On Memorial Day, Remember the Sequester

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Dod photo / Robert D. Ward

Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery

Remember the sequester? Those broad, blunt government cuts that kicked in on March 1?

There were lots of doomsday predictions about what would happen when the $85.4 billion in spending reductions took effect for fiscal year 2013 (with similar cuts through 2021). There was a momentary uproar over inconvenient airline delays, but the right people spoke up, and the FAA was spared its share of cuts.  So far, aside from government workers penciling in their furlough days, only one other group of Americans has felt the sequester’s force: military families.

Military families’ concerns tend to remain stable over time: deployments, moves, and pay always rank at the top.  But in Blue Star Families’ just-released annual survey of servicemembers and their families, there’s a surprise: the word “sequester” appears for the first time in the context of servicemembers’ increased financial insecurity.

And that’s because, for us military families, the numbers aren’t abstract figures. As the survey states, “The impact of sequestration has been notable in the form of deployment cancellations and delays; but there have also been increased uncertainties with scheduled PCS [permanent change of station] moves, and DoD [Department of Defense] schools are enduring budget cuts and furloughs that are impacting the education of our children.”

Here’s what that looks like under a magnifying glass:

— Some military families have to maintain two homes they can’t afford, because a work transfer was delayed after the next house was already bought.

— Civilian teachers in the 194 Department of Defense-run schools worldwide will be furloughed, which affects the number of school days in the year and the school’s accreditation (with potentially dire consequences for a high-schooler’s admission to college).

— A carrier deployment was called off, and with it the planned for “at-sea” pay subsidies that some families depend on.

— The timing of the adoption of a child must be re-negotiated.

Suddenly, it’s personal.

“America needed us during a decade of war,” a former Air Force spouse told me. “Now that’s over, and we’re thrown aside.  We were used, and no one needs us anymore.”

Other military spouses express the same idea that the contract has been broken.  Mom and Dad — Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam — are arguing, and they’re dragging us into it.

Servicemembers did what was expected of them, working long hours far away and sacrificing family time for long-term financial stability like retirement benefits and insurance for life – much of which appears to be at risk due to the sequester. As for military salaries, next year’s expected pay increase is expected to be limited to 1% because of “budget uncertainties.” (This despite the fact that a 1.7% increase had already been approved, based on the Labor Department’s 2014 Employment Cost index, which has been the basis for military pay for the last several years.)

But military families are flexible, right?

Sure. They’re so compliant and adjustable that many go by the motto Semper Gumby.

Blue Star survey author (a Navy spouse and Navy veteran) Dr. Vivian Greentree says that “while the necessities of transitioning and adaptability have always been central themes and challenges of the military lifestyle, change is especially imminent inside the military community today…These changes, coupled with the unknown, final outcome of sequestration, have caused a level of uncertainty with unspecified impact on the military community, as well as the nation itself.”

Listen to the tone, data-driven and calm, but with an implicit warning to the entire country, whether or not you’re part of the 1% who serve. Military families are canaries in sequestration’s coal mine: we endure the cuts first, but all Americans are ultimately at risk.

Although only DoD-run schools suffer teacher furloughs, the nation’s public schools will soon feel sequestration’s pinch as well, according to the National Military Family Association.  Federal-education programs face $106 million in cuts intended to help fund civilian schools educating military kids; $1 billion in special education programs; $140 million in student financial aid; and $1.3 billion in Title I funding that helps many schools attended by military children.

Just one example from Naval aviation hints at even more ominous repercussions: in April, the Navy shut down one aircraft carrier wing (the group of aircraft borne by a single carrier). Another three carrier wings will be granted less flying time, while an additional two air wings will be “reduced to minimum safe flying levels” by the end of the year, meaning that they would not be available immediately to sail with a carrier if a crisis occurred, according to one report.

Earlier this month, Defense Department Comptroller Robert F. Hale testified that the severe and abrupt budget cuts imposed by sequestration are “devastating” the U.S. armed forces — that sequestration is “seriously undermining” the Defense Department’s twin goals of aligning to the nation’s defense strategy and maintaining a ready force.

Diminished levels of readiness serve no one, regardless of whether or not you serve.

So on Memorial Day — when we remember those who sacrificed the most — let’s remember the sequester, too.  It’s swiftly becoming our shared sacrifice as Americans.

Alison Buckholtz is the author of the military-family memoir Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War, and has written for numerous publications. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.