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Rollbacks continue to take toll

Record number of enlisted may be pushed out

Jul. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Marching out by May 31: Air Force E-9s or below are among 1,829 who volunteered to separate from the service.
Marching out by May 31: Air Force E-9s or below are among 1,829 who volunteered to separate from the service. (Patrick Dove/San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times)
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This year, the cash-strapped Air Force is likely to force out the most enlisted airmen in a decade under date-of-separation rollbacks as it struggles to trim its ranks.

So far, the service has separated 1,829 airmen under the first wave of DOS rollbacks that ended May 31, said Lt. Col. Jason Knight, deputy chief of the Air Force’s military force policy division. The Air Force said last month it needs to cut 600 more airmen when it announced a second wave of DOS rollbacks that will run through Sept. 20.

If that holds, it would mean the early discharge of more than 2,400 airmen through DOS rollbacks in 2013 — far more than the 2,153 separated last year, and even more than the 2,278 who were discharged in 2010, previously the highest number of separations since the most recent wave of rollbacks began in 2004.

And the news could get worse for enlisted airmen who have had some bumps: More rollbacks could be coming in fiscal 2014.

“That’s not something we’ve finalized, but I do think that is a possibility,” Knight said.

Retired Col. Terry Stevens, a former Air Force personnel expert, said he’s not surprised that DOS rollback separations may hit record levels.

“It’s the sequester — when you can’t pay people, you’ve got to get rid of them,” Stevens said. “Involuntary rollbacks created tremendous problems for the active-duty member and the member’s family. Nobody likes those things. But it’s one of the necessary evils where you get caught up in strength limitations.”

DOS rollbacks speed up the date of separation for select airmen in grades E-8 and below who have fewer than 14 years or more than 20 years of total active federal military service. Airmen who end up on the list have either done something wrong or made a decision that left them with a black mark on their record.

Airmen who have declinedretraining into a new job, refused a permanent change-of-station order or otherwise refused retainability, were previously denied re-enlistment or who are awaiting discharge for cause will automatically be separated, Knight said.

But other airmen — those serving on a suspended Article 15, or nonjudicial punishment, who are serving on a control roster, or who have had an Article 15 or grade reduction — may get a second chance. Knight said their commanding officers could decide not to separate them.

Under the first phase of the 2013 rollbacks, commanding officers were able to decide not to separate airmen who had five days lost time on their current enlistment, such as by being in confinement or AWOL. But in the second phase of this year’s rollbacks, those airmen will automatically be separated.

The Air Force was unable to provide statistics by July 5 breaking out the reasons airmen were separated under the rollback.

One of the highest-profile airmen forced out by recent rollbacks is Senior Airman Dcoridrion Hicks, a former military training instructor who lost a stripe for name-calling and working late in his office, which was located in a female dormitory. Hicks was punished in an Article 15, an administrative proceeding that does not rise to the level of court-martial. He must leave by Sept. 20.

When the latest round of rollbacks was announced in June, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody had harsh words for those who might fall under them.

“People who have put themselves in a situation where their performance or their behavior has been less than that required of the standards of service are going to be the first who we’re going to have to consider and probably no longer allow to serve,” Cody said. “People would like to say our Air Force is targeting them, but what really has happened is these airmen who have done these types of things have made themselves candidates for these programs.”

Separation pay eligibility

But rolled-back airmen who have more than six years of service but fewer than 14 years of total active service could receive half separation pay if they agree to serve in the Individual Ready Reserve for at least three years. Full separation pay amounts to 10 percent of an airman’s basic pay, multiplied by his years of service. That means a staff sergeant with eight years of service, earning a base salary of $34,142, would receive a payment of $13,657 if he was rolled back.

The Air Force was unable to provide statistics on how many airmen received half separation pay, what the average half separation pay was, and how much the Air Force spent in total.

Knight said the Air Force offers separated airmen this pay — which is required by law — to ease their transition back to civilian life as much as possible, and give them a little cushion while they pursue new employment opportunities.

“From a contractual obligation, we told the airman, ‘We originally weren’t going to separate you until date X, but I’m sorry, now we’ve changed our mind, we’re going to push that forward to date Y,’” Knight said. “That affects the airman and their planning and their transition to civilian life. We don’t want to push off onto society some folks who just aren’t prepared.”

Even airmen who have done something to merit nonjudicial punishment may have had an opportunity to rehabilitate and redeem themselves had they been able to stay longer in the Air Force, Knight said, and deserve that payment as a result.

“It’s not that we want to separate folks with Article 15s,” Knight said. “It’s that we just need to meet end strength, and this is a way to do that. If that weren’t in play, they would have had time to serve out their punishment, the commander would have had additional time to observe their performance and make a revised recommendation at a later date. This program eliminates that possibility. So the half separation pay is one way for us to compensate for doing that.”

Knight said airmen should be aware of the consequences of deciding to refuse a PCS or retraining, and should not be surprised if they end up subject to a DOS rollback. And airmen who had, for example, an Article 15 should already be talking to their commanding officer on how to improve their performance, he said. It shouldn’t take the possibility of a rollback and a commanding officer’s possible reprieve for troubled airmen to open up lines of communication.

“They should have a pretty good feel from their chain of command already as to, ‘Am I proceeding along the right path?’” Knight said. “I would hope that the airmen would have been asking those questions immediately upon the action itself, rather than waiting for something like a DOS rollback to come along.”

But in today’s sequester-driven and cash-strapped environment, Knight said the Air Force could potentially explore other ways to trim its ranks that don’t come with legally required separation payments. Knight said he could not speculate on what alternatives the Air Force might consider.

“If sequestration has taught me nothing, it’s that everything is on the table,” Knight said. “Budget is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. But I also know that one of the chief’s priorities is taking care of airmen and their families. And that’s from cradle to grave, not just during their time in service. But there’s definitely a balancing act there, and that’s definitely something we’re going to take into consideration.”

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