U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks at a town hall meeting at the Mark Center in Alexandria, Va., on Tuesday. (YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel put an end to months of uncertainty and fleeting hopes for the department’s civilian workforce Tuesday, announcing plans to begin furloughing hundreds of thousands of employees for up to 11 days starting July 8.

“We did everything we could not to get to this day,” Hagel told an audience of several hundred grim-looking defense workers during a town-hall meeting at the department’s Mark Center in Alexandria.

Hagel said that making further cuts to military training and unit readiness to meet what he described as a $30 billion shortfall caused by automatic budget cuts from sequestration would be irresponsible.

The 11-day furloughs will save the department $1.8 billion, officials said.

“I can’t run this institution into the ditch,” Hagel said. “We’ve taken this as close to the line as we can and still [be] capable of protecting this country and this country’s interests around the world. We still have a war going on.”

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Hagel leavened his message with some measure of hope for defense workers. The 11 days are down from the 14 that the Pentagon had warned would be needed, and only half of the 22 days that were originally forecast. Hagel said there was a chance that the 11 days could be further reduced after the furloughs begin.

But asked by a Mark Center employee whether workers could face furloughs next year as well, Hagel could offer no assurances.

“I can’t guarantee you that we won’t be in some kind of similar situation next year,” he said.

Not all of the department’s 800,000 civilian workers face furloughs. About 68,000 employees are exempt, including more than 29,000 shipyard workers excluded after the Navy successfully argued that furloughs would cause costly delays on work being done on aircraft carriers and submarines.

Other exceptions are being made for employees deployed to combat zones, workers needed to protect life and property, employees funded by national intelligence programs and some medical personnel at the Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir military hospitals. Some employees, including Defense Department teachers, will be furloughed for fewer than 11 days.

Another 50,000 foreign workers at bases overseas are exempt from furloughs because of agreements with the host nations.

Standing on a stage in front of three American flags at the defense facility in Alexandria, Hagel adopted a tone seemingly honed from his days as an Army sergeant in Vietnam.

“We’re going in together; we’ll come out together,” he told the audience at the massive Mark Center, which opened last year as part of the 2005 base consolidation and is home to about 6,400 defense workers, including employees of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Washington Headquarters Services and a number of other defense agencies.

Hagel, who as a political appointee is exempt from a furlough, said last month that he would return a portion of his salary in solidarity with defense workers who lose pay.

“I’ll take questions,” Hagel added at the end of his remarks. “I sure as hell would take some advice.”

One worker noted that many other federal agencies are meeting the automatic cuts mandated by the sequester without furloughs, and asked why the Defense Department has been unable to do the same.

“Believe me, we looked at everything,” Hagel said, adding that further cuts elsewhere could jeopardize defense operations around the globe, including in Afghanistan.

The secretary said the department will continue to assess its financial state as the year continues, and said some of the 11 days of furlough could be cut if the situation brightens. “We might be in a position to knock that back,” he said. “I can’t promise that.”

Audience members said afterward that they were resigned to Hagel’s message.

“It was inevitable — I knew it was coming,” said George Little, a building manager at the Mark Center.

Several employees expressed relief that an announcement had finally been made and that the news was not worse. “Fear of the unknown is the biggest fear,” said Tim Russell, an investigator with the department’s Office of Inspector General. “We’ve been on hold for weeks.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers expressed frustration.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he hoped that Hagel’s announcement would jump-start congressional efforts to stave off the cuts, but he said he is struggling to find support for a plan to shore up Pentagon funding similar to a bill passed last month to divert some Federal Aviation Administration funding to pay the salaries of air traffic controllers.

“Nobody seems to care,” he told reporters. “It’s amazing. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in the years I’ve been in the Senate.”

The reduction in furlough days from 14 to 11 was first reported by the Associated Press.

The furlough notices are to be sent between May 28 and June 5. Employees will have seven days to ask for an exception, which local commanders can make on a limited basis to ensure “safe and efficient operations” of their departments and installations.

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