A lobbying group for military personnel and their families, the National Military Family Association, was misidentified yesterday. (Published 7/24/90)
When she joined the Army, Veda Lamar-Garth, now a sergeant stationed at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington, welcomed the job security of military life.
But now she's finding that what seemed like a long-term career choice may be only temporary work, offering not much more permanence than her last job managing a fast-food restaurant.
Last week, she was notified that her performance, along with that of thousands of others of her rank or above, will be reviewed this fall, and she may be among those cut from military service.
"You then have 90 days' notice to change your entire life," said Lamar-Garth, 30, the single parent of a 4-year-old daughter. "To pack your bags, to take your child out of school, to move to a new city and find a new job."
Since last fall, the Berlin Wall has been leveled, the Iron Curtain raised, and a staggering federal budget deficit looms ever larger -- all factors precipitating plans for military manpower cuts, the largest in the history of the all-volunteer armed forces.
Defense experts say U.S. troop strength may be cut by one-third of today's 2.1 million in five years and by one-half in 10 years. Some will volunteer to take early-retirement incentives, but most people who leave will be going against their will. Committees will convene at bases across the country to review records of military personnel, keeping the best and dismissing the rest.
In the Washington area, where some 75,000 military men and women are stationed, the severity of the cuts and uncertainty over who will be forced out have translated into anxious times in the barracks and the Pentagon.
The potential disruption of their lives has left some believing the rules have been changed in the middle of the game. They wonder how they will support their families if the worst happens. Those who saw military service as a way out of poverty or an escape from dead-end jobs fear they may sink back.
In short, they have the same concerns as other U.S. workers facing layoffs, intensified by the feeling that it wasn't supposed to happen to a good soldier.
"Something in your record that last year didn't get you put out of the military can get you put out today," Lamar-Garth said. "Getting cut from the military would just turn my whole life upside down."
Michelle Looper, 26, an Army lieutenant at Fort McNair, also recently got the news that many officers of her rank will be dismissed. The Army, more dependent than other services on people instead of machines, is expected to be cut most.
"When you join the Army, you think you've got a guaranteed job until the day you want to get out," said Looper, who enlisted four years ago. "But right now soldiers don't have a guaranteed life. You put in eight to 10 years, and you can still get kicked out."
Looper's fiance' also is in the Army and, like his bride-to-be, is living under the threat of losing his job.
"I'd say my chances of being cut are about 50-50," said Rodney Smith, 29, an Army pilot engaged to marry Looper in the fall. "It would be a little tough if it happens to both of us at the same time."
James Simpson, an Army private of eight months stationed at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia, had planned to make a career of military service. Now he hopes he can hold on long enough to get his high school equivalency degree.
"I plan to stay as long as I can, but if they cut me back, there's not much I can do about it," said Simpson, 24, a father of three. If that happens, he will go back to roofing houses.
Gary Hopper, an Army captain stationed at Fort McNair, has been in the service 10 years, most of it as a helicopter pilot. If forced out, he said, he is confident he would find work in civil aviation. He believes his performance evaluations over the years have been good enough to let him dodge the ax.
"But I know a lot of people who don't have good performance evaluations," said Hopper, 33. "I think I'm going to see a lot of good friends who will not be able to stay on."
His wife, Sharon, a former teacher who now cares for the couple's two small children, is worried that the cuts could make her family change important plans.
"Years ago, I saw what happened in other families where people lost their jobs with good companies," she said. "Now I see that that could happen to us too.
"I wanted to stay home with my children until they were a little bigger. Now I may have to return to work a little earlier."
While Gary Hopper knows that former military men and women generally are viewed by civilian employers as reliable, hard-working, drug-free and mobile, he is concerned that some may not have job skills that are in demand.
"Some things in the military can't transfer to the civilian world," said Hopper, "like field artilleryman or an infantry officer."
Those fortunate enough to pass the review are likely to find that competition for promotion to higher rank has become stiffer.
"It used to be that making lieutenant colonel after 20 years of service was considered quite a successful career," Hopper said. "Now it may be considered a success to make major, which is one notch back."
Other soldiers profess less concern about the cuts, and focus on what they already have gotten out of their military service.
"I'm not really worried about about it," said Mark Tisler, 23, stationed at Fort Belvoir, who joined the Army eight months ago. "I'm just trying to gain some job skills, and I got 'em.
"Just give me a generator and I can take that baby apart and put it right back together. I couldn't do that before I came in."
Some military personnel even say the reductions are sorely needed.
"The cuts may affect people's personal finances, but there's a $150 billion deficit that's more pressing," said R. Jolly Brown, 35, a captain in the Army Reserves who recently completed six years on active duty.
Because the cuts will be based on performance records, Brown said, they provide a good opportunity to get rid of personnel who are not performing well.
"For a long time, the Army was the hardest job in the world to get fired from," Brown said. "The people on the bottom that get cut, they need to go."
Those who have the most to lose from the cuts are people who joined the military planning to stay 20 years or longer, then retiring with a pension and good medical benefits.
"The people we're concerned about are those who are going to be forced out before they're eligible for PX, commissary, retirement and medical benefits," said Dorosey Chescavage, spokeswoman for the National Association of Retired Military Families, a lobbying group for military personnel and their families.
"If you are retired before 20 years, you get not one dime if you are an enlisted person," Chescavage said. "They'd lose their jobs, their homes and their medical benefits."
A flurry of legislation proposed in Congress during the last several months makes it likely that officers involuntarily dismissed from the service will receive severance pay.
It is unclear, however, whether these benefits will be extended to lower-ranking soldiers who generally have less education and fewer job options in the civilian world.
Despite the daunting prospects of cutbacks and slowed promotions, Richard Gomez, a 31-year-old drill sergeant at Fort Belvoir, said he feels certain his career path in the military won't be sidetracked by the cuts.
"I'm not afraid for my job," Gomez said. "I've made it to sergeant first class in 11 years, when other guys have taken 14 to 15 years. They're going to have to fight to get me out of the Army.
"The competition's going to get harder, but if you work hard, there are always ways around it."
Chescavage said such talk is common on military bases these days.
"There is a lot of denial," she said. "There's a lot of self-protection going on. People are saying, 'It's not going to happen to me. They're going to cut the next guy.' "
Some soldiers say they will not wait around for the Army to tell them to leave.
"I had given some thought to doing 20 years," Lamar-Garth said. "But I can't risk getting to 15 and then getting booted out.
"I'd rather be the captain of my own ship and go back to the civilian sector. At least that way I'd have a little bit of control of my life."