It’s down to just hours until massive federal spending cuts kick in. The automatic cuts – known as sequestration in Washington-speak – are certain to affect Vermonters, including civilian defense employees in the Vermont National Guard.
For now, guard members are waiting and they’re growing impatient.
"The cuts shouldn’t be as drastic for the military," argued Staff Sergeant Chris Walczak of Montpelier, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He counts himself among those who are frustrated and anxious.
"Am I going to be able to pay the tuition for my daughter’s schooling?" Walczak asked on Thursday. "My wife might have to go back to work full-time, so I don’t know what’s going to happen."
"It looks like this tsunami is really coming at us," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, after announcing that if the sequestration takes hold more than 500 civilian employees could face furloughs for at least one day a week. The furloughs could begin as early as April. What the Governor calls "draconian" cuts could be devastating to the Guard’s mission at home and abroad.
"No one is saying we don’t need to find a balance of cuts and revenue, but everyone is saying that this was not intended to ever happen and it seems to be happening," Shumlin said. "The unthinkable is happening. We’ve got to raise our voices across the board to stop it."
Incoming Adjutant General Steven Cray is already raising his voice; he takes command of the Guard just as the cuts take effect. "We can control some things here in Vermont and that’s what we focus on," Cray said at an event at Camp Johnson in Colchester, surrounded by guard members. "We don’t dwell on what may or may not happen in Washington, D.C."
Cray said the Guard will continue to recruit and prepare for natural disasters and foreign wars despite political bickering. "Clearly, the greatest threat facing our national guard today is the great uncertainty about our budget and certainly about sequestration and what that might mean," he added.
Master Sergeant Daniel Landry of Georgia coordinates about 600 funerals and other military events each year for the Vermont National Guard. As he set up the stage for Friday’s change of command ceremony, he said – for his unit – the proposed cuts are not all about the paycheck.
"Fallen veterans aren’t going to take a break so neither are we," Landry said. "We’ll work through it."
Still, Landry is concerned about a big hit to his family’s income. "The cost of living in Vermont is kind of high," he noted. "We live paycheck-to-paycheck. We’re not millionaires. Nobody out there is going to pay my mortgage for me, so I got to figure out how I’m going to make up the 20 percent."
Despite the looming cuts, Landry and other members of the Guard are looking forward to welcoming their new leader to the post Friday afternoon at their headquarters.