Military cuts force wounded O'Fallon soldier to end his career

News-DemocratJanuary 18, 2014 

— Wounded Iraq veteran Sgt. Charles "Chas" Shaffer went through a lot to keep his Army career alive.

But now, with the post-war Army planning to trim its ranks by 80,000 slots -- or 14 percent -- in the biggest drawdown in a generation, Shaffer can see the handwriting on the wall.

He plans to end his career sometime this summer.

Shaffer, 29, nearly died Sept. 1, 2006, while serving as a combat engineer with the Army's 4th Infantry Division. While on patrol outside Mosul, Iraq, a grenade tossed into the vehicle he was driving exploded, killing his passenger and blowing apart Shaffer's right leg.

After two dozen surgeries, months recovering at Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington, D.C., and the expenditure of more than $500,000 in government money, Shaffer was fitted with an artificial right leg.

The new leg and a Segway personal transportation device enabled him to re-enlist under an Army-sponsored pilot program that landed him a desk job at the Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, based at Scott.

Problem is, Shaffer's war wounds make him non-deployable.

"I know as a combat engineer I can never go back to combat," said Shaffer, an O'Fallon native. "It really cuts down on my promotion capabilities."

Shaffer acknowledged feelings of disappointment, but also said he understands the economic pinch facing America's military.

"It takes a lot more costs to keep us (wounded veterans) in the military than it probably does for a normal person," he said.

Soon, as a medically retired veteran, Shaffer will face another austerity measure: the 1 percent cut in cost of living allowances for military retirees and wounded veterans the U.S. Congress approved last month en route to passing the 2014 federal budget.

The COLA cut really rankles Shaffer's father, Chip Shaffer, a retired Navy veteran and the founder of Hope For Heroes, a nonprofit group that advocates for wounded GIs.

"I don't see Congress taking a single cut," said the older Shaffer, who, because he's younger than 62, will also be affected by the COLA reduction. "Military retirees are usually the ones that get hit first."

The 1 percent COLA cut for military retirees was part of a plan to blunt the soaring cost of military pensions and medical care, which have more than doubled over the past decade. If allowed to go into effect in 2015, the COLA cut would save an estimated $6 billion during the decade to follow.

But the loud outcry that followed the disclosure of the 1 percent COLA cut led many members of Congress, including metro-east House members Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, to announce plans to pass bills to override the COLA reduction when the House reconvenes.

Scott Ross, the surface command's public relations director, acknowledged that Shaffer can no longer be deployed. Ross said that Charles Shaffer is not being forced out.

"There are a lot of options where he can transfer to some kind of desk job, but he doesn't want to do that," Ross said.

Using plans unveiled last spring, the Army expects to cut its troop strength to 490,000 troops from the current force of 570,000. Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Alayne Conway declined to specify what Army units or specialties will be targeted for the biggest personnel cuts.

But news reports during the past week indicate the new Army budget could cut another 70,000 troops, resulting in a total force of 420,000.

"At the end of the day we want to make sure we retain a high quality force with the desired capabilities and the flexibility to meet the emerging challenges," Conway said.

The Air Force, with nearly 333,000 active duty personnel, is preparing to trim its force by 25,000 and 550 planes during the next five years. It is seeking to meet these goals through a variety of "force shaping tools," including incentives for airmen to leave early through its Voluntary Separation Pay and early retirement programs.

What's more, the Air Force will convene a reduction-in-force board in June to determine whether to separate captains and majors in overcrowded career fields.

Officers deemed eligible for reduction in force may apply for voluntary separation pay between Jan. 14 and May 1. Eligible officers would receive 1.25 times the standard full separation pay, but must exit the military Sept. 29. Those picked for separation by the reduction-in-force board will receive the standard separation payment, but must leave no later than Jan. 31, 2015.

The Air Force's push to trim its ranks made for a high-pressure atmosphere at Scott Air Force Base, according to Jessica Wager, 28, a former Air Force captain who voluntarily separated in November after more than five years.

"A lot of people that I worked with are very concerned," said Wager, of Belleville, who worked as a communications officer at the base.

Wager, an Air Force Academy graduate, left the Air Force because she knew she did not want to make it career.

"But there are people's families that this is what they want to do," she said. "They signed up for it and they love it. And that's unfortunate for them because I think a lot of people who want to stay in, unfortunately, won't be able to."

The Army's plans to cut its force size occur at the same time the Warrior Transition Command, the unit that helped Sgt. Charles Shaffer rehab his leg and re-enlist in the Army, is undergoing a period of sharp cuts and consolidations as a result of the wars winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The command's current capacity is about 12,000 wounded, ill and injured soldiers. In 2012, however, the client base fell to fewer than 7,100 troops.

As a result of the falling numbers, the Army recently announced that five of its 29 warrior transition units, known as WTUs, and all nine community-based warrior transition units, including the regional one at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, will be deactivated.

If the Army succeeds in cutting the 80,000 positions, it would resemble the Army of 1999, with 10 divisions consisting of 33 combat brigades, according to Foreign Policy magazine. The cuts are a direct result of measures Congress agreed to in 2011 to slash nearly $500 billion in military spending in 10 years.

For his part, Charles Shaffer is grateful for the Army allowing him to re-enlist after losing his leg and to work at Scott Air Force Base.

"I made a lot of friends here at Scott, got a lot of acquaintances, so hopefully it will pan out in the future," he said.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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