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Proposed budget cuts irk overseas servicemembers

The entrance to the commissary at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's budget proposals include cutting the subsidy to commissaries, which means increased food prices for U.S. service personnel and their families.

Cuts announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week aren’t going down well with military personnel serving overseas.

Caps on pay raises, higher commissary prices, housing allowance cuts and reduced health insurance benefits for dependents and retirees are some of the proposals advanced by Hagel in an effort to meet tough budget targets set by Congress.

It’s no surprise, then, that the measures aren’t popular with servicemembers and their families.

Sgt. 1st Class Curtis Toomer, a contracting noncommissioned officer with the 409th Contracting Support Brigade in Kaiserslautern, Germany, noted that as talk in Washington steers toward curtailing military benefits, decision-makers have exempted their own six-figure salaries, multiple offices and various other benefits from cuts or freezes.

“How about leading by example?” Toomer said.

The Army would take the brunt of cuts under Hagel’s proposal, losing an additional 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers beyond reductions in the works.

The service is already shedding 80,000 soldiers, and, in doing so, is shifting standards to cull soldiers who were deemed fit to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan but not fit enough to continue serving now that they aren’t needed to deploy, said Sgt. 1st Class Keisha Reynoso, also a contracting NCO with the 409th.

“Some standards are so high, they’re double,” Toomer said.

“Hopefully [the Army] does the right thing and removes the right people … and handles it appropriately,” Staff Sgt. Ashley Allison, a vocalist with the U.S. Army Europe Band, said.

But for many, especially outside the Army, it’s Hagel’s proposed cuts to pay and benefits that have caused the most concern.

Among other things, Hagel’s proposal would trim domestic housing allowances to cover 95 percent rather than 100 percent of living expenses; slash the subsidy to military supermarkets, adding an average of more than $10 to the typical grocery bill; and cap pay raises at 1 percent, which would reduce servicemembers’ buying power if inflation exceeds that mark.

“I think our pay should go up as inflation goes up,” Airman 1st Class Aaron Mullins, a communications technician at Yokota Air Base, Japan, said. “They are starting to take away all my incentives to stay in for retirement.”

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Tim Macaspac, at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, said the plans were unfair.

“Dependents need that money to survive, and their paycheck isn’t always going to cut it,” he said. “Our benefits are how our government shows how much they care for us.”

Senior Airman Jujuan Burton, a medical technician at Yokota Air Base, said the cuts will likely hit airmen with families the hardest.

“If you have to think about your family, it affects you as a person, you can’t really do your job when you’re worried about these sorts of things,” he said.

The move to increase commissary prices is particularly unpopular with overseas personnel.

“If they are going to increase prices it is going to be hard on the military,” Mullins said. “The commissary is so convenient, but if they put up all the prices there is no need for me to go there. I will just go to Wal-Mart.”

Fireman Apprentice Stephanie Buttrick, a Yokosuka sailor, said commissary price rises could have a big impact on her.

Junior enlisted sailors’ paychecks don’t cover their expenses, she said.

“It’s hard on us,” she said. “When you’re just out of boot camp, you have to buy a lot of things. I just spent $80 on patches, and I was just told I had to buy food and extra toiletries before I get underway.”

Military spouses are equally concerned.

Yokota Air Force spouse Ashley Faye said her family is about to take a second overseas tour for the extra pay.

“If the commissaries overseas are hit by these cuts, there’s very little reason to ever want to be there,” she said. “It’s already expensive enough as it is living here.”

Yokota military spouse Nina Smith said the commissary cuts will hit lower-paid airmen the hardest.

“I haven’t been military all my life, so the prices won’t be a shock to me, but for people that have been in the military for a while, it’ll be a shock for them,” she said.

Erika Brown, the wife of an enlisted airman at Yokota, said raising Tricare health insurance rates would be “another broken promise.”

The mother of two school-age children said she’d use the Japanese medical system if Tricare rates go up too much.

Burton, the medical technician, said he doesn’t like the cuts but understands why they are being made.

“I don’t know if the cuts need to be this extreme, but I understand where they’re coming from,” he said.

The Defense Department is dealing with the effect of billions in budget cuts imposed by Congress in an effort to rein in government spending.

Mullins, the communications technician, said he’d consider leaving the service if things worsen but says he’s still positive about the military’s future.

“What makes the American people great is our ingenuity and our ability to solve our problems,” he said.

Stars and Stripes reporters Matt Millham and Eric Brown in Germany contributed to this report.

andersen.trevor@stripes.com

guzman.eric@stripes.com

kimber.james@stripes.com

Twitter: @james_kimber

 

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