Service members at Joint Base Lewis-McChord are starting to feel the pinch of forced federal budget cuts that are changing the way they train and cutting into benefits they have enjoyed throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the top of the list for service members looking to advance themselves are the Army and Air Force tuition assistance programs, which give them up to $4,500 a year toward college-level education programs.
The Army and Air Force suspended that program this month as they sought to shore up their budgets following Congress’ failure to avert $50 billion in immediate defense cuts called for in the so-called “sequester.”
Meanwhile, service members are setting new priorities for how to stretch their training dollars. They’ll be making more use of virtual programs and slowing the pace of large-scale exercises, said a panel of senior noncommissioned officers during a Lewis-McChord press conference Thursday.
“We must keep faith. During the course of the sequester, we will definitely feel the sting,” said Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Battaglia spent the better part of the past week at Lewis-McChord.
He cautioned that the abrupt spending cuts could accelerate the Army’s planned reduction from its strength during the Iraq War. It’s expected to lose 90,000 soldiers by 2020, and the sequester could push more soldiers out of the service, he said.
The Army likely would shrink by raising promotion standards and by compelling soldiers to retire if they’re not advancing in their careers. The Army has not yet offered early retirements across the service.
It’s a stark change from the Iraq War when the Army offered lucrative re-enlistment bonuses to retain its experienced soldiers.
Now, “You have to separate yourself from your peers, you have to strive for excellence if you want to ensure your seat in the Army,” said I Corps Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell.
“We may have to look at a young man or woman in the eye who may be performing their duties at a minimal level and tell them, ‘You’re going to have to go.’”
Command Sgt. Maj. Delbert Byers of Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division said he does not foresee a “zero defect” Army that punishes every soldier for minor infractions. He’s looking for lawmakers to resolve the crisis in the near future and prioritizing resources for deploying units.
“We’re going to be ok,” he said. “Nobody should panic and think we have lost resources and cannot train”
Troxell’s one of the students who could be impacted by an extended cut in tuition assistance. He has used that benefit to earn a bachelor’s degree, and he’s working on a master’s degree.
He said soldiers will have other opportunities to earn college credit at no cost, but they might require more time and effort than the popular online programs service members often pursue with Army tuition assistance.
Educators did not see the cuts coming.
“It was sudden, and so (students) scrambling and trying to do what they can,” said John McMahon, executive director of Pierce College’s military programs.
The college last year provided courses to about 2,000 service members in schools and through its online programs. Army tuition assistance paid for about 40 percent of the classes students took online last year, he said.
The Army last year spent $373 million in tuition assistance for about 201,000 soldiers. It’s not clear when or to what level the program will be reinstated.
Most veterans in local colleges use the G.I. Bill to pay for their education. That program is generally used by soldiers after they leave the service, but they can access it while they’re on active duty.
About 400 University of Washington Tacoma students receive military or veteran benefits, said Mike Wark, the school’s spokesman. Most of them are using the G.I. Bill.
He characterized the number of students impacted by the cut in tuition assistance as small, but he said the university is “exploring ways to help them stay in school through other financial aid options.”