News: Balancing retrograde, readiness, budget
Story by Sgt. Uriah Walker
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – “The sequestration will not affect the Army’s mission in Afghanistan,” stated Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III during a town hall discussion with soldiers, March 26, 2013, in Forward Operating Base Frontenac, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
Chandler, the 14th Sergeant Major of the Army, met with senior, enlisted leadership as well as junior soldiers to discuss the current state of the Army, how budget cuts may impact our mission, and responded to questions from the war fighter.
The most pressing question from soldiers concerned the matter of tuition assistance, more specifically if it would become available again.
“Tuition assistance is a benefit, not an entitlement,” Chandler explained. “I am just as much a victim of these cuts as you are. I’m working towards my master and have had to dig into my own pocket to pay for classes.
"However, we are looking to reinstate tuition assistance in two to three weeks. But, there will be changes. If you already have a degree, you may not get funding. You also may not see the full $4,500 you’ve been able to use in the past.”
During this visit, Chandler traveled not only to FOB Frontenac but also to Combat Outpost Azizullah and Kandahar Airfield in order to see the retrograde process first hand.
“We have $26 billion worth of equipment in Afghanistan,” he said. “We need to get $22 billion of it out and back to our home station to prevent having to buy it again. And we must do this while continuing operations here.”
Brigadier General Christopher P. Hughes, Regional Command-South and Third Infantry Division Deputy Commanding General for Maneuver, summed this process up during a visit to FOB Sperwan Ghar, March 25, 2013.
“Think of this as an invasion in reverse,” Hughes said regarding the retrograde process. “When we invade a country, we have limited resources. We sleep on the ground, in vehicles or tents. We eat MREs (meals ready to eat) every day. These are some of the things we can expect to see here before we leave.”
As the war in Afghanistan winds down and equipment is brought back, some of the missions previously being completed by contractors will be moving back to soldier duties, explained Chandler.
“What you can expect to see are soldiers at the gate, in the dining facilities, as grounds keepers – basically filling all of those roles we have had to hire civilians to perform in order to allow the war fighter to deploy,” he said.
Chandler also addressed concerns, voiced by soldiers during a question and answer period, that included topics such as commissary and post exchange hours, uniform changes, how the pending furloughs may affect access to medical care – specifically behavioral health – and follow-on training.
Soldiers were told that hours at the PX and commissary would shorten, most likely closing for one or two days per week in an effort to save money.
The daily wear uniform will receive several changes to include the pattern, buttons will replace hook and loop closures, the shoulder pockets will be zippered much like the flight uniform, and the drawstrings will be removed from the cargo pockets and waist. The physical fitness uniform will be made of an antimicrobial material, be black and gold in color with the addition of a “bike short” type liner in the shorts and the removal of the elastic from the wrist and ankle area on the winter uniform.
“There are certain jobs that will be exempt from furloughs,” he explained. “Our behavioral health professionals will continue to be available to any soldier who needs them.”
Chandler finished that statement with a story of his own about how he had been seen by behavioral health for over two years. He shared that he was having personal issues of his own, following a rocket attack, that were affecting not only his job performance, but his marriage as well.
“I feel that I am a better man for having gone. I am a better soldier, husband and father.”
Part of becoming a better soldier is receiving quality training.
“Professional schools will be scaled back. Basically, if the training is not required to perform in your current duty position, you most likely will not go,” Chandler stated.
He continued by saying that the Noncommissioned Officer Education System will not be cut back. However, unless your unit is deploying there will be no large-scale training conducted, only individual and squad level.
Deploying units will still receive funding to attend the National Training Center, in Fort Irwin, Calif., or the Joint Readiness Training Center, in Fort Polk, La., prior to a scheduled deployment.
Forward deployed elements will also continue to receive funding in order to accomplish the mission in their theater of operations.
Changes are coming to the Army and there is no easy way to put it. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III gave confidence about the future of the Army to every soldier in attendance with one, brief statement.
“We can. We will.”