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Florida Guard warns cuts would eliminate 1,000 positions

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the Florida National Guard’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion 244th Aviation Regiment fills a 700 gallon bucket with water from a pond near wildfires in Flagler and Volusia counties in 2007. The helicopters were being used to fight brushfires around the state.

Photo by Michael Baltz (2007) 

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the Florida National Guard’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion 244th Aviation Regiment fills a 700 gallon bucket with water from a pond near wildfires in Flagler and Volusia counties in 2007. The helicopters were being used to fight brushfires around the state.

Florida National Guard officials are warning in unusually direct language that budget cuts being considered by the U.S. Army would eliminate 1,000 people from the Florida Guard's ranks and hamper its ability to respond to hurricanes and other disasters.

The cut would amount to about 10 percent of the Florida Guard's total force.

Florida Guard leaders say the state already lags in National Guard funding — $467 million in 2012, a budget exceeded by 10 other states despite Florida's propensity for hurricanes.

"For a state whose ratio of guardsman-to-citizen is already next to last in the nation, and whose vulnerabilities far exceed those of other states, this is unacceptable," said Lt. Col. James Evans, a spokesman for the Florida Guard.

The Army, according to the Florida Guard, is proposing cutting Army National Guard forces around the nation from its current 350,000 to about 315,000 in fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1. The proposal comes as the Army itself is considering a reduction in its force by 100,000 by 2019, down to 420,000, according to a report in USA Today earlier this month.

Those numbers reflect $500 billion in automatic military spending cuts over the next decade.

"If they cut, we just want them to be thoughtful about it," Evans said. "We have the most natural disasters and the most high-value targets," from Disney World to nuclear power plants.

Evans acknowledged the budget process is far from complete and the Army proposal may be altered. But he said Florida Guard officials believe early talks of cutting National Guard forces nationally to 315,000 are serious.

The Florida Guard also is fearful Army plans would lead to the loss of part of Florida's fleet of about 30 helicopters.

An Army spokesman at the Pentagon declined comment, saying budget talks were too preliminary to discuss proposals. A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau could not be reached for comment.

Guard officials around the nation have argued that their citizen-soldiers are a more cost-effective alternative to the nation's full-time active forces. But some Army leaders have pushed back against the notion that Guard troops are essentially interchangeable with their active duty counterparts in the regular Army.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno noted in remarks at the National Press Club last month that active-duty and Guard forces are not interchangeable.

"There is a reason the active component is more expensive," Odierno said. "It brings you a higher level of readiness because they're full-time. They're trained and ready to do things at a higher level because they spend every day focused on that . . . So they're not interchangeable."

Though Odierno praised the National Guard's work during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his comments caused a stir among Guard supporters.

Retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, said Odierno was off base.

"Beyond being disrespectful and simply not true, the comment runs counter to the public statements of countless active commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 12 years who have lauded the contributions of the Army National Guard," Hargett said in a recent statement. "Many have said they can't tell the difference between active and Guard soldiers.

"Unfortunately . . . brothers in arms on the battlefield sometimes become rivals for resources when budgets become tight."

John Goheen, a spokesman for the association, said in an interview the Army's proposal to cut National Guard resources is far along, discounting the idea that budget discussions are too preliminary for discussion.

"Based upon the chatter in town and statements by officials, unfortunately it would appear to be almost a certainty," Goheen said.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com

Florida Guard warns cuts would eliminate 1,000 positions 02/01/14 [Last modified: Saturday, February 1, 2014 9:26pm]
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