For the first time in her nearly 27 years in the Air Force, Maj. Teresa Rivers faced a board of officers this summer who debated whether she should be retired from the service.
Rivers, 46, an acquisition manager near Fort Belvoir, Virginia, who specializes in information technology and software programs, said the panel ultimately decided to let her stay in uniform. But the prior enlisted member has noticed a change in the outlooks of her colleagues in recent months as the service detailed plans to downsize the force.
"What's sad about the whole situation is, everybody is just trying to take care of themselves," she said in a telephone interview with Military.com. "It's not service before self, it's self before service."
Like the Army and the Marine Corps, the Air Force is shrinking after more than a decade of war, as the Obama administration moves to draw down troops in Afghanistan and comply with automatic budget cuts. The dismissals of service members who've served honorably and in harm's way are spurring feelings of uncertainty throughout the ranks, particularly in the officer corps, some airmen say.
The Defense Department's fiscal 2015 budget calls for an active-duty military of about 1.31 million service members, a decrease of nearly 37,000 troops from this year, according to budget documents. The manpower reductions are designed in part to curb rising personnel costs.
While the bulk of the year-over-year decline will come from the Army, the active Air Force is slated to lose 11,300 airmen for a total end-strength of almost 311,000 airmen in fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1, part of a plan to shed some 19,000 airmen over the next five years, according to budget documents and figures provided by an Air Force spokeswoman.
Chet Curtis, a spokesman for the Air Force Association, an advocacy organization based in Arlington, Virginia, said the actual figures will be greater than the estimates included in the budget documents. The number of active-duty billets is slated to drop by 16,700, not 11,300, he said. That means the Air Force's active component will contract by about 5 percent rather than 3.5 percent.
"Our most valuable resource is our people," he said in an e-mail. "Recruiting and retaining high-quality airmen is vital to maintaining a ready Air Force. The Air Force must be careful in the way it balances the force so it doesn't affect readiness."
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Air Force Chief Master Sgt. James Cody will discuss the force changes and other issues next week at the association's annual conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
Exactly how many airmen will face forced dismissals, or involuntary separations, remains unclear. The Pentagon is waiting for Congress to vote on the annual defense spending bill, which authorizes funding for end-strength levels.
"Until we have an appropriation, we're not sure whether we'll be allowed to execute the tough decisions we made in FY15," Air Force Capt. Brooke Brzozowske, a spokeswoman for the service at the Pentagon, said in an e-mail.
"We must size and shape the force to meet DoD strategic guidance for a leaner force," she added. "To do this, we will use every available force-shaping tool and do everything we can to maximize voluntary programs first, to include offering monetary separation incentives."
The Air Force offered voluntary separation pay to thousands of service members who had between six and 15 years of service, Brzozowske said. It also offered temporary early retirement authority -- or 15-year retirement -- to staff sergeants through senior master sergeants and captains through lieutenant colonels in certain specialty codes, and expanded a waiver program so troops could transfer to the Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard.
Even so, thousands of airmen have already been told their active-duty careers are likely over as a result of decisions made by various officer boards that convened this year.
More than 3,500 enlisted members through the rank of senior master sergeant were let go under a Quality Force Review Board; 1,400 personnel were dismissed under enlisted personnel boards; more than 200 officers in the ranks of first lieutenant through captain were let go under a force-shaping board; and almost 100 officers were let go under an Enhanced Selective Early Retirement Board, according to information provided by Brzozowske.
More reductions will hit captains and majors as the service convenes a reduction-in-force, or RIF, board this fall. The panel is expected to begin its work Oct. 1.
In July, the Air Force issued a press release announcing it would be eliminating more than 3,400 military and civilian positions at headquarter units across the service as part of a larger Pentagon effort to reduce overhead costs by as much as 20 percent over five years. The move was estimated to save the service $1.6 billion.
Maj. Douglas Templeton, 48, a logistics readiness officer at the headquarters of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, who has made numerous deployments to the Middle East and elsewhere over nearly three decades in the service, said he's among those getting his walking papers.
"I'm being downsized essentially because I have so many years prior service," he said in a telephone interview, referring to the fact that he served as an enlisted member before being commissioned as an officer. "I'm essentially being asked to retire."
While he was disappointed by the news, Templeton also said he understood why the service is taking steps to meet the bottom line.
"Since people cost the most money, that's usually the area where you have to start," he said. "You can't get rid of equipment in many places because the use of that is what keeps Americans safe."
Even so, Templeton added, "there's a lot of uncertainty.
"There are a lot of folks like me who are very much concerned because they had planned to do careers in the Air Force and now they're facing boards where they could potentially be separated and some of them are being separated," he said.
Similarly, Rivers -- the acquisition manager -- said she has mixed feelings about the force reductions. On the one hand, they're motivating people to work harder at their jobs and other responsibilities such as physical training, professional education and volunteering, she said. On the other hand, they're hurting morale, she said.
"It's good in a way that it keeps us on our toes -- I can't just come in at 8 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m. and pass PT and assume I'll be good to go," she said. "But at the same time, it's really affecting the morale of the people."
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at Brendan.McGarry@monster.com.