Looming budget cuts not only are stoking anxiety among troops but also fundamentally changing how they think about the military, the services' top enlisted leaders told House lawmakers Wednesday.
"Thirty years ago, if you were a good airman and worked hard, you could serve for 20 years. I'm not sure you can say the same today," said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody, who added that budget uncertainty "is curtailing the ability to serve."
All the services face potential drawdowns in coming years as part of post-war defense funding cuts and looming sequestration budget caps, set to go into effect again this fall after a brief hiatus.
Pentagon budget planners have lamented those budget restraints as dangerous to national security, but over the last three years Congress has not found any realistic compromise to replace or dismiss the spending caps. Lawmakers have promised to redouble their efforts to find a solution this year, but so far shown little public progress.
On Wednesday, the enlisted leaders said the looming threats are not just theoretical concerns, but are provoking immediate anxiety in the ranks, with service members expressing fears about what the budget moves will mean to their readiness, pay, and career options.
Army officials already have said they'll have to trim their service's ranks to about 420,000 soldiers — if not more — by the end of the decade if the sequestration cuts aren't repealed. "We may have to tell good soldiers to go home," said Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel Dailey.
Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Stevens said sailors also have begun asking about possible pay cuts, equipment losses and training reductions as they look at coming years' budgets.
"They are concerned," he told lawmakers. "Uncertainty in the geopolitical and operational world is understandable. However, ambiguity in areas that we control, such as sequestration, are not so easily understood by them."
Stevens called sequestration "a forced diet," adding that "over the last few years, we've lost all the weight we could afford to lose. There's no more fat."
All the enlisted leaders expressed support for Pentagon plans for pay and compensation in coming years, pledging that they will not support any reduction in troops' salaries.
That doesn't necessarily translate into robust pay hikes, however. The services have backed a 1.3 percent pay raise for 2016, which would be one percentage point below the expected rise in average private-sector wages next year. The military raises for both 2014 and this year also lagged private-sector wage growth.
The enlisted leaders told lawmakers they are confident that even with the belt-tightening, they can maintain a high quality of life for troops and their families — provided sequestration is repealed.
If not, said Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green, all aspects of military life will suffer.
Marines "should not have to deal with thinking about if they're going to have enough resources to go ahead and do our mission," Green said. "It's going to leave us in a position that is going to hurt, and affect our readiness."
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.