Newly commissioned Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright delivers remarks during a ceremony hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., Aug. 4, 2014.

Newly commissioned Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright delivers remarks during a ceremony hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., Aug. 4, 2014. (Daniel Hinton/U.S. Navy)

VICENZA, Italy — An already tough fiscal environment prompting proposed benefit cuts would get far worse if Congress does not repeal another round of sequestration in 2016, a top U.S. Defense Department official warned military spouses and civilians at town meetings here.

“If not, everything is on the table,” said Jessica Wright, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The uncertainty means it will be difficult to predict funding for child care, family services, traumatic brain injury and other benefits, she said.

Wright is one of a number of DOD officials who have warned of impending cuts that they say will cut the size of the armed forces and take money from necessary equipment upgrades, placing readiness and national security at risk.

In fact, Wright said, the Pentagon’s proposed 2015 budget represents an attempt to reduce benefits to spend the savings on readiness. The budget includes a reduction in the housing allowance, a 1 percent military pay raise, massive cuts to commissary subsidies and potentially increased medical fees. “Quality of life is higher,” she said. “Quality of service is on the skids.”

A proposed change in commissary funding, which the Pentagon says would reduce the savings on groceries from 30 percent to 10 percent of the cost compared with groceries bought on the economy, has proved highly unpopular.

“Why did we want to do that?” she said. “None of us wants to send a servicemember into combat unprepared.’’

Still, she said, it appeared Congress, which must approve the change, did not “have an appetite to do that.”

Wright visited Vicenza, she said, partly to assess a recent cost-savings plan here, which included the elimination of health care for civilians and closure of the same-day surgery and obstetrical units at the garrison health center.

“How’s the hospital care downtown?” she asked about 50 spouses who attended one of two hourlong town hall meetings.

Complaints from the spouses were muted, focusing mainly on what several said was a “filthy” emergency room at the local Vicenza hospital and a significant language barrier.

Wright, who enlisted in the Army in the 1970s, became an Army aviator and retired from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard as a major general, also visited Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. That often-lauded hospital was among numerous military hospitals and clinics that a recent New York Times investigation found had higher rates of error and harm in maternity and/or surgery than many civilian hospitals. Landstuhl, the paper found, had a high rate of maternity complications; its rate of surgical complications was not examined. The Times investigation also reported that the military did not follow what the newspaper said were its own inadequate policies to investigate errors to ensure better patient safety.

A subsequent Pentagon-ordered review is nearly done, Wright told Stars and Stripes. She said it would be made public, but she didn’t know when.

Much of the second Vicenza meeting, with civilians, was taken up with a last-ditch plea by an Army civilian for Wright to reinstate housing benefits to nearly 700 overseas civilians who were told last year they had received the living quarters allowance in error, in some cases for many years. The civilians were told that they had been erroneously receiving the money through no fault of their own but because of hiring officials’ misinterpretation of the rules regarding LQA. In many cases the civilians had worked for more than one employer overseas, an apparent violation of State Department rules. They were told they would no longer get the money.

“Secretary Wright, tear down this wall, this wall of betrayal,” pleaded Pete McCollaum, a U.S. Army Africa employee and former Special Forces medic.

“You can reinstate us,” he said, referring to the allowance.

Wright replied that, regretfully, she couldn’t.

McCollaum said the benefit represented 40 percent of his income. Those affected were also required to file requests for waivers of indebtedness or possibly be liable to pay the money back, $65,000 in McCollaum’s case, he said.

Several four-star commanders and U.S. legislators have said the resulting civilian exodus would degrade readiness and have asked that the civilians be extended the allowance, so far, to no avail.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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