Picture your average Defense Department employee furloughed this week by the government sequester. You probably have in mind someone in a skirt or slacks, not camouflage and boots.
Which is why it's something of a surprise that 1,100 uniformed members of the Iowa National Guard and 580 from the Nebraska Guard are among 48,300 Guard employees nationally who are idled by the furloughs.
The workers are called dual-status military technicians. They are full-time federal employees and members of the units they serve. Their jobs are to organize, administer, train and maintain the Guard forces so the units are ready for short-notice call-up if there is a disaster or war.
“Somebody's got to be in to keep the lights on and be ready when the traditional Guard comes in to drill,” said Rick Breitenfeldt, a Nebraska native who is now a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. “They're the people who are there, for the most part, day in and day out.”
They fly the airplanes, maintain the vehicles and aircraft, handle finances and payroll, and handle logistics and property. Three-quarters of them are enlisted; most are combat veterans. They earn from $35,000 to $125,000 a year, said Col. Greg Hapgood, an Iowa National Guard spokesman, who is himself subject to furlough.
“It's across the board on the full-time side. These are pilots, mechanics, administrative folks,” Hapgood said. “Every state's National Guard is going to feel the pinch.”
The furloughs require about 750,000 Defense Department employees to take 11 unpaid days off between now and Sept. 30. They are the result of a 2011 deal that reduced the federal budget by about $1.1 trillion over the next 10 years, with the cuts split evenly between defense spending and non-defense discretionary spending.
When the cuts were announced, President Barack Obama said that the uniformed services wouldn't be cut. But the dual-status military technicians, who are hired under federal guidelines, fall into a gray area. In May, it was announced that the Guard members would be furloughed.
“They are the only uniform-wearing military folks who are being affected by the furlough,” Breitenfeldt said.
In Iowa and Nebraska, about half of the full-time Guard employees will be furloughed. The rest are either state employees or were hired under a separate program called Active Guard Reserve, which is not covered by the sequester.
Guard officials predict that readiness will slip, particularly if the furloughs continue over time.
For now, all activities are continuing as scheduled, said Maj. Kevin Hynes, a Nebraska National Guard spokesman.
“Drill weekends are still going on as scheduled,” Hynes said. “We're working to minimize the impact.”
The furloughs are to help chip away at the budget deficit. Hynes said the Nebraska cuts are expected to save about $1.9 million this year. In Iowa, the figure is about $3.6 million. Nationally, the savings are projected at $1.6 billion.
The National Guard Association, which represents retired Guard members and lobbies on issues affecting the Guard, doesn't think that the savings are worth it. The group is supporting a bill by Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., who serves in the Mississippi National Guard, that would exempt dual-status technicians from furloughs.
“The jobs they do — they wear the uniform for a reason,” said John Goheen, a spokesman for the association. “These people are the ones who are holding their units together.”
Palazzo introduced the bill in March. It has picked up 47 co-sponsors from both parties, but so far it hasn't gotten out of the House Budget Committee.
“They see this situation for what it is: likely just an oversight,” Goheen said. “Lots of times Congress doesn't act until something happens. Well, now the furloughs have happened.”
And those cammies will stay hanging in the closets one day each week — for now, at least.