355 Springfield Guardsmen face furloughs

About 355 full-time members of the Ohio National Guard in Springfield will be furloughed for 11 days beginning July 8, and will be among the only people wearing military uniforms ordered to take unpaid leave as part of federal budget cuts.

Nationally, the 53,000 uniformed technicians within the Guard who will be furloughed this summer as part of sequestration will be the military’s only airmen and soldiers forced to take what amounts to a 20 percent pay cut.

In the Ohio National Guard, 1,657 full-time military technicians will be furloughed between the Air Guard and the Army Guard.

That didn’t sit well this week with Tech. Sgt. Sarah Byrge, who’s worked for 12 years at the Springfield Air National Guard Base, which has a $99.4 million annual impact on the local economy and is among Clark County’s 10 largest employers.

Wearing camo fatigues, the Beavercreek resident looked like any member of the active-duty Air Force and could be called on to deploy. The only difference is she’s a Guard technician who’s paid as a civilian.

“We wear the uniform, we have to abide by military rules, but we’re not military, so that’s how they can take our money,” Byrge said. “We’re being punished because they don’t know how to budget their money.”

All other uniformed military personnel are considered active-duty and exempt from the 11 furlough days, which the U.S. Department of Defense is requiring most of its civilian workforce to take between July 8 and Sept. 30 to address the automatic $37 billion cut that went into effect on March 1 when the president and lawmakers couldn’t reach a budget deal.

The number of proposed furlough days had been whittled down from 22 to 14 before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel decided last month on 11, which amounts to 88 hours of lost pay. Pentagon officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

For the nearly 340 affected airmen spread across the Springfield Air National Guard Base’s three main units — the 178th Fighter Wing, the 251st Cyber Engineering Installation Group and the 269th Combat Communications Squadron — they appear to be caught in a Catch-22.

They’re paid as civilians, yet they have to be uniformed members of the Guard in order to hold full-time jobs as technicians, according to Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Stahl, public affairs superintendent for the 178th.

In the case of the local wing’s 178th Intelligence Group, its 124 full-time airmen have been working side-by-side daily with active-duty Air Force personnel in the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The Springfield guardsmen, however, will be furloughed. The Air Force personnel won’t.

Lt. Scott Szeghi is among those working primarily at Wright-Patterson as a member of the local wing’s 126th Space Squadron. The Lebanon resident, who began his Guard career in 1998 working on the fuel systems of F-16s at the Springfield base, started saving money as soon as furloughs were announced earlier this year.

“My monthly mortgage didn’t drop 20 percent,” Szeghi said. “That stays the same.”

But, even within the 178th Fighter Wing, furloughs aren’t automatic.

The pilots, sensor operators and intelligence coordinators who control the MQ-1 Predator on secret missions around the clock at the Springfield base are considered active-duty and won’t be furloughed.

Aside from the personal hardship of losing pay, local technicians argue that readiness will be hurt by the furloughs.

“Some of the impact may not be seen until many months after the furloughs end,” said Capt. Aaron Willis, regional manager for the Ohio Army National Guard’s surface maintenance office.

Willis has 13 technicians in Springfield in a field maintenance shop who will be forced to forgo repairs and regular servicing on Humvees and other ground vehicles.

“It will definitely impact the equipment readiness,” he said.

Legislation had been introduced in Congress back in March to exempt the Guard’s military technicians from furloughs, but it remains in a House committee.

“There is hope that the legislation will move forward,” John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, wrote Wednesday in an email to the Springfield News-Sun. “Our advice to our members is to prepare for the furloughs, but at the same time, get out and tell your story to your representatives in Washington.

“We can’t just hope. We have to make sure officials understand the impact of the furloughs on both force readiness and the (military) techs and their families.”

On Tuesday, local technicians from both the Ohio Air National Guard and Ohio Army National Guard gathered in a hangar at the Springfield Air National Guard Base to hear from superiors and ask questions about the furloughs. Most everyone in attendance already had been served a furlough notice.

“This is a big deal for a lot of our folks,” Brig. Gen. Mark Stephens, director of the joint staff for the Ohio Air National Guard, said Tuesday. “In my 30 years as a technician, I never thought I’d see a furlough notice.”

A one-star general, Stephens will be among those furloughed.

Col. Bill Wolfarth, vice commander of the 178th Fighter Wing, will be furloughed as well.

“I especially feel bad for the younger folks,” Wolfarth said Tuesday. “A lot of us never thought it would happen.”

Byrge, the technical sergeant from Beavercreek, is a single mother whose 6-year-old son just finished first grade. She’s scrambling to find friends for him to stay with this summer because she now can’t afford childcare.

“It’s going to be a big inconvenience,” she said.

She said putting money aside is difficult, but she’s doing what she can.

“I stopped going to Tim Hortons for $1.75 a day,” Byrge said. “I’ll grind my own.”

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