Scott enlisted personnel could be hit hard by Air Force cuts

News-DemocratFebruary 9, 2014 

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A sign welcomes visitors through the Belleville Gate entrance at Scott Air Force Base.

SSGT CHAD R. GANN, USAF — Chad R. Gann, USAF

— Uncertain days stretch ahead for senior enlisted personnel as the Air Force pursues plans to cut 22,500 airmen this year, or nearly 8 percent of its total.

At Scott, the St. Louis region's biggest employer, 2,160 airmen out of 5,500 -- or nearly 40 percent of active duty military -- are either eligible for voluntary separation or "are vulnerable for one of the involuntary boards," according to base spokeswoman Karen Pettit.

These numbers "will fluctuate monthly as the Air Force receives the voluntary separation and retirement requests during the next several months," Pettit said in a statement.

The biggest cuts are planned for security personnel.

Current Air Force plans call for selecting nearly 4,000 enlisted security airmen, or 15 percent of Air Force-wide security forces, for involuntary separation, according to documents the Air Force Personnel Center has released.

Air Force plans do not specify how individual air bases, such as Scott, will be affected by the cuts to security forces, which apply to airmen in rank ranging from senior airman to master sergeant.

But the anxiety level is ratcheting upward for enlisted security NCO's and their families at the air base, said Lagea Mull, whose husband is a security forces master sergeant with 21 years' service.

Recently, her husband received notice to appear before an Air Force retention board, Mull said.

"I understand getting rid of people that aren't, let's say, excelling in their careers and are struggling with their fitness test," Mull said.

But when people who get high marks on their job performance reviews and fitness tests are told, "'Hey, we no longer need your services, we'll be re-looking at your information to see if we're going to retain you or not,' that's pretty frustrating and disheartening, really," she said.

The Air Force recently unveiled plans to send 22,500 airmen packing took many by surprise. After all, up until December, Air Force spokesmen continued to insist that its plans called for the separating of 25,000 airmen over five years.

But the 2014 federal budget approved by Congress in late December forced the Air Force's hand, accelerating the separation process, according to Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan defense think tank in Washington, D.C.

Air Force security forces are being targeted for personnel cuts because the Air Force mission is rapidly evolving after 11 years of armed conflicts and long-term Middle East deployments, Gunzinger said.

The Air Force's senior leadership believes that if the Air Force is no longer focused on protecting deployed units overseas, "then perhaps there is an opportunity to decrease some of the forces that we would need to defend the highly disbursed expeditionary forces in that manner," Gunzinger said.

Significant reductions of security personnel could cause big headaches for military and civilian workers at Scott, according to Mull, the 2013 Scott Spouse of the Year.

"One of the things that impacts people on a daily basis is getting on and off of Scott Air Force Base," she said. "And when you have limited security forces to man those gates, then we have traffic backup ... It's just got to mean a lot of extra work. ... A computer can't help you man a post. You actually have to have people to do that job."

Beyond these considerations, Air Force leaders are confronting a host of challenges as it juggles cuts in defense spending with the need to modernize its bomber and fighter fleets and pay for huge investments in drone aircraft.

"So if you're the Air Force chief of staff, you need to modernize your force, you need to cut programs and force structure and strength, and you need to sustain global operations," Gunzinger said. "That's a pretty tall order."

For years the Air Force, because of the expanding demands on its mission, has tried to do more with less.

But because of dwindling defense spending, "They're at the point where they have to do less with less," Gunzinger said.

The Air Force's push to cut its active duty forces can only have a negative effect on the morale of enlisted personnel and officers, who now must worry that a single blemish on their performance records could end their careers, said John Phillips, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

"I think it's completely demoralizing when, on one hand, you're asking everybody to sacrifice and make multiple rotations downrange, ... and on the other hand it's one little mistake, 'You're at high risk, you are done,'" said Phillips, the author of "Boots to Loafers," which provides advice to military personnel transitioning to civilian life.

Phillips said more than 20 years ago, as a junior Army officer, he noticed the same phenomenon among his superiors as the Army pushed for troop reductions.

"They didn't want their phone to ring," he said. "It was the commanding general calling them to the office to say 'We appreciate your service, you need to draw up your retirement papers ...' A real morale builder."

Airmen who believe their careers are at risk must assume the worst and start preparing now, said Phillips, who runs an informational website at www.bootstoloafers.com.

"And by preparing I mean you really need to take a good hard look at what you have done while in the Air Force," he said. "'What were my primary duties? What were my secondary duties? And really start organizing your thoughts in order to start building your resume."

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

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