. "A bronze star with valor is significantly awesome. But the bronze star I got is, you did a good job, arguably an excessively good job, but you happened to be in a combat zone."
During that time Maryak had settled into a comfortable life in North Carolina. He'd remarried, his two kids were in school, and he was happy. In 2010 he left the military, taking a civilian position with the Department of Defense. "I [had] a civilian job that [was] permanent, that I [was] invested in in North Carolina, that I [was] good with," he said.
Like many Americans, Maryak was still living paycheck to paycheck. Partly as a result of his various responsibilities — like child support, a mortgage on his house, his daughter's car insurance — and partly as a function of his own spending habits, he was getting by, but he wasn't putting much away. In short, Maryak was living a model, modern American life.
"I was fine there. I was a big fish in a small pond. I was on top of all of my bills. It was touch and go, it was paycheck to paycheck for sure, but I had no reason to doubt my paycheck, so I was fine," he said. "It wasn't great, I didn't have a whole lot of extra money."
But by January of this year, things had changed. Maryak's kids were getting older, he was in the midst of his second divorce, and the job he once was happy with suddenly didn't have much of a future to it.
"I [couldn't] move any higher. I [was] a GS 11 [a civil service classification]. There's no room for promotion. And my children [were] to the point where they're graduating high school and I'm able to feel like I can move away, that they won't miss me so much."
Maryak quickly found a job in the D.C. area, working for the Department of Defense reviewing security clearance requests. It's a good job, with the potential for promotions over the years. It meant moving hundreds of miles away from his son during his final year in high school, selling his comfortable house, and finding new friends. But it also meant a potentially much better future.
"I knew that taking this new job was a risk, but it was a risk for the positive. I was now opening up my ceiling that I didn't have before. So I said, alright, I'm going to accept this job."
Things were tight — between the mortgage on his house in North Carolina (which still hasn't sold), child support, his new rent, and all the other bills he had, Maryak continued to just get by, but the prospect of moving up through the ranks made it worthwhile.
But at the same time Maryak was going through his upheaval, Washington was going through its own transformation. After years of partisan bickering and punting on difficult decisions, President Obama and Congress were facing down the hard reality of the sequester. The rhetorical battles over the mandatory spending cuts during last year's election meant politicians couldn't simply push off the pain, as they had for years. Either Obama, Speaker John Boehner, and Majority Leader Harry Reid were going to actually address the government's fiscal problems this time, or the sequester was going to go into effect.
Obama and congressional Democrats made a last-minute, halfhearted effort to gin up public outrage, warning of crippling security lines at airports and other dire predictions of pain. But nobody, least of all congressional Republicans, was buying it.
In the end, the decision wasn't ever hard. Politicians on both sides knew that the cuts wouldn't result in serious national disruptions of services. The national parks would stay open, transportation funds would still go to the states, and the functions of government would continue.
The sequester went into effect with little fanfare or impact for the vast majority of Americans. But in suburban Maryland, Jeff Maryak was feeling the pain. While his monthly expenses clock in around $3,600, he made $200 less, before the cuts. A disability benefit from a training accident helped make up for that difference and gave him a bit of cushion.
Then came the sequester, which, thanks to the vagaries of federal budgeting, are working out to a nearly 27% reduction in his pay.
"I defy anyone that has a normal operating budget to cut out 27% and operate from there and say, how are you not in financial ruin? And if you're able to operate without 27% of your budget, then good on you, you are a well-planned individual. I just don't think that's average, and it's certainly not the life I've led, which is my own fault," Maryak said.
Now, he said, "I'm in the position where I work 9 to 5 and I report at 6 to work at Papa John's to work 6 to 11ish delivering pizzas. I sold my extravagant car for a less extravagant American car so that I can deliver pizza and try to make ends meet," though it still only adds up to about half of the pay cut he took thanks to the sequester.
With his house in North Carolina still on the market and not enough money coming in to handle his expenses, Maryak now finds himself, like tens of thousands of Americans across the country, living the modern American nightmare.
"Without the sequestration, I was already in a bind. I was in a bind because of my house and the cost of living up here. I was in a bind, I was touch and go to begin with. And the sequestration happens, I lose 27% of my paycheck, which is definitely going to put me under. I work this second job, and it only covers half of what the sequestration's gonna do to me," he said.
But even as Maryak applies to risk his life to stabilize his finances, he doesn't particularly blame Congress for his woes. He's an anti-spending conservative himself.
"While I'm bitching and complaining about how difficult it is for me, I recognize that the government needs to cut," he said. "I know that the government is bloated and that there is an immense amount of waste or fat that can be trimmed. And it would be intellectually dishonest of me to not recognize that if my principles say that the government needs to be cut, then I have to accept that, even though it hurts me personally."
Walking through the Shaw neighborhood in D.C., Maryak is approached by two homeless men. They turn out to be vets, and the three men get to talking. One of them mentions that a nearby church is organizing day work for veterans and other job opportunities. Maryak gives them each a cigarette and a few bucks.
"I see guys like them and I realize my situation really isn't that bad … we're meeting people on the street who have so much worse," he said. "It makes it hard to bitch about my situation."
So Maryak is doing what he can. He keeps applying for deployments and he says he has friends in the service that are looking out for opportunities for him. He's eliminating as many expenses as he realistically can.
His father, Joe, shares his anti-spending politics, but finds the situation a bit more directly infuriating on his son's behalf.
"It's just not fair," the elder Maryak said. "They came up with this sequester idea because they don't want to act; the American people are getting hurt."
And the cuts hit his son without warning.
"At least give Jeff some kind of time frame," he said.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.