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The Pentagon has begun a "deep dive" review of more than 170 military family and recreation programs on bases worldwide to identify redundancies and efficiencies -- all the while insisting that the effort is not aimed at scrapping facilities in the new era of tight budgets.
Pentagon officials said that Army daycare programs, the focus of an ongoing investigation over the hiring of more than 30 workers with criminal backgrounds Fort Meyer, Va., were also included in the 120-day task force review.
"We're going to be peeling these back, looking for redundancies," said Charles Milam, the acting deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, about the programs targeted for the data-driven review that he leads.
The purpose of the review is to "identify efficiencies," Milam said, but "we expect to deliver the same or better services" after the task force completes its work in May and reports back to Jessica Wright, the acting under secretary of defense for Personnel and Readiness.
"We really need to find out which ones are effective and which ones aren't" in the vast array of services for military families, said Milam. His job portfolio includes responsibility for all base quality of life issues ranging from family and casualty assistance to commissary and exchange services.
At a Family Readiness Council meeting at the Pentagon last month, and in a followup session with reporters, Milam stressed repeatedly that the looming military spending cuts dictated by sequestration "is not one of our guiding principles" for the review.
"If we find efficiencies there will be savings," Milam said, but his main concern was this: "Are the programs that we have today reaching our servicemembers and their families."
"The services are working through preparations planning for cuts," Milam said. "[This review] has nothing to do with looming sequestration or budget cuts. There is no goal to do that."
However, several other participants at the Family Readiness Council meeting last month suggested that sequestration would likely be a factor in Milam's review. The military stands to lose $500 billion from planned defense spending over the next ten years should Congress fail to come to an agreement that averts sequestration cuts scheduled to start on March 1.
Navy Cmdr. Chris Davis, the chief liason between the Defense Department and the Family Readiness Council, noted the "requirement to reduce program cost" hanging over all department activities in the current fiscal climate.
"We should not underestimate the challenge of getting to the point where we have to make hard decisions about programs," said Marine Brig. Gen. Robert Hedelund, director of Marine and family programs. "We know which direction the budget is going."
Funding for Army family programs more than doubled to a total of $1.3 billion from 2008 to 2013.
However, the Army Times reported on an internal Army memo stating that "installation services will be cut back" and "mess halls will merge" if the projected funding cuts take place.
"Funding for soldier and family programs such as the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program, Soldier Family Assistant Centers and the Army Substance Abuse Program will be reduced," the Army memo stated.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Army Secretary John McHugh, warned of the potential for major cutbacks in family programs at the Association of the U.S. Army meeting in Washington, D.C. in October.
"Over time, we're going to have to decide what programs we think are the most important" on a range of existing initiatives, Odierno said.
"These are the things that are going to be difficult," Odierno said at a Military Family Forum at the AUSA meeting. "We're going to have to decide what we need and what we don't need" Odierno said in response to questions from the audience.
At an earlier news conference, both Odierno and McHugh said that family programs would get priority in their decisions on what to retain under budget cuts that are already underway and could be increased exponentially if sequester becomes a reality.
"Whether it's PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) issues or separation issues, we've got to make sure they're adequately funded," McHugh said.
Odierno had much the same message for Congress on military family programs in testimony last week to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
Odierno warned that even programs to boost the number of counselors and therapists to combat military suicides – one of the Army's top priorities – would be at risk under sequester.
"We will not be able to afford the number of counselors we have today," Odierno said.
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