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Update: Forced budget cuts already impacting training at JBLM; DOD civilians preparing for pay cuts

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on March 1, 2013 at 11:30 am |
March 1, 2013 7:10 pm

4:30 p.m. update: Tightening constraints on federal spending are already taking a bite out of military training exercises for Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers, the base’s senior Army officer said today.

The Army has cancelled two rotations for Lewis-McChord soldiers to the National Training Center, a southern California base where units demonstrate that they are ready for deployments, Lt. Gen. Robert Brown said.

Brown said the Army also is scaling back its use of the Yakima Training Center in central Washington. That high desert expanse is prime training territory for the Army because units can fire heavy weapons with fewer considerations about upsetting civilians and they can practice large-scale maneuvers that they can’t do as easily at Lewis-McChord.

“It is a huge impact on training,” he said.

He said Lewis-McChord’s I Corps is focused on providing small scale training exercises at the squad level, which usually consists of four to eight soldiers. He’s concerned that reducing training today could inhibit military readiness in the long-term.

“Where is the fine line where you go from being the best in the world to second best? It happens pretty quick,” he said.

Today was the deadline for Congress to reach a compromise that would avert $85 billion in immediate budget cuts through the so-called sequester. The Army’s share is $12 billion, and Army civilian employees next month will begin taking unpaid 22 nonconsecutive furlough days at work unless lawmakers replace the sequester.

About 16,000 civilians work at Lewis-McChord, and between and 10,000 and 11,000 likely will be subject to furloughs, base spokesman Joe Piek said. They stand to lose about 20 percent of their pay between April and September.

“What gets me is the impact on the civilians,” Brown said, citing an example of a single parent he spoke with who would lose $1,400 a month in pay to the furloughs.

Staff Sgt. Sean Tobin, a spokesman for the Air Force’s 62nd Airlift Wing at Lewis-McChord, said the sequester so far is not impacting training for C-17 crews at McChord Air Field. Their assignment flying cargo jets in and out of war zones is considered mission critical by the Defense Department, he said.

Still, Air Force civilian employees are among the Lewis-McChord workers who expect to be furloughed.

Piek said the base is seeking furlough exemptions for certain workers whose assignments are considered critical to the health and safety of the base’s 46,000 service members and 29,000 residents.

“Our priority during this time of fiscal uncertainty continues to be to provide service members and their families the best possible facilities, and services to both live and work, understanding that there will be reduced services, longer wait times, and fewer personnel available to provide necessary services due to the furlough,” he said in a written statement.

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Forced federal budget cuts kicking in today could force some of the 120,000 people who get care through Madigan Army Medical Center to see doctors outside of the hospital because of probable furloughs for its civilian employees.

Madigan has 3,474 civilian employees. The hospital plans to ask the Defense Department to exempt some of them from compulsory furloughs that are scheduled to begin next month so Madigan can continue to provide around-the-clock care.

“At no time will safety in our care be compromised,” Madigan commander Col. Dallas Homas said.

The Defense Department is preparing to furlough its 800,000 civilian employees one day a week between April and September. About 9,500 civilian employees at Joint Base Lewis-McChord likely will be subject to the furloughs, and they collectively will lose about $57 million in pay, according to an Army report obtained by The News Tribune.

The military is preparing for the budget cuts because Congress and President Obama failed to reach a plan avoid the so-called sequester, which calls for $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending reductions over the next decade. About $85 billion is due to come out of this year’s budget, with the Army taking a $12 billion hit.

Lawmakers can still reach a deal to replace the forced cuts in time to halt the DOD civilian furloughs next month.

Madigan provides care for service members, veterans and their families. It has about 1,500 military personnel in addition to the civilian employees.

Some military installations are considering furloughing all of their civilian employees one day each week. Homas said that is not an option at the hospital, and it is planning to “stagger” furloughs for civilian employees throughout the week.

“We can’t just take a day off,” hospital spokesman Jay Ebbeson said.

Homas said the furloughs could cause delays in seeing patients, and that could compel Madigan to steer some of its patients to a network of doctors outside the hospital.

We’ll add more information today about the defense cuts as we learn it from South Sound military installations.

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