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Military families living in dread of cuts

By Rebekah Sanderlin and Molly Blake, Special to CNN
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1537 GMT (2337 HKT)
A soldier of the 170th U.S. Army Infantry Brigade, returned from Afghanistan, reunites in Germany with his family.
A soldier of the 170th U.S. Army Infantry Brigade, returned from Afghanistan, reunites in Germany with his family.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Military families live with uncertainty as sequestration cuts loom
  • Families can't make plans, they say; troops and brass wait for sequestration ax to fall
  • Congress seems to forget military families when it's not election season, they write
  • Writers: Secretary of defense warns of a diminished ability to defend nation if cuts happen

Editor's note: Rebekah Sanderlin is a writer and an Army wife. She writes a blog about military family life called Operation Marriage and lives with her husband and three children near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Molly Blake is a Marine Corps spouse, the managing editor of Blue Star Families and a freelance writer.

(CNN) -- When the Pentagon decided last week to delay the deployment of aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman to the Persian Gulf because of looming budget cuts, some military families found their already unpredictable lives thrown into even more uncertainty, victims of the ugly budget battle in Congress.

One military wife, Jenelle Hatzung, said she heard on the news, rather than from the Navy, that her husband's deployment was canceled just days before he was set to leave on the USS Truman.

"I never thought Congress' inability to pass a budget would so intimately affect my personal life," she said. She and her husband had plannedthe adoption of a baby to coincide with the time he would be home; now, those plans are in peril as her ensign husband faces a new schedule that will probably interrupt the proceedings.

Rebekah Sanderlin
Rebekah Sanderlin
Molly Blake
Molly Blake

"It isn't right," wrote Navy wife Jill Qualters on her blog. "I know that this whole thing comes down to the one thing that runs the world: money. And I know it is completely naive of me to think that families would come first. But this kind of emotional whiplash takes a toll."

All military families are living under the shadow of upcoming sequestration budget cuts. Although we hear congressional leaders extol their support for military families -- they even wear their alleged patriotism on their smart striped suits -- it's clear from inaction on the budget that their support is as empty as the USS Truman's deck.

Panetta warns of degraded military readiness from cuts

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You see, not a lot of Americans serve in the military; it's only a tiny slice of the pie. According to a Pew Research study, about one-half of 1% of American adults have served on active duty at any given time in the past decade. So when the wind dies down and the flags stop flapping, military families are truly forgotten. We are no longer "special" interests.

A bit of Sequestration 101: When legislators raised the debt ceiling in 2011 but couldn't agree on a deficit-cutting plan, they passed the Budget Control Act, which called for huge automatic spending cuts -- or sequestration -- to start in January 2013 unless a plan for balancing the budget was drawn up. That didn't happen. If nothing changes, $1.2 trillion in automatic defense and nondefense spending cuts, divided evenly, will kick in over the next 10 years.

On military installations across the United States and around the world, operations have been hurt. Troops and brass are waiting for the ax to fall. Again. Commanders are paralyzed, unable to schedule training or order equipment because they don't know their budgets.

General: We face a 'readiness crisis'
Obama: Avoid sequester, pass small cuts

Troops preparing for combat deployments aren't getting the training that is essential for them to survive their missions. Service members in Afghanistan are already seeing the effects of anticipated budget cuts in everything from the equipment they are issued, or not issued, to the hours the chow halls are open.

We don't know what will happen to funding for the programs designed to tackle this war's ugly twins, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, not to mention the rising suicide epidemic among veterans and military family members. The fact is, we are losing about 22 veterans to suicide every day, with no evidence that the deadly tide is retreating.

By the Numbers: Recent defense spending

Military pay is exempt from sequestration cuts, but pay raises aren't. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will also ask Congress to limit next year's military pay increase to just 1%, even though the Labor Department's expected Employment Cost index for 2014 is higher. Translation: an effective pay cut.

Congress, it seems, is banking on our patriotism once again. They are taking for granted that the less than 1% who responded after the worst terrorist attacks in our nation's history -- and then responded again by staying in the fight for 11 years and counting -- will respond yet again by standing by stoically.

We understand that sacrifice is required of everyone in order to reduce our national debt, but the sacrifice should be shared by all.

We cannot perpetuate this fiscal mess. So this time around, we will pour our hearts and souls into compelling government leaders to feel, if only for a moment, what playing politics with people like Hatzung truly means. Military families will take to social media to write, tweet and post about the fiscal cliff's dangerous slide. They will write their members of Congress to remind them that relying on 1% of Americans to shoulder a nation's burden is preposterous.

And don't think our problems don't really affect most Americans. According to Panetta, "rough estimates suggest after 10 years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in ... history."

Americans will be more vulnerable to emerging threats than ever, and with less training and equipment to respond. In other words, when the wolves come back to our door, there will be fewer, and noticeably weaker, dogs to keep them at bay.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

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