Guard, Reserve troops have been left hanging
Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen rig their rigid-hull inflatable boat to a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during a maritime external air transportation system training exercise in the Virginia Capes near Fort Eustis, Va., on July 16, 2008.
The San Antonio (Texas) Express-News
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's order to bring 400,000 furloughed defense workers back on the job this week was greeted with relief by many, but it didn't cover a crucial part of the military — the National Guard and Reserves.
Monthly drills and the paychecks that came with them have vanished for hundreds of thousands of part-time troops, including about 20,000 soldiers and airmen in the Texas National Guard.
But that's not all.
Training days are being erased from the books. Occupational and professional development classes have been canceled. Troops called up for temporary deployments in the United States and overseas have been called back.
While the shutdown has idled much of the force, the troops still can be deployed for essential missions, such as disaster response.
At Martindale Army Airfield on the East Side, five UH-60 Black Hawk medical evacuation helicopters were idled on the flight line Wednesday, barred from flying because Congress hasn't passed a new budget.
A crew did a “run-up” on one, starting the engine and spinning the rotor blades, but the helicopter stayed on the ground — a bad place for a cantankerous machine that must fly to save lives.
“If you don't fix these things and use them the way they're intended to be used, they will break,” said Maj. Gen. William Smith, commander of the Texas Army National Guard. “And if we don't have dollars to fix them, then at some point, they'll all be broken.”
The standoff between Republicans and Democrats hasn't yet imperiled force readiness, in part because the Guard and Reserve are used to living on lean budgets.
But the possibility that lawmakers could be at loggerheads for weeks or months is a larger matter of concern for everyone from commanders to troops in the ranks.
Some worry about morale. Others fret over the potential for troops to lose their edge.
“The problems are certainly not isolated to the Guard. That said, who's not training this month? The Guard. What service had difficulties with sequestration furloughs? The Guard,” said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States.
“Everybody says, 'Oh, you have a year to do something.' No, you don't. You have 38 days,” said Lt. Col. Matt Lawrence, an Army Reserve Command spokesman. “You've got two days each month on the weekend, you have your two weeks in the summer.
“But the traditional reservist has 38 days a year to train to what they need to do, and if they were selected for some collective training event, or something that required resources, like a range or simulation equipment, that's not easily reschedulable,” he said.
A sleepy facility at the end of a short road south of Interstate 10, Martindale and its aviation crews are much like a Guard and Reserve that have played key roles in two long wars. A medical evacuation company here finished a tour of Afghanistan last year, and flew in Iraq during the surge five years ago.
Soldiers and airmen in the Texas National Guard also have been busy at home in recent years, flying mercy missions during storms, floods and hurricanes. Tens of thousands of Texas Guard troops are veterans who volunteered for disaster and war duty.
Suddenly off the payroll, they've been left with tactical and strategic decisions to make that could shape not only their own lives, but also Guard units that have come to rely on them to serve for years and decades.
The prospect of becoming a father this Christmas, combined with the specter of yet another shutdown, prompted Texas Air National Guard Capt. Dan Housley, 33, of Cypress to pay off debts and reorganize family finances.
After his wife, Carin, became pregnant, he began to think seriously about dialing down the hours he logged as a young C-130 pilot and instead focus on using his finance and economics degrees in a civilian job.
If allowed, Housley, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, would fly as much as possible so he could quickly earn hours in the air. His goal: to someday become a pilot in command of his own plane.
The new goal is to care for his family, and while Housley can't say he's lost faith in Uncle Sam, he said, “I can't rely on the government for continued employment.”
Texas Army National Guard 1st Lt. Stephen DePizzo, 32, of Austin had trouble coming at him and his wife, Jennifer, even before the shutdown put him out of work for eight days.
“We just bought a house in the beginning of last year and I do have a mortgage to pay,” he said. “I still have a property in Ohio, where I'm from, that unfortunately my renters moved out in September and I had to cover two mortgages this month.”
Like Housley, he slashed the family budget so he and Jennifer, a fifth-grade teacher, could cover the mortgage payments, groceries and other monthly bills.
Luckily, he was ordered back to work, and Guard commanders have moved to let troops use their leave pay to compensate for income lost to the shutdown.
Some might have chafed at losing vacation time because of the political dispute roiling the nation, but not DePizzo.
“I'm just happy to be back,” he said. “I'm happy that I'm not sitting at home worrying and watching the news about what's going on.”