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Norfolk, Va. - With family members waving from a pier, sailors aboard a Navy destroyer left for an overseas mission with more uncertainty than ever about their homecoming as potentially massive budget cuts reshape military plans.
The political hick-hack in Congress over the budget is having real-life consequences for service members in the Navy and maybe soon in other branches. It comes at a time when some military families were getting used to deployments coming back down to normal lengths after more than a decade of two wars, when the Pentagon routinely extended the time forces stayed in the field.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry headed out Thursday for what was supposed to be a six-month deployment in Europe as part of a NATO plan to provide a ballistic-missile shield for the continent. The Navy has warned that tours like this one could be extended for unspecified periods after billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts known as sequestration take place March 1, unless Congress acts to avert them.
Among the military impacts, the Navy has said the cuts will mean less money for training and maintenance and that it could take longer to prepare crews to deploy as a result. The Navy has said that it would also deploy fewer ships to fewer places and that those that are sent out could spend longer stints at sea with fewer port calls to boost morale.
The possibility of extended deployments adds to the uncertainty that already accompanies military families.
"Even before the budget cuts and everything, you never have a set time that they're going to be home. I mean, they have a date, but that can always change so you always have that little bit of a worry that it's going to be longer than you think," said Robin Lunsford, whose husband Robert is an electronics technician aboard the Barry.
It's not just a concern for sailors, but for Marines, soldiers and airmen who continually deploy around the globe.
"If the military because of budget issues downsizes too much, does that mean that the fewer people who are left are going to have to deploy more?" asked Joyce Raezer, executive director at the National Military Family Association. "That's a real concern in the military community."
Many Navy tours crept up to seven or eight months from the typical six months while the Iraq war raged, with ships dotting the nearby waters to supply all kinds of support, from hosting warplanes to maintaining floating hospitals. The Army, the largest force on the ground in the wars, upped tour lengths in Iraq to 15 months from a year for the troop surge in 2007 to combat escalating violence.
The toll that extended and repeated deployments can take on sailors and their families isn't lost on Navy leaders. They created an expansive wellness campaign last year that targets alcohol abuse, among other problems, that they were concerned about after a decade of war.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced the campaign during an all-hands call aboard the USS Bataan. The amphibious transports Marines that had recently completed the longest deployment for a Navy ship in nearly 40 years - at more than 10 months. At the time, he noted that the operational pace for the Navy and the Marines wasn't expected to slow down as the military shifted its focus to the Pacific.
There's also concern in the military community about how the cuts could affect programs meant to assist military families.
"I think a lot of our worry is access to some of the support services, whether it is counseling programs for kids, or programs to help families who are dealing with deployments, or programs that help military spouses find jobs when they move to a new community," Raezer said.
She said the services and programs that families depend on are staffed by federal employees who work for the military services, who have already been told to expect furloughs starting in March.
"Who is going to be there to support the family when they need that support service?" she said.
The Barry deployed a day after another ship's tour was canceled because of the looming cuts. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indefinitely halted the USS Harry S. Truman from heading to the Middle East, leaving just one carrier in the region.
USS Barry Cmdr. Thomas J. Dickinson said part of being in the Navy is the ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
"Anytime you go on a deployment you tell the crew, 'This is what we're scheduled for and if requirements change you have to be flexible.' And we talk to the families about that as well because that's who it's really hard on because they're holding down the fort while we're away doing our job," said Dickinson, the ship's commanding officer.
"Everybody reads the news and we talk about it, but one thing I don't do with the crew is give them any kind of speculation. That just kind of jerks them around a little bit. So I give them the facts, I give them what I know, when I know it."
For other sailors, being flexible means unexpectedly staying in port when they had already canceled apartment leases, cellphone contracts and put items into storage
Seaman William Neild had already given up his apartment ahead of Friday's planned departure for the Truman. His wife had also already made plans to move to Illinois for the duration of his expected six- to eight-month deployment. He now plans to spend his nights aboard the Truman until it is finally given orders to deploy again.
"It's just a lot of frustration," he said.
The potential for the cuts to kick in is the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon faces a $42.7 billion budget cut in the seven months starting in March and ending in September. The automatic cuts would be in addition to a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.