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Md. Guard to delay drills to save $1.5 million

Army National Guard units in Maryland and across the country are postponing drills this month to help the National Guard Bureau close an unexpected budget shortfall, officials said Tuesday.

If Congress does not find the money to close the gap, they said, the drills could be canceled.

About 3,900 Maryland guardsmen would be sidelined during September to save $1.5 million — part of an effort to trim the Guard's overall budget by tens of millions of dollars in coming weeks, said Col. Charles Kohler of the Maryland National Guard.

The unusual decision to delay drills will not affect Maryland guardsmen who are preparing to deploy or have recently returned from assignments, Kohler said. But the interruption could complicate training schedules for some units, and it jeopardizes the consistency of regular, monthly drills.

"We're at a very high level of training, as a result of the many mobilizations and deployments we've had, but we're always concerned about maintaining that high level of readiness," Kohler said. "We're concerned about being disruptive to the planning cycle."

The Maryland Army National Guard has about 4,750 soldiers and an annual budget of more than $150 million. Just over 100 are currently deployed in the Horn of Africa, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Estonia and the Balkans.

Army National Guard leaders in Ohio, Delaware, Hawaii and Guam have announced that they would postpone drills this month. Other states are expected to follow.

State officials said the National Guard Bureau is attempting to close a roughly $100 million shortfall in the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

The Department of Defense is expected to ask Congress to reallocate money from other funds to cover the cost of the drills, which would allow Maryland to reschedule its training.

Absent congressional action, Kohler, said, the drills could be canceled.

"The National Guard is committed to resolving the issue with [the] least impact to our citizen-soldiers and ensuring they are ready for missions whether at home or overseas," said National Guard Bureau spokesman Jeremy Webster.

Lawmakers are expected to pass a short-term spending bill this month to keep the federal government running past the midterm elections in November. Congress is also expected to address a long list of "reprogramming" requests for the current budget year that allow agencies to shift money from accounts that are flush to those that are running low.

The Guard last interrupted monthly and annual training during the government shutdown last October.

Military officials said the shortfall this year has been driven by a reduction in mobilizations, which has led to more guardsmen attending drills while reducing the amount of active-duty training pay that is drawn from elsewhere in the budget.

Guardsmen also have been passing specialized training courses at historically high rates, which has put a greater number back into the mix for monthly drills.

"The bottom line is, we have more people coming to drill than we expected," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, a private group that plans to press Congress for a legislative fix this month.

In addition to delaying training, the Maryland Army National Guard will shift some responsibilities to different personnel, Kohler said. For instance, for the annual Fallen Warrior ceremony, the Guard will rely more heavily this year on full-time staff, whose pay comes from different funds.

The cuts will not affect the Maryland Air National Guard, he said.

Most Guard members serve part time unless mobilized by the president or the governor.

The National Guard is confronting the same budget cuts that have hit civilian agencies. The Pentagon recently recommended reducing the number of guardsmen nationwide by 10 percent — from 350,000 soldiers to as few as 315,000 by 2019.

In Maryland, that could mean the loss of 400 to 500 soldiers.

The Maryland Guard has made more than 11,500 deployments since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Some members have deployed two or three times.

Maryland guardsmen have served in the infantry, special forces and the military police, flown close-air support for ground troops, detained enemy fighters, mentored Afghan army and police officers, provided security, transported personnel and equipment, and performed maintenance.

Twelve have been killed in action. The most recent was Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II, a former Baltimore County schoolteacher who was shot to death in Kabul, Afghanistan, in February 2012.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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