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Groton - U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., toured the Connecticut National Guard's aviation facility in Groton Friday, where 137 military technicians have been furloughed because of automatic federal spending cuts.
The helicopter maintenance technicians, who work at the National Guard Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group, lost 20 percent of their pay starting July 8, with furloughs scheduled every Monday through mid-September.
"This facility is vital to our military readiness," Blumenthal said.
The Groton facility repairs mostly Black Hawk helicopters for units in 14 northeastern states, extending as far west as Ohio. The furloughs have resulted in 1,096 hours of production lost per week, which translates into 8 percent of available labor hours and delays in making repairs, said Lt. Col. Robert Burnside, facility commander.
"It should never have come to this," said Col. John Whitford, spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard, who is among those furloughed.
Blumenthal said the cuts are unacceptable, especially given a decision by the U.S. Department of Defense to spend $1.11 billion on a contract with a Russian company to provide helicopters for the Afghan military. He said a recent report by the Special Inspector General found that the Afghans do not have the pilots to fly the helicopters or the technicians to repair them.
"These helicopters will be sitting on a runway wasting taxpayer money" while local military technicians are furloughed, Blumenthal said.
The Groton National Guard facility employs 49 full-time soldiers and 160 contractors in addition to helicopter technicians. The facility worked on 74 helicopters last year and had a budget of $77 million for parts alone.
Blumenthal said he was struck during the tour by the scale of work and extent of repairs. "They're not just fiddling with a screw but they're taking the helicopters apart and putting them back together," he said.
Connecticut's method of repairs is being cited as a model by facilities elsewhere in the nation, Blumenthal added.
Sgt. First Class Christian Mueller, a technician in Groton since 2005, said he knew the furloughs were coming, so he prepared himself. "You're never happy about that sort of thing but it's not like it came as a surprise," said Mueller, 43. But he said not everyone had a financial cushion.
Mueller added that most of those at the facility just returned from a deployment. "The National Guard has always had to fight to show that we're just as good as active duty" soldiers, he said. He was deployed to Kuwait twice, from 2003 to 2004 and from 2008 to 2009, then to Afghanistan in 2012.
Mueller said the Guard mechanics will get through the furloughs and demonstrate again their importance in the military. "It's just another hurdle that we're going to go over," he said.