|By G. Michael Dobbs
Earl Bonett, the vice chair of the Massachusetts Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve looks on as Mayor Michael Bissonnette signs a pledge of support to the members of the national Giard and Reserves.
Reminder Publications photo by G. Michael Dobbs
CHICOPEE Municipal officials renewed their support for members of the National Guard and the military reserves as well as received an update on the status of Westover Air reserve base at a meeting of city department heads on March 12.
Col. Steven Vautrain, commander of the 439th Airlift Airwing, told the officials there are 759 civilian employees at the base, the largest reserve base in the nation and they will be facing a 20 percent reduction in pay due to the budget cuts of the sequester. Of those 759 personnel, 439 are federal employees on the weekdays and members of the Air Reserve on weekends.
While active duty military are exempt from the cuts, Vautrain expressed concern over the impact the funding reductions will have on the mission of the base. He explained the C5 transport planes have operational missions currently three of those are underway and strategic missions with a military objective. The base has 14 planes ready at all times.
"The sequester has taken a hit at all of that," Vautrain said.
He added that reservists make up 17 percent of the Air Force mission but only are given 4 percent of the budget.
Vautrain said one of his goals is "trying to take care of the civilian employees."
Another indication of the impact of budget cuts was an announcement made by the Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody on March 11 "that the Air Force has made the decision to suspend military tuition assistance for the remainder of the fiscal year, effective March 11, 2013. The suspension of tuition assistance applies to all components, including the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard."
Mayor Michael Bissonnette noted the cuts in pay at the base amount to about $2 million annually that will not make its way into the local economy. He added economists say that base's $240 million payroll has an impact on almost $1 billion locally.
Bissonnette also addressed the potential reassignment of eight of the transport planes from Westover to Lackland Air Force Base. He said that Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently spent several hours at Westover discussing the impact of that move. Vautrain said Warren was "very engaged" about the proposed move.
Vautrain also noted that with service men and women returning from overseas and leaving the military as well as budget drawdowns, the issue of service to vets is important.
Kimberly Babin, the city's veterans' agent, said, "The goal of our office is to take care of veterans."
Babin said currently Chicopee is the only city on the area in which there isn't a single veteran on its rolls who is unemployed. She urged the department heads to let her office know of any job opening for any returning veteran.
Earl Bonett, the vice chair of the Massachusetts Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, spoke of the growing number of veterans today and said, "When you are in harm's way the last thing you want to think about is whether or not you have a job."
Bonnet's organization works with employers, such as the city of Chicopee, to inform them of their obligations to Guard and Reserve members who are called for active duty. He also acts as an ombudsman between an employer and a member of the military and advocates for the employment of vets.
At the conclusion of the meeting the department heads, led by Bissonnette, signed a statement of support for the Guard and the Reserve.
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