In San Antonio, Military City has suddenly turned into Furloughville
San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO — The city's military workforce has taken the brunt of an ongoing government shutdown, figures released Thursday by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar's office indicate.
The data show that of the 30,882 furloughs in Bexar County, nearly 75 percent target Defense Department employees.
On Day 3 of the stalemate in Congress that cut off funding for federal offices, nonessential services and employees, civilian military workers and elected officials in San Antonio worried about the impact on veterans, military families and the economy.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations, said the impact on the Texas Military Forces would be especially hard.
The shutdown could have far-reaching effects on security, readiness and veterans services for 1.7 million veterans statewide and more than 250,000 active duty and civilian defense employees, she warned.
“Texas is particularly at risk,” said Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. “My real area of concern is the National Guard.”
Furloughs generated by the shutdown could affect at least 2,000 members of the Texas Military Forces, including the Texas Army National Guard, which supports military operations overseas and responds to natural disasters.
Drills this week and many “wrench-turners,” who maintain F-16s, C-130s and other planes and equipment, were sidelined by furloughs.
“The technicians are a real concern with the Guard,” Van de Putte said, fearing maintenance backlogs. “These are the employees that are the hidden wiring behind the men and women in uniform.
“Even if you are flying, you may not have the guy who normally does a check on the aircraft.”
The standstill's effects are starting to trickle down.
Susie Ferrise, a defense employee and breast cancer nurse coordinator at San Antonio Military Medical Center, arranged for paid leave to care for her 86-year-old father in Philadelphia, while his caretaker is off this month.
She could not report to work this week as an employee “exempt” from the furlough and said she now isn't sure if she'll get paid for the two weeks she arranged to be away from work.
“I am seriously looking for another job, away from the government,” Ferrise said.
“In Texas, there are more than 130,000 federal workers,” Cuellar said in a prepared statement. “These federal employees are not nameless — they all have families who depend upon them, mortgages payments they have to make, children to take care of, and bills to pay.”
Employees with the Veterans Affairs Department account for another 3,359 furloughs in Bexar County.
The VA has said its health care services will not be curtailed but decisions on benefits claims appeals, processing of Freedom of Information Act queries, and overtime for claims processors will be suspended. Burials at national cemeteries will occur on a reduced schedule, and vocational rehabilitation and education counseling will be limited.
Sylvia Sanchez, state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said veterans of all ages in Texas are nervous about claims processing and VA pension and compensation payments, especially if the shutdown runs past Oct. 31.
Representing the nation's largest and oldest major combat veterans organization with nearly 2 million members, the VFW on Thursday urged President Barack Obama and congressional leaders to begin work immediately to end the shutdown.
“It's a shame that our government can easily send our troops to war, to serve in far away places, away from their families, and yet they cannot take care of our veterans,” Sanchez said.
The slowdown in burials at national cemeteries, which already take a week or two because of large numbers of funerals, are “very hard on the families to have to wait longer,” Sanchez added.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said veteran services provided through the General Land Office and Veterans Land Board, such as home loans and nursing home care, will not be affected. Some home loans could be delayed if the shutdown runs beyond 30 days, he said.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tried unsuccessfully Thursday to call on the Senate to pass a House bill to keep national parks and memorials open for veterans.
He said he had veterans from Texas arriving with Honor Flight programs to see the National World War II Memorial on Friday and Tuesday.
The National Park Service has said the Honor Flight groups, veterans of the Second World War visiting the capital free of charge through a nonprofit program, are being allowed past barricades at the memorial, which officially remains closed.
Tracy Huff, president of Alamo Honor Flight, which flew nine groups from San Antonio to Washington, completing its final flight in August, said some of the veterans are too old and frail to reschedule.
“If we delayed a flight for six months, we'd lose 10 veterans on our list, usually for health reasons,” Huff said. “For some of them, it's their last opportunity to see something they paid for a long time ago.”