On A Mission In Australia, News of Army Cuts Trickles in Via Family, Social Media

The Army will be cutting thousands of positions from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, with the majority expected to come from the 4-25th Airborne Brigade. This week hundreds of troops from that unit are currently in Australia on a training mission. Many of the soldiers heard about the cuts  for the first time from family or on social media.

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Members of the 4-25th Airborne Brigade of JBER load up on a C-130 during exercise Talisman-Saber. Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA.
Members of the 4-25th Airborne Brigade of JBER load up on a C-130 during exercise Talisman Saber. Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA.

Specialist Jesse Reed hasn’t really been keeping up with the news. After 19 hours of flying from JBER, he jumped into a remote corner of eastern Australia near Shoalwater Bay as part of joint exercise Talisman Saber, a training mission. After spending the night in a field next to an airstrip — he learned about the cuts Thursday afternoon.

“Just got a text message from my friend leading me to a news article talking about the cuts for U.S. Army Alaska.”

Reed’s been at JBER for two-and-a-half years, and though disappointed, he says this isn’t the end of the world for him.

“Not out of a job tomorrow. Finish out my time here, do my re-enlistment, then go wherever I choose to go or the Army sends me.”

By the time all 2,631 positions are cut 2017 the brigade will be left with just under 1,000 personnel — too few for a full combat brigade. But according to Captain Chase Spears, a veteran of 4-25 assigned to US Army Alaska, the reduction won’t happen overnight.

Members of the 4-25th Airborne Brigade congregate under a rainbow during exercise Talisman Saber. Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA.
Members of the 4-25th Airborne Brigade congregate under a rainbow during exercise Talisman Saber. Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA.

“No one is showing up and being told ‘hey your position has gone away.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

In a drawdown, the Army tries to eliminate positions through attrition — leaving slots unfilled after soldiers move on to new postings. But some soldiers will likely have to be let go through what are called “involuntary separations,” to hit target goals over the next two years. By then, according to a Pentagon press conference Thursday, the brigade will be reconfigured as a battallion-sized task force. They’ll still be the only Army unit that’s able to do airborne operations in the Arctic, along with partner missions in the Pacific like Talisman Saber. But not at the level they’re currently able to do.

Even with some unknowns, the cuts will hurt soldiers who have put down roots in Alaska and can’t easily head on to a new posting, like Sergeant First Class Frank Petitta, who heard the news in the gym. When Petitta moved from North Carolina with his family, they saw appreciating home values and a community filled with military retirees in Wasilla.

“I wanted my family and my kids to enjoy Alaska, and I think that’s best done off-post, and so we decided to buy a house.”

According to the Army’s studies on economic impacts, a cut this size means a drop of $358 million from Anchorage’s economy — $182 million in loss of sales, $176 million income loss, according to Lt. Col Alan Brown of U.S. Army Alaska. Part of that loss is salaries going away for soldiers like Petitta who are further along in their careers and more likely to own property.

A Royal Australian Air Force No. 3 Squadron F/A-18 Hornet departs for a sortie at RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory, during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015. Photo: Talisman Sabre Facebook page.
A Royal Australian Air Force No. 3 Squadron F/A-18 Hornet departs for a sortie at RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory, during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015. Photo: Talisman Sabre Facebook page.

“The guys that have the equivalent rank of myself, that I would say the vast majority own houses—and I’m talking 70, 80 percent easy.”

One such guy is sitting a few feet away, Staff Sergeant Josh Schneiderman, who moved to Eagle River specifically for the good schools.

“We’re extremely worried, especially now. I mean, I’m very close to retirement and this drives a lot of things — because the ultimate goal for us was to move to Alaska and retire. And now with the close down it’s going to affect our decisions drastically.”

Now that worries from the last few months over whether or not cuts would come to JBER have been answered, Schneiderman says there’s a whole new set of concerns once he gets back to Alaska.

“I’m going to go home now and my wife’s probably going to inform me of the closure that everybody’s aware of. However — what am I supposed to tell her? That we’ll figure it out? I mean it’s hard, because you don’t know who’s going and you don’t know who’s staying.”

But before anything else, this airborne battalion from the 4-25th has one more day in Australia, a 19-hour plane ride, and another parachute jump back onto base.