Military 'quality of life' to suffer under sequestration

Wednesday - 3/13/2013, 6:38pm EDT

Military pay is exempt from the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, that went into effect earlier this month.

But scores of military programs that impact service members in their everyday lives — including funding tuition assistance and family-assistance programs — are not protected from the across-the-board budget reductions.

And that will certainly have an effect on service members, officials from the Defense Department and the military services told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

The Army and the Air Force both announced this week they would cut tuition-assistance programs for new applicants. Under sequestration, and the ongoing budget uncertainty of a year-long continuing resolution, funding for commissaries, morale-boosting and family services, would also be affected, military leaders testified.

The Pentagon has said it fully expects virtually all of its 780,000-member civilian workforce to be furloughed for at least 22 days, a 20 percent pay cut through the end of the fiscal year.

Since many of the military's family-assistance programs are staffed by civilians, employee furloughs will have an outsized impact on their operations.

Quality of life to take a hit

Military accounts were specifically exempted from sequestration, said Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. But to make up the difference, that means larger cuts from operations and maintenance accounts.

That ultimately leads to reduced readiness and reduced morale, Wright said.

"Even as we seek to protect our family programs, where feasible, service members and family support programs will be impacted across the board because of funding decrements," she said. "And that will affect the quality of life."

Wright said DoD is currently reviewing family programs, aiming to minimize the impact.

"Although the purpose of sequestration is to evenly cut all programs, we'll seek to preserve these services as much as practicable," she said. "We have to make hard trade-off decisions to lessen these impacts and determine how to absorb these impacts."

Medical facilities, training also affected

Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary for Health Affairs, told lawmakers DoD will not compromise on the level or quality of care offered by its Defense Health Program. Similarly, funding support for wounded-warrior and rehabilitation programs would be maintained, he added, by diverting resources from other areas.

But over the long haul, those shifts in funding could have negative impacts, Woodson said, such as less funding for maintenance of miltiary medical facilities and delayed modernization programs.

"This will negatively affect the health care environment and potentially drive substantial bills for facility maintenance in the future," Woodson said.

He pointed out that military medical facilities will be particularly hard hit by furloughs, since civilians make up about 40 percent of the DoD medical workforce, Woodson said.

Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, deputy chief of staff for the Army, warned of the impact of the cuts on military training.

"Loss of training is not recoverable and leads to untrained soldiers assigned to units — a negative impact to near-term readiness," Bromberg said. "Loss of confidence in the stability the Army provides would damage recruiting and retention for many years, requiring a return to lower standards and an increase in recruiters and bonuses to maintain minimum end-strength."

DoD conducting review of family programs

One obstacle standing in the way of military leaders' planning is the lack of hard data about the effectiveness of many of these programs.

"We recognize that after 10 years of protracted war and the development of multiple programs that support our families, that some are excellent and that some may not produce the results that we need," Wright said.

Some of the family-assistance and other programs have clearly been effective, she added.

For example, a popular Army program called "Strong Bonds," which boosts family support during service members' deployments, has helped reduce domestic violence and divorce rates, Bromberg said.

But not all programs have clearly defined metrics, Wright said. So, DoD is currently undertaking a 120-day review of military family programs to determine if some should be consolidated or even ended.

Bromberg said the Army has started a campaign known as "Ready and Resilient," to compare and contrast various programs.

"In some cases, we have anecdotal data; in some cases, we have hard analysis," he said. "And, in some cases, we don't have any analysis."

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