More than 1,100 National Guard soldiers and airmen in Hawaii — and thousands in other states — will be living with 20 percent less pay over the next three months as the Defense Department carries out automatic federal budget cuts.
Guard members will be furloughed for one day a week starting Monday, so helicopter pilots and mechanics, pay and finance clerks and others who keep the guard operating will have eight hours less each week to do their jobs.
It’s not clear precisely what effects the unprecedented cuts will have. They could, however, make it more difficult for the Guard to fly helicopters to help put out wildfires or rush to the scene of natural disasters in trucks.
"Our general sense is that short-term, it’s going to be a terrible hardship for those soldiers, airmen and their families," said Hawaii National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony. "But if it goes on for any length of time, that may have a negative impact on our readiness and our ability to respond."
The military’s furloughs were only supposed to involve civilians, but large numbers of National Guard members who wear Army and Air Force uniforms full time will experience them as well. The National Guard added military technicians to the furlough list in May, after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave official notice to begin furloughs for civilians.
It’s not immediately clear how many uniformed personnel will be affected nationwide.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said the furloughs, which will affect nearly 1,000 guardsmen in his state, are his biggest concern for this summer’s hurricane season. The Pacific hurricane season also began June 1 and lasts through November.
Some units will be exempt, like the 169th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron responsible for tracking aircraft in the skies above Hawaii. The 199th Fighter Squadron, which protects Hawaii airspace with F-22 Raptors, will be somewhat shielded from the effects of the cuts because a large number of active-duty airmen work alongside them.
But many others will have to squeeze 40 hours of work into 32 hours and receive one-fifth less pay.
It could become difficult for mechanics to maintain helicopters and trucks at the same pace, meaning fewer aircraft and vehicles may be available when needed. Guardsmen who plan drills for the part-time soldiers and airmen who train on the weekend might have difficulty getting exercises ready.
"We don’t know what will fall by the wayside, because we’ve never had to do this before," Anthony said.
Commanders are trying to help guardsmen cope.
They invited financial and stress management counselors to talk to two groups of soldiers and airmen on Oahu, where the majority of Hawaii’s full-time guardsmen work and live. The guard is sending a DVD recording of one of the sessions to guardsmen and women on Kauai, Maui and Hawaii islands.
Maj. Gen. Darryll Wong, the adjutant general, advised more than 100 gathered Monday that the budget cuts could last into the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1, but it’s not known whether furloughs will continue.
He emphasized he was available to help, and shared his cellphone number with everyone in the room.
"You never want this to have happened to people under your watch," Wong said.
A financial counselor urged attendees to consider trimming unnecessary expenses like finance charges on credit cards, giving up cable TV and eating out less. He recommended telling children about the pay cuts and explaining why mom and dad can’t afford to buy the same things as before.
Guardsmen could think about the good things that could come from furloughs, a family counselor suggested, like having more time to spend with family.
Spc. Christian Pasco, 27, who paints Humvees and other equipment, said he plans to talk to a financial counselor because he needs "somebody to tell me to stop spending my money."
Sgt. 1st Class Soloman Makaneole, a helicopter electrician who just returned from a nine-month deployment to Kosovo, said his family already has been cutting spending by eating out less often and packing lunches. His wife, a civilian Army employee, and mother-in-law, who works for the Navy as a civilian, are also being furloughed.
"A lot of it is common sense," Makaneole said. "For some people it’s a shock because it’s probably something new to them. I’ve been without before so it’s not shocking. I can survive."