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Budget crisis means shortages of ammo, more

Feb. 25, 2013 - 07:57AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 25, 2013 - 07:57AM  |  
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The signs are everywhere. A Navy gym in Hawaii is closing earlier. Army families in upstate New York are bracing for possible cuts in on-base child care. Enlisted airmen in California are paying out of pocket for office supplies.

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The signs are everywhere. A Navy gym in Hawaii is closing earlier. Army families in upstate New York are bracing for possible cuts in on-base child care. Enlisted airmen in California are paying out of pocket for office supplies.

And in North Carolina, Marines on a range are pointing rifles and shouting, "Butter, butter, jam," to simulate the sound of live ammo after being told there isn't enough money for real bullets.

Budget cuts are already hitting home, and hitting hard — and they're about to get a lot worse.

At installations worldwide, on ships at sea and at forward bases in Afghanistan where troops are still fighting the nation's longest war, service members were bracing for the worst as the March 1 deadline approaches for the launch of the massive, automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

The ax almost certainly will fall on military budgets around the world as sequestration whacks 10 percent from previously planned spending — a cut of $55 billion in the first year for the military.

On top of the potential long-term impact of sequestration, there is no formal budget for this fiscal year, which is almost half over. A continuing resolution that has kept the government limping along is due to run out March 27.

As of Feb. 24, lawmakers were still pointing fingers, and no resolution on either sequestration or the expiring CR was in sight.

Meanwhile, commands and units around the globe are faced with squeezing a year's worth of cuts into the remaining seven months of this fiscal year.

As commanders scramble to prepare for the worst, troops are starting to see the real, negative impact on their day-to-day lives.

And they are not happy.

"Military families are being used as pawns in a very cruel game up in Washington," one Navy senior chief said.

For now, military pay is protected, and money for the war in Afghanistan will be largely untouched, officials say. But shielding those funds will only intensify the impact on garrison operations at home, as well as training and education programs.

In some cases, the cuts seem mild. For example, the Army's recruiting command has halted purchase of command coins. Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., will no longer staff a 24-hour welcome center. The Marine Corps gym in San Diego stopped handing out fresh towels to cut laundry costs.

And Navy Installations Command could soon instruct bases to lower the heat and raise the air conditioning by two degrees each to cut energy expenses. A final decision on the move could come as early as the end of this week, said CNIC spokesman Pat Foughty.

Other changes will hit harder. Furloughs of defense civilian workers could have far-reaching effects on child care services, base schools, teen programs and family services and commissary operations.

And the gears of nearly every administrative bureaucracy will turn a little slower because they will essentially be operating with 20 percent fewer employees.

For junior enlisted members, the near term will likely mean a return to the bygone days when troops routinely pitched in on types of garrison duty.

For example, the gates at Fort Hood, Texas, are increasingly manned by uniformed soldiers, not civilian contract guards.

"You're going to see soldiers doing things you've seen civilians do over the last 10 years — anything from mowing lawns and washing windows to replacing light bulbs," said Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment.

"Someone who's a sharpshooter … he's not going to be practicing those skills," she said. "He's going to be washing windows and mowing lawns."

The cutbacks also promise to fuel tensions between officer and enlisted that could hurt morale.

"It just seems like every time there is a budget issue, [noncommissioned officers] lose their training and the officers get to keep it," said one Army sergeant first class with more than 20 years in uniform.

One senior enlisted soldier said troops are grumbling about the senior officers who continue to travel to events such as the recent annual Association of the U.S. Army conference in Florida.

"The day is coming when I will have to tell a soldier, ‘No, you cannot go to training,' and he/she will ask, ‘How come General Bigshot gets to go to Florida?' I won't be able to give an answer I believe in," the soldier said.

Coming at a time when about 66,000 troops remain in the Afghanistan war zone, the budget mess in Washington is fueling questions in the ranks about the larger national security strategy.

"I sure am glad we can afford to build schools in Afghanistan," an Army specialist now deployed there wrote sarcastically in an email to Military Times. "That is money well spent right there, let me tell you what."

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