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Pentagon cuts could have big impact locally

By John Craven, Reporter, JCraven@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 19 2013 06:00:00 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 20 2013 06:10:02 PM CST

The so-called "fiscal cliff" is back.

The so-called "fiscal cliff" is back. The automatic sequester cuts we've told you about could mean a big blow for the military -- and hundreds of local workers. However, some veterans think the Pentagon could use a little belt-tightening.

Wednesday, the Pentagon warned that civilian employees could face furloughs -- one unpaid day off per week -- if Congress doesn't stop automatic spending cuts. The cuts would not affect active-duty personnel.

"The Pentagon is painting a pretty dire picture at the moment," said Dr. John Kincaid, a defense expert at Lafayette College. "If the Pentagon goes through with furloughing civilian employees, that could have a significant impact on many communities."

The defense budget could be slashed by 13 percent if Congress doesn't reach a deficit reduction deal by next Friday. Lawmakers created the new "fiscal cliff" deadline when they failed to fix the problem in December.

The military, and companies that sell to it, account for thousands of jobs across our region.

"More than 80 percent of our civilians work outside of the DC metro area," said Jessica Wright, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense. "They live and work in every state of the union."

Especially at risk are the Poconos, home of Tobyhanna Army Depot. The facility already cut workers last year.

According to Kincaid, defense contractors could be squeezed hard.

"[The Pentagon] may stop acquiring new equipment," he said. "The Navy could cut back on new shipbuilding."

Shipbuilding cuts could affect Lehigh Heavy Forge in Bethlehem. Another major defense contractor is Reading-based Fidelity Technologies.

But many veterans believe, the military has plenty of wasteful spending to cut.

"We've got enough active duty members; why do we need so many civilian employees?", asked Army veteran Eric Zimmerer.

Vietnam vet Lance Martin said the Pentagon must get wasteful spending under control.

"They spend a lot more money to purchase things than most normal businesses would," he said.

Kincaid said the Pentagon has actually cut quite a bit already.

"There sure is legitimate fat that could be cut, but it's not one trillion dollars of waste in the Defense Department," he said.

Vets have their own concerns

"My biggest fear would be the cutbacks to the veterans," said Diskus, who served in the U.S. Marines in the 1980s.

Zimmerer added: "I also get a pension myself, and if they cut that, I'm in deep water."

Veterans benefits are not part of the automatic cuts; neither are those for active-duty service members. But they could still feel the effects through cuts to ancillary services, and cuts to other government agencies.

"The core services for veterans is not likely to be affected that much," said Kincaid. "On the other hand, improvements of services -- and there are many problems with veterans' services -- are not likely to be forthcoming under the sequester."

And that's what concerns veterans, especially with a new wave of troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Besides physical injuries, they'll be dealing with psychological injuries," said Martin. "They'll need people to talk to … They'll need professional services."

Unless Congress acts, the automatic cuts go into effect March 1. However, the Pentagon said Wednesday that civilian furloughs would not begin until late April. Workers would have to take one unpaid day off per week through September, according to the Defense Department.