Iowa National Guard tightening belt for sequester

Unpaid furloughs, deferred maintenance among impacts for Guard units

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March 28, 2014 | 1:07 pm

The federal budget sequester will impair the readiness of the Iowa National Guard, as well as the personal finances of at least 1,100 of its members, officials say.

“Our main concern is readiness. That is everything to our operation,” said Guard spokesman Col. Greg Hapgood, one of about 1,100 “federal technicians” facing mandatory furloughs this summer.

The sequester, which took effect March 1, forces the federal government to cut $85 billion, half of which impacts defense. Those defense cuts, in turn, will require the Iowa National Guard to cut its $370 million federal funding by about 10 percent in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Squeezing most of the cuts into a five-month period – May through September – makes them harder to implement, said Hapgood, who along with other federal technicians will be taking one unpaid day per week, in effect a 20 percent pay and benefits cut during that period.

The furloughs affect only personnel classified as “federal technicians” – full-time, uniform-wearing Guard members who are basically indistinguishable from the majority of the Guard’s personnel, classified as Active Guard and Reserve.

CWO3 Kevin Unkel, maintenance chief at the Iowa National Guard Armory in Cedar Rapids and one of 20 federal technicians working in the shop, said vehicle readiness will suffer during the furloughs.

“We will lose 160 shop hours a week, which will force us to set maintenance priorities,” he said.

Unkel said his shop will have to cut back on required thorough annual servicing , which when deferred, results in suspended use of affected vehicles.

Unkel’s crew is responsible for the maintenance of about 4,000 pieces of equipment assigned to units in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Clinton and Davenport. Most local Guard units have mechanics, he said, but they generally lack the specialized training required to maintain modern military equipment.

While Unkel, 52, a 35-year Guard member, said he expects to weather the pay cut without major difficulty, younger, less-well-established federal technicians will feel more pain, he said.

“It’s going to be tight, but we’ll adapt to it as a family,” said Sgt. First Class Jason Schwendinger, 36, of Anamosa, the father of three children.

“It’s definitely going to be a tougher summer for the kids,” said Sgt. First Class Brent Andersen, 33, of North Liberty.

Both Schwendinger and Andersen said the reduced vehicle maintenance will hurt the readiness of Guard units during their upcoming 15-day annual training exercises.

“We will see a reduction in the operational readiness of our equipment, as well as reduced ammunition availability,” said Maj. Rob Cain, commander of the Guard’s 650-member 234th Special Troops Battalion in Cedar Rapids.

Though many Guard units will train close to home this year, Cain said the 234th still plans to conduct some of its annual training at camps in Wyoming and Minnesota.

The Iowa Guard began making cuts before the sequester took effect, cutting travel expenses and utility costs, delaying purchases of new equipment and deferring maintenance and new construction at its 53 armories.

Hapgood said the Guard intends to reduce utility bills by 30 percent during the fiscal year. “Most spaces are cool and dark unless someone is working there,” he said.

“We’re trying to do what we can (to cut utility expenses), but this building is really green,” Cain said of the Guard’s new super armory in Cedar Rapids.

The facility, which opened in 2011 at 1500 Wright Brothers Blvd., is heated and cooled with an elaborate geothermal system, which has only two settings, “hot and cold,” he said.

It’s also equipped with motion sensors to turn lights off when rooms are not in use, Cain said.

Cain, a Cedar Rapids native, said the Iowa National Guard last faced similar budget constraints shortly after he enlisted in 1992, when the Department of Defense cut its budget in response to a period of relative peace.

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