To understand just one aspect of the human cost of sequestration, consider the U.S. service members hunkered down at the American base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. In between missions to help the Afghan military defeat the Taliban, these service members are studying for college degrees under a Department of Defense program.
Soldiers take great pride in their education. Last May an enemy rocket attack that sent them scurrying to bunkers did not interrupt a graduation ceremony for long. The graduates grasped their mortarboards in one hand and their rifles in the other.
Completing their education is important to them and important for their careers.
Yet under the sequestration plan, money to educate these service members may be indiscriminately slashed along with everything else.
Each year, active duty members of the U.S. Military, National Guard and Reserves take more than 850,000 college classes while serving our nation.
Since the end of World War II, the federal government has recognized how essential advanced education has been to providing a strong defense. This has been especially true since the end of the military draft in 1973.
Our soldiers, airmen, Marines, sailors, and Guardsmen know how important educational benefits are. It is one of the reasons they enlist and risk their lives for their nation.
Sequestration, as it is now planned, would be a double hit for our country's military. Not only would it cut billions from the Defense Department's budget that would undermine readiness and training and require longer tours of duty overseas, it also could curtail the benefits promised our service personnel under the Military Tuition Assistance program.
Looking for ways to maintain training and readiness in the face of mandated cuts, the Pentagon could eliminate the education program entirely.
Now is not the time to do that. No matter what happens with sequestration, the military will be downsized in coming years. That means an increasing number of veterans will return to civilian life looking for jobs. And while the number has declined in recent months, veterans still have a higher unemployment rate than the general population. Nothing better predicts how successful veterans will be in finding work than their level of education and professional training.
It is true that the Veterans Administration is exempted from sequestration. Active military personnel can borrow from their VA education benefits while they still serve. But if they begin to draw down their VA benefits, what will be left when they separate or retire?
A cut is a cut.
The best way to ensure veteran employment, to keep veterans out of poverty, to reduce veteran crime, help veterans maintain their sense of self-worth and stem the rising number of veteran suicides is through education.
If we reduce or eliminate this opportunity, we are jeopardizing the single most important benefit -- besides health care -- that this country offers the military. It is self-defeating and it is morally wrong. Yet that is exactly what this sequester could do.
The indiscriminate nature of sequestration may take the decision out of the hands of military leadership no matter how much they personally understand the tremendous value of the education benefit.
Congress knew this when it imposed sequestration as a way to force itself to make difficult budget decisions. Sequestration is a sledgehammer so powerful that Congress would surely act reasonably before it fell.
But here we are. And one of the casualties of this indiscriminate act might be an essential part of maintaining a strong military with a high morale.
It is time to act reasonably.