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Military News

MacDill wing limps along during shutdown

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Published:   |   Updated: October 4, 2013 at 06:46 AM

Shane Huff, a major in the Air Force Reserve, spent Thursday afternoon in his office at MacDill Air Force Base. But instead of doing his usual work as the spokesman for the 927th Air Refueling Wing, Huff was keeping an eye on his 10-year-old son Simon, who was doing his homework.

That's because Huff, who is a civilian employee in his role as spokesman, is one of the 1,500 who were given unpaid days off starting Tuesday as the result of the shutdown of the federal government.

And his son, who would normally be at the base youth center, or studying at the base library, can't be in either place. Both are closed because they are run by civilians who, like Huff, were sent home with no idea when they might return.

“I am happy for the extra time with my son and daughter,” said Huff, a single father. “But I would rather be working so that I can continue on with the quality of life that we have had. Not knowing what the next 30 days holds can be a little frustrating.”

Like most people, Huff has bills to pay. Mortgage. Car payments. Food for he, Simon and his daughter Helen, who is 13. But with no paycheck coming for the foreseeable future, the reservist said he is going to have to resort to his reserves to make ends meet.

“I am prepared to use my savings if necessary,” said Huff. “I would not like to do that if I can avoid it, but not knowing if I will get a paycheck in the next two weeks, and possibly 30 days, I have to prepare for the worst.”

The wing itself has also prepared for the worst.

“We are effectively shut down,” Col. Douglas Schwartz, the wing commander, told the Tribune.

Under normal conditions, the 927th, an Air Force Reserve wing, flies and maintains KC-135 Stratotanker air refueling jets, provides aeromedical evacuation and mission support to warfighting and humanitarian operations around the world.

But since Tuesday, when the government shut down because of a bitter partisan congressional battle over the Affordable Care Act, there has been a new normal.

And for the 927th, that means that nearly all of the unit's 152 full-time civilians like Huff are gone.

“This is what I have left,” said Schwartz, in a phone call Thursday afternoon. “I have five total people here in my wing, doing work.”

Those people are doing some mandatory year-end paperwork, but most everything else the wing does has come to a grinding halt, including this weekend's training drill, which had been in the works for a year.

The wing's nearly 900 members — at least 60 coming from out of state, — have already made plans with family and employers to spend a weekend training at MacDill. But that training has been put off indefinitely and rescheduling it is a huge logistical nightmare for all involved, said Schwartz.

Adding to the woes is a loss of training, he said, especially for young pilots who need to fly as often as possible to maintain their proficiency.

Since the shutdown, the wing, unlike the 6th Air Mobility Wing, has ceased all flying operations, said Schwartz.

“We have pilots who fly for airlines and have 10,000 flying hours,” said Schwartz. “I'm not as worried about them as I am about the very young lieutenants who need to fly a couple of times a week.”

The same concern holds true for boom operators, who operate the tankers' refueling arms. They too need a certain number of contacts with other aircraft in midair to stay trained and none of that is happening, Neither are any of the wing's other functions, said Schwartz.

But an even bigger concern is how all this is affecting the men and women, like Huff, who won't be getting paychecks. Like Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing, said on Wednesday, these furloughs, on top of the six unpaid days off that resulted from the automatic spending cuts called sequestration, are creating a double whammy.

“It's been a challenge,” he says.

It is a challenge that the Tampa area, which has long enjoyed a strong relationship with the military, seems to be stepping up to help.

On Wednesday, DeThomas said that he has been getting many calls from companies offering part-time or temporary work. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has launched an outreach effort to its members, looking for companies who can help, with discounts on goods and services for military and those furloughed.

“We are looking for companies that are offering any type of discount, considerations etc. for those affected by the furlough so that there is a one-stop location for military/civilian employees to visit to see who is offering discounts that may be relevant to them during this time,” Felicia Harvey, the chamber's director of communications, said in an email to The Tribune. Those interested in helping can go to http://www.tampachamber.com/militarydiscounts.

There are also a number of financial institutions, like USAA, Navy Federal Credit and Grow Financial, among others, have come forward with efforts to help those furloughed bridge the pay gap.

“We are closely monitoring the current situation at MacDill Air Force Base and are working on a specialty zero percent loan product to advance pay for the active duty personnel and base employees who are members,” said Grow Financial spokeswoman Adrienne Drew. “As a member-owned credit union, we value our members and empathize with the financial challenges they may face. For any member at MacDill Air Force Base who is adversely affected by the government shutdown, we urge them to contact our Member Contact Center at 1-800-839-6328.”

That is critical, DeThomas said on Wednesday, particularly when so many of the civilian employees relying on security clearances which require clean credit reports to maintain.

Huff, the 927th Air Refueling Wing spokesman, said that while he is in for some turbulence over the horizon, a dozen-plus years in the Air Force has prepared him to handle the bumpy ride.

“One thing you learn in the Air Force is that flexibility is the key to air power,” said Huff. “I have learned that flexibility is also the key to life, which often takes a turn in a way that you don't plan for. It is how you react and respond that can usually have a large impact on your attitude, perspective and outcome.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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