Georgia National Guard members train at Fort Stewart, Ga., in September 2013.

Georgia National Guard members train at Fort Stewart, Ga., in September 2013. Capt. Michael Thompson

Shutdown Creates Training ‘Gap’ for Afghanistan-Bound Troops

Commanders halt training for National Guard units deploying to Afghanistan next year, amid shutdown's pay freeze. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

From the start of the shutdown, the Pay Our Military Act aimed to keep crucial, war-related functions on track while Washington rolled off the rails. But more than a week in, United States troops heading into the Afghanistan war now bear the brunt of the stalemate.

The Oregon National Guard has delayed the start of training for its 1,000-plus members scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan next spring. The first weekend drills for the deployment had been scheduled to start last weekend. But unlike active duty troops, who continue to get paid, most National Guardsmen now work for IOUs. They will not be paid until the shutdown ends. For that reason, Guard officials postponed their first training weekend until later this month.

"The department has protected training for units who are immediately deploying to Afghanistan, but we don't necessarily have funding yet to fully train those who will go and replace them. This gap is an example of how the shutdown and sequestration are damaging our ability to maintain readiness,” Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog told Defense One. Several other military units heading to Afghanistan this winter are training during the shutdown.

“We are fortunate enough here in Oregon that we have still quite a bit of time before we mobilize, so we can hold off on training this month along with our other units,” said Capt. Stephen Bomar, spokesman for the Oregon National Guard.

But if Washington still hasn’t extricated itself from the shutdown mess by later this month, then Guard leaders say they could have to delay training once more. At some point, Bomar said, deploying soldiers “are going to have to start to train whether they get paid immediately or not.”

[Click for Defense One's complete shutdown coverage.]

Bomar said his unit will be ready to deploy regardless of what happens in Washington -- and regardless of whether they have to bear more economic pain. “Fewer and fewer elected officials have had the opportunity to serve in the military, whether it is active duty or reserve, and this sheds a light to those elected officials on the importance of the Guard and Reserve to national security as a whole.”

Guard members who have deployed throughout the past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with helping in local disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, already are taking a financial hit that is turning desperate for many. Stories are circulating of Guard members accessing food pantry services and seeking help for basic household expenses as they wait for the shutdown to end and their paychecks and weekend drills to return.

“We are providing sustainment with food and daily immediate needs such as gas to get to and from work,” said Jennifer Hibbs, an Oregon National Guard Air Liaison who is part of a team to support Guard families. “It is like we have all been laid off and they are trying to find other opportunities for us to be funded, but we have a lot of information about nothing.”

Hibbs said emotions are running high. Already her team is preparing to ask people to donate turkey dinners for Thanksgiving if the shutdown stretches on. 

“How can they just let this happen when hundreds of thousands of people are out of work?” Hibbs said. “We are just walking around dumbstruck saying, ‘Okay, well, we still have to serve, we still have to protect our country, how do we protect our families?’

At a hearing before the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness on Thursday, Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale said reserve units who are deploying to Afghanistan would continue to train. “Reserves on inactive duty were allowed to drill, their weekend drills, only if the drills were in support of excepted activities, primarily preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. All other drills were cancelled,” Hale said. 

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