2,700 Benning civilians furloughed; veterans worry about checks

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 2, 2013 

Cars leave the Fort Benning main gate onto Fort Benning Drive on Oct. 1, 2013.

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

With the U.S. government entering shutdown mode Tuesday, the local impact was felt through the furlough of roughly 2,700 civilian workers at Fort Benning, through recreation areas closing on West Point Lake, and with area veterans left pondering what it all means for them.

“We understand this is a time of uncertainty,” said a message Tuesday on the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence website. “Your Fort Benning team is committed to taking care of our soldiers, families and civilians. We will get through this together.”

Jennifer Gunn, in an email from the Fort Benning Public Affairs Office, said nearly 70 percent of the installation’s civilian workforce had been put on “temporary furlough status” due to the shutdown. That means those labeled “non-essential” by the government won’t receive pay during their absence.

The post’s 3,900 civilian employees were told to report to work Tuesday morning before being sent back home. Military personnel, meanwhile, were on the job as the nation entered its first government shutdown in 17 years, with Congress failing to pass a budget resolution funding its entire operation. Fort Benning said the loss of civilian staffers would impact some services.

The most prominent will be closure of the Commissary on Marne Road. The military supermarket was open Tuesday to sell off perishable goods but will close Wednesday and apparently not reopen until the budget impasse is over. According to Gunn, “all essential services” will continue.

These include law enforcement, Fort Benning schools, medical and dental facilities, child-care facilities and emergency services, as well as the Post Exchange, convenience stores and most Morale, Welfare and Recreation services. Meanwhile, veterans across the Chattahoochee Valley area are hoping for a quick end to the budget battle that centers around House Republicans demanding that Obamacare be delayed a year and Senate Democrats balking at that notion. “We have a pool going, with some people saying by Friday this thing will be over with,” said David Jones, a retired Army sergeant 1st class and commander of the local chapter of Disabled American Veterans.

“I’m a disabled veteran, I’m 100 percent, and I checked my bank account this morning and I got my disability,” said Jones, who as a volunteer helps veterans file disability claims with the government. He said there are just over 3,000 disabled veterans in the area.

“We should continue getting our money because we have sacrificed,” said Jones, hopeful that the elderly military retirees and Social Security recipients will not see their monthly benefits caught up in the budget fray.

“I think that it’s like two grown babies up there ... They’re just arguing back and forth,” he said of the lawmakers at a stalemate in Washington.

Three former Fort Benning commanding generals had their own choice words for the situation.

“I’m distressed that it got to this point. It makes you question your leadership in Washington across the spectrum,” said retired Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza. He, too, believes military retiree and disability pay will be left alone, although he had a warning for lawmakers even thinking about halting the benefits.

“If in fact that happens, I think it is going to be disastrous for the leadership in Washington because veterans can be pretty nasty,” he said. “And of course, they will express themselves at the voting booth. You can be sure they will turn out en masse to do that.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Kenneth Leuer, after watching the budget confrontation reach a boiling point, said he was ready to “blow a gasket” because of the “selfishness” now taking place.

“I think it’s a real discredit to the leadership of our country at the highest level, both the executive as well as the congressional level,” said Leuer, who receives a military pension and disability pay.

“Why are we mixing Obamacare with the overall operation of our government?” he asked rhetorically. “I think it’s going to be resolved, but not until everybody has a taste of it.”

Retired Lt. Gen. R.L. “Sam” Wetzel said he was upset that Obamacare might harm American businesses, particularly smaller ones. He also said President Obama misspoke Monday night when he said veterans being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder could see canceled appointments.

“That is a complete lie. I checked and they are going to get the PTSD appointments,” said Wetzel, who nonetheless believes the federal government could easily be downsized. Working at the Pentagon in the 1970s, an audit he oversaw reduced a 2,700-person workforce by 500 jobs.

“There is fat and there’s not just fat in the defense department,” he said. “All of the other Washington agencies could use an audit.” Speaking directly about veterans medical and health-care facilities Tuesday, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Gina Jackson said, “Our facilities are all open.”

She pointed to “Veterans Field Guide to Government Shutdown” on the agency’s website. It said while health care is not impacted by the shutdown, claims processing and payments for disabled veterans will be suspended once existing funding runs out in late October.

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