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Pennsylvania governor heads off cuts to National Guard

A Pennsylvania National Guard honor guard team delivers a 21-gun salute as part of the West Scranton High School D-Day commemoration ceremony June 6, 2014. Pennsylvania Army National soldiers from the 55th Armor Brigade conducted the 21-gun salute.

KINGSTON, Pa. — A U.S. Department of Defense proposal to reduce the National Guard in Pennsylvania — including cuts that likely would close the 109th Field Artillery armories in Wilkes-Barre, Nanticoke and Plymouth — faces one mammoth hurdle, according to the man who heads the Guard: It can’t be done without the governor’s consent, and the governor has said no.

The proposed cuts aren’t part of any current budget plan, Maj. Gen. Wesley E. Craig, the state’s adjutant general, said. They are part of a “contingency plan” in case the sequestration cuts implemented in 2013 are extended.

Those cuts, made across the board, were the result of a failure in Washington to reach a budgetary agreement. The theory was simple: The threat of indiscriminate cuts would be enough to get all parties to come to a consensus. It didn’t work.

But even though the proposal is a contingency plan that would only take effect in 2016 if sequestration is extended, Craig said it’s still a concern. “When the army builds a contingency plan, it doesn’t easily go away.”

That concern abated substantially when Gov. Tom Corbett sent a letter to Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh explicitly rejecting the cut.

“I do not consent to the elimination of the 55th Armored Brigade Combat Team from the force structure of the Pennsylvania National Guard, and urge the Army to cancel this ill-advised reduction,’’ Corbett wrote. The 109th is part of the 55th Armored Brigade.

“The governor knows elimination of any unit has to have his consent. That’s the law. U.S. Code Titles 10 and 32 spell that out,” Craig said. “The governor’s letter is going to head this off.”

The law has been supported in court, Craig added. During the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell, the Air Force planned to eliminate a wing in Willow Grove, Montgomery County, and Rendell denied consent. “That base is still open.”

Craig said he believes the Department of Defense would have to either get a court to overturn the law or get Congress to rewrite it, to eliminate the roughly 1,400 soldiers in the 109th that would be cut under the plan.

He also said the plan makes no sense, for two reasons.

First, the army is expanding the 109th, growing “from two batteries of six howitzers each to six batteries of six howitzers each,” and recruitment of about 100 soldiers to fulfill that mandate began Sept. 1. “If this goes through we’ll expand just to cut them in 2016.”

Second, he said, the National Guard “is a bargain for the Department of Defense.” Members are only paid when training, costing about one-third that of active duty forces, yet can still be deployed within 60 to 120 days “anywhere in the world,” he said.

The 109th commanding officer, Maj. Gerard Wrazien, said the guard is also a bargain because it does “double duty” by deploying locally when needed for emergencies such as snow storms or flooding.

“Pennsylvania would not eliminate a military presence across a whole section of the state,” Wrazien said. Deploying units from, say, Philadelphia to Wilkes-Barre in times of emergency strategically would not make sense.

©2014 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

Visit The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) at www.timesleader.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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