The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce fears that a continuation of proposed Army budget cuts totaling $95 billion under the federal government’s sequestration could result in a local impact as high as $382 million from proposed reductions in personnel at Fort Sam Houston/Camp Bullis and Joint Base San Antonio.
That impact includes the potential loss of 3,949 soldiers and 1,985 civilians from Ft. Sam Houston/Camp Bullis, according to the chamber.
Representatives from the U.S. Army Chief of Staff at the Pentagon and Army Headquarters heard from a diverse group of civic and business leaders assembled in a town hall forum on Tuesday in San Antonio that drew about 1,200 attendees.
Col. Tom O’Donoghue said previous budget cuts may have affected “a little fluff and fur, but now we’re talking about cutting into muscle and bone.” If full sequestration continues into next year and beyond, the Army can expect to see its so-called active component strength decline from a wartime high of 570,000 soldiers to 420,000 soldiers, or a loss of 26%, according to the U.S. Army’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.
Col. O’Donoghue spoke at the Army’s “listening session,” the last of 30 stops on a cross-country tour that was held at the Bexar County Exposition Hall at Freeman Coliseum.
Mayor Ivy R. Taylor, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Congressman Lamar Smith, and Lieutenant General Perry Wiggins, commander of U.S. Army North/Senior Commander at Fort Sam Houston and Camp Bullis spoke, along with UTSA president Dr. Ricardo Romo and Texas A&M San Antonio’s retired chief of staff and vice president of strategic initiatives Major General (retired) Charles Rodriguez, and a host of others.
The cuts as proposed are not discretionary, though, but controlled by the federal Budget Control Act of 2011, which provides direction in the absence of Congressional agreement. The listening sessions are part of a Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Assessment (SPEA), one of several analyses the Pentagon is conducting to learn more about the local impact of continuing federal budget cuts, all part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The budget cuts continue in effect if Congress can’t come to an agreement about what measures to take.
“No decision will be made” based on the results of today’s session, Col. O’Donoghue said afterward. But the listening tours provide valuable input into how budget planning assumptions are made and adjusted. Fort Stewart, Georgia was the first stop and this week representatives of the Department of the Army will return to Washington to crunch numbers and detail their findings from the individual cities on the tour. A report will be produced sometime this summer.
Afterwards, both Col. O’Donoghue and his colleague, Lt. Col. David Youngblood, spoke favorably about their time in San Antonio, often called Military City USA. Indeed, the pride that San Antonio takes in its military connection was evident from every speaker who contributed to the discussion, either at the podium or at a microphone in the audience afterward.
The tremendous accomplishments of military medicine in San Antonio, including the location here at Brooke Army Military Medical Center (BAMMC) which has the only Department of Defense Level One trauma center in the world, were touted by a number of speakers, including Dan Cruz, membership director of the nonprofit Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) of San Antonio, and Ann Stevens, president of BioMed SA.
Casandra Matej, executive director of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, spoke about the significant economic impart the military segment has on the travel and tourism sector. Travel and tourism is the city’s fifth largest industry, according to Matej, with 31 million visitors a year. Up to 10% of the city’s convention business is generated by military and government, representing $40 million over the past three years. Even the Army’s All-American bowl game, with 40,000 attendees, generated more than $1.5 million in direct spending, Matej said.
“We’re not just talking about 6,000 individuals. These folks have families here – they work here, buy homes, their children attend school in San Antonio. The impact of losing nearly 15,000 people in our community would hurt,” said Richard Perez, San Antonio Chamber CEO and president.
With 30,000 students and a commitment to veterans that “goes beyond the classroom,” UTSA has strong connections to the military, said UTSA President Dr. Ricardo Romo. “Budget reductions would have a significant impact on our ability to provide services.”
UTSA’s connection to both the U.S. Army Reserves and the 24th Air Force Command was one of the reasons Romo credited for being able to build the number one cybersecurity program in the U.S. Romo was one of the only speakers to mention cybersecurity, often more associated with the Air Force than the Army in San Antonio.
Congressman Lamar Smith said he lives two blocks away from Fort Sam Houston, allowing him to be acutely aware of its impact in the community. About 154,000 veterans make Bexar County their home, he said, many of them retired, making San Antonio “the third largest Army retirement community in the country.”
Retired Army Major General Alfred Valenzuela said the budget cuts will also have an economic impact on veterans who retire in San Antonio, including the often-overlooked “staff sergeants of E6 (rank) and below,” who he felt represented about 80% of veteran retirees in San Antonio. Valenzuela works in the nonprofit community to provide services to veterans.
Dan Cruz, who works in the health information management sector, detailed a great many local Army accomplishments in his extemporaneous remarks at the program’s close.
“The Army leads the way here in San Antonio in a great many ways,” Cruz said. “What you’ve invested here in San Antonio is a leadership role in a great many of the different missions.
“So we’re not just talking (about) Joint Base San Antonio. We’re talking ‘Joint Mission San Antonio.’ And I ask you please, don’t dismantle the leadership positions you’ve established here.”
No decision will be reached by the Army based on the listening session, but participants could be sure that the Army representatives went back to Washington with a positive earful from local civic leaders about how much the extended relationship means to the city and in many cases to them personally.
*Featured/top image: Army and Pentagon representatives speak and listen during the Army’s “listening session.” Photo by Lily Casura.