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DOD budget cuts might hit military families harder

By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 12, 2013

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — As a budget squeeze forces spending cuts across Department of Defense accounts, active-duty pay and benefits largely remain shielded. Still, some military families are bracing for the pinch at home.

Military spouses are among civilian DOD employees subject to administrative furloughs, leaving their families with the prospect of a reduced second income that has become essential for some. Meanwhile, the possibility of staff shortages across military bases threatens the support services that many families lean on, including military-run schools, childcare centers and medical facilities.

Some spouses and advocates say that after more than a decade of war, their families should not be asked to shoulder the fallout of a budget crisis.

“I don’t think military families are asking for special treatment,” said AnnaMaria White, a military spouse and spokeswoman for advocacy group Blue Star Families. “They’re asking for fair treatment.”

A DOD spokeswoman said furloughs are an unavoidable part of sequestration cuts, the $41 billion in canceled defense programming for the current fiscal year that followed Congress’ failure to reach a larger deficit reduction agreement.

“While civilian employees will experience the impacts of furlough directly in their wallets, everyone — servicemembers, retirees and their families — will certainly feel the effects of sequestration,” Leslie Hull-Ryde, said in the statement.

For years, the government has worked to boost military spouse employment, which is beneficial to servicemember retention. A 2009 federal order created a noncompetitive hiring authority for military spouses across the federal government, making it easier for agencies to bring spouses on board. The DOD also runs the Military Spouse Preference program, which gives spouses priority for DOD positions. Between fiscal 2002 and 2011, about 12,500 military spouses were hired through the program, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

At overseas stations like Grafenwöhr in rural Bavaria, on-post employment is often the only option for spouses. According to a January 2010 census of the garrison, which includes posts in Vilseck, Hohenfels and Garmisch, 613 family members were employed through the base — about 10 percent of total civilian employment.

Spouse employment ranks among the top concerns in an annual Blue Star Families poll of servicemembers and their families, according to White. Some families rely on the income more than others, she said.

“Like in the civilian community, each family is different, each family is in a different financial situation,” she said. “But I do think, in general, because military pay tends to be below civilian pay, you will find cases where it is really important for families to have these two incomes.”

Current plans call for up to 750,000 DOD civilians to face as many as 14 furlough days between mid-June and Sept. 30, a step back from earlier plans that called for 22 furlough days. While civilian families face the greatest impact, many military families also stand to lose income.

Under the original plans, the family of Kristie Blackman, a civilian employee with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, her husband’s unit, on the Grafenwöhr post, would have lost $600 a month, a significant amount for a family with five children, she said.

She and her husband planned to tighten their own budget, she said, limiting visits to post from their home and taking fewer vacations.

“I think we will be OK,” she said. “We’re definitely not happy about it, but clearly it’s not just the military being affected by sequestration, it’s many people in the U.S. So I feel that it’s only fair that we cut back.”

Bobbie Capasso, whose husband is a captain in the regiment, could be furloughed at a civilian job she recently began on the post. Capasso believes the furloughs are an insult to military families asked to make sacrifices.

“It’s not like soldiers make all that much money,” Capasso said. “When you look at it that way, that they’re already getting paid so little, and then their spouses get a job only to get furloughed, I don’t think it’s fair.”

Capasso says the couple’s finances will be OK, even if she does lose work days, largely due to her husband’s expected deployment later this year. This should ease costs at home and offer some financial benefits.

Sgt. 1st Class Brent Easter, an airborne instructor at Fort Benning, said last month — when civilians were still expected to be furloughed for as many as 22 days — that the potential cut to his wife’s income would threaten their ability to pay their mortgage and could affect their timeline for retirement.

“We have a plan, and now it’s going to be longer,” he said. “We’re going to have to suck it up. I’m just really, really mad. I don’t know what to do.”

Civilian furloughs will also affect families living on military garrisons, spouses and advocates say, especially those abroad. Commissaries might close one day a week. Military-run schools could close for as many as 14 days. Support offices across garrisons are likely to be short-staffed, and medical facilities may be able to see fewer patients.

The result is more headaches for military families in their daily lives, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. Military moves, which increase in the summer due to school vacation, are a special concern, she said.

“There’s money there for the move, but if transportation offices are short-staffed, it may take longer to get an appointment to make the arrangements to move,” Raezer said.

Families are also concerned about child care, Raezer and others say. School closures could drive up the need for child care even as some facilities lose staff to furloughs. And, if day care facilities are affected, parents could be scrambling for alternate child care.

Raezer says many in Congress sympathize with military families while blaming the DOD for a lack of management. But because many of the concerns she cites would not begin until summer, Congress shows little urgency to prevent them, she said.

“The problem is you have to have the effects before anyone worries about them,” she said.

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
Twitter:@sjbeardsley

Kristie Blackman, a military spouse and Family Readiness Support assistant for the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany, faces days of furloughs between June and Sept. 30 due to recent Department of Defense budget cuts.
STEVEN BEARDSLEY/STARS AND STRIPES

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