Newly confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, with Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter, on "sequestration day." (Photo by Craig Roberts)

Sequestration a serious concern for veterans

The "abrupt and arbitrary" Pentagon spending cuts mandated by sequestration will have wide ranging and long term negative effects on readiness and will almost certainly impact veterans and their families. Those were among the messages communicated March 1 during a Pentagon news conference by newly sworn-in Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter on "sequestration day."

Hagel began the news conference, his first since taking office earlier in the week, by talking of the dual uncertainty posed by sequestration and Congress’ Continuing Resolution — the stop gap measure that temporarily keeps government agencies operating in the absence of an adopted budget.

"This uncertainty puts at risk our ability to fulfill all of our missions," said Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran. "Over the past two months, DoD (Department of Defense) has begun to see the effects and consequences of that uncertainty. As sequester continues, we will be forced to assume more risks with steps that will progressively have far reaching effects.

"Let me highlight a couple of actions that we are taking as the result of these budget constraints. The Navy will gradually stand down at least four (air) wings. The first wing will stand down in April. Effective immediately, Air Force flying hours will be cut back. This will have a major impact on training and readiness. The Army will curtail training for all units except those deploying to Afghanistan, adversely impacting nearly 80 percent of Army operational units. Later this month, we intend to issue preliminary notifications to thousands of civilian employees who will be furloughed. These steps go on top of those the department began in January to slow spending in view of this uncertainty. Those included delaying deployment of Naval assets, imposing civilian hiring freezes, beginning to lay off temporary and term employees, sharply cutting back facilities maintenance and beginning reviews to delay contracts.

"If sequester continues and the Continuing Resolution is extended in its current form, other damaging effects will become apparent. Our number one concern is our people, military and civilian; the millions of men and women of this department who work very hard every day to insure America’s security. I know that these budget cuts will cause pain, particularly among our civilian work force and their families. I am also concerned, as we all are, about (sequestration’s) impact on readiness. For these reasons…senior leadership and I will continue to work with the administration and Congress to help resolve this uncertainty. I will do everything in my power to see that America upholds it commitment to our allies and our partners — and most importantly to our servicemembers and their families."

In his briefing, Hagel avoided the use of dramatic terms such as "devastating" and "catastrophic" as had been heard from his predecessor, Leon Panetta, and others in their warnings about sequestration’s effects. In contrast, Hagel ended his prepared remarks with a note of reassurance. "Today, America has the best fighting force in the world, capable of responding to any challenge," he said. "This unnecessary budget crisis makes that job much harder, but we will continue to assure America’s security."

After a little more than 10 minutes, which included the answering of a handful of reporters’ questions and reiterating the points made in his statement, Hagel retired from the press briefing room, surrendering the podium to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. Carter has been a Pentagon insider since the Clinton presidency and is a two-time recipient of the DoD’s Distinguished Service Award. His answers to reporters’ questions were more "nuts and bolts" and frank with talk of the real world, long term, readiness-robbing consequences of sequestration.

It was Carter who mentioned the "deleterious and not subtle" effects of sequestration on veterans and their families. "I think (that) the impacts are immediate on all three of the populations that we depend upon for our national defense," Carter said. "First, for the troops themselves, of course, the president has exempted the pay for military personnel from sequester…however, our military personnel will still feel things immediately."

As an example, Carter noted that military pilots whose training and operational flight times were to be cut back could not only suffer in proficiency but even lose the right to fly at all when unable to log requisite hours in the air. "That’s their duty, that’s their profession, that’s their responsibility for our national security," he said, "(and) they’re not going to be able to do that. They’ll feel that immediately.

"Second, (is) our civilian work force. Our civilian work force is about 800,000 strong. Those people, too, are dedicated to the defense mission. They live all over the country…86 percent of them live completely outside the Washington (D.C.) area; 44 percent of them are veterans. And, as the year goes on, many of them will be subject to furlough.

"Third, and finally (is) the contractor workforce that depends on us. We, in turn, depend on them. We don’t make anything here at the Pentagon. So, we depend upon the industrial base to make our weapons systems that, second only to our people…make us the greatest military in the world. Many of them will be affected very directly by this because we’ll be cutting back on contractor spending." A number of defense contracts under threat could be held, or intended for, veteran-owned small businesses.

At the conclusion of the press conference, Carter was asked what he would say to someone contemplating a civilian career with the military.

In response, Carter again noted that veterans comprise more than 40 percent of the defense department’s civilian work force and said, "I would hope that they will stick with us because of the mission because of what we do, which is to defend the country and help to make a better world."