Our service members deserve much better

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The telephone operators are gone. An office dedicated to helping people pursue higher education is down to a skeleton crew. Custodial services in many work centers were also curtailed.

For service members stationed at places like Mountain Home Air Force Base, these are just the "minor" inconveniences they've had to deal with as the nation struggles with a crippling deficit with no solution in sight. It doesn't begin to capture the more "painful cuts" airmen here have dealt with in recent months.

The problem stems all the way to Washington, D.C., as our elected officials try to "balance their books" after they racked the federal deficit up to historic levels. Instead of looking at ways to "share the wealth" and distribute the pain equally in all types of federal spending -- or cutting back on their own spending that continues to spiral out of control -- they opted to make drastic cuts in the defense budget.

As a result, airmen here and those at other military installations here and overseas were forced to make painful cuts in day-to-day operations. But at the same time, they've had to remain at the same level of readiness while facing regular rotations to combat zones in places like Afghanistan.

For these men and women, the mission comes first. There are no exceptions.

However, the decision to cut back on the defense budget comes at the same time that our military forces are stretched to the limit in terms of manpower and resources. The military's operations tempo shows no signs of slowing down after nearly 11 years of continued combat in places like Afghanistan despite the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq.

While airmen at the base won't freely admit their frustrations, the signs are out there that the force as a whole is reaching a breaking point in terms of morale. Suicide rates in the Air Force alone show an alarming trend with 35 already this year -- 15 of which happened in January alone.

Although it's understandable that the mission comes first, the question remains how much longer can the U.S. military continue to do more with less before everything comes to a screeching halt.

Unfortunately, the current budget cuts will only get worse if Congress doesn't act to get its own "house" in order.

Looming just over the horizon are even steeper budget cuts in military spending in an option known as sequestration. A provision in the federal budget control act, it would automatically trigger an additional $500 billion cut across the board for defense spending over the next decade -- if Congress doesn't find an alternative by January.

Those who served during the so-called "hollow force" of the late 1970s know how bad it can get in terms of austere spending. Case in point: It got so bad at one base that it was prohibited for airmen to throw away bond paper unless both sides were already used.

If sequestration kicks in, we can only wonder if things like this will be "minor inconveniences" for today's service members.

Simply put, our men and women in uniform deserve much better from our elected officials. All of them freely raised their hand to serve and protect this nation from those who would threaten our borders and our way of life. In return, our elected officials in Washington, D.C., are supposed to uphold their end of the deal by ensuring those that stand in harm's way are given the resources they need and given fair wages for the sacrifices they make every day.

From our perspective, however, don't expect anything productive to come out of the Washington beltway until after the November elections. Many representatives and senators hope to keep their seats, especially after anti-incumbent fever in 2010 sent many of their fellow legislators packing. It's a safe bet that anyone who "blinks" at this point in the political race -- anyone willing to reach across political parties to find a solution to the budget crisis -- will be on their way out.

Instead of watching our leaders stand up and lead, we're seeing more examples of them trying to "drop and cover." It's like a horrible reality television show that plays itself out every day on Capitol Hill.

Unfortunately, in this case, there's no way to change the channel.

-- Brian S. Orban