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Traditions threatened by cuts, military academies brace for impact

Midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy display placards on their backs as the exit field before the start of the Army versus Navy N
Midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy display placards on their backs as the exit field before the start of the Army versus Navy N

By Gabriel Debenedetti

NEW YORK (Reuters) - United States military academies have trained America's future presidents, astronauts and generals, one of them for more than 200 years. But the schools' illustrious histories are not enough to spare them from looming budget cuts from sequestration, and they are preparing to furlough civilian employees, reduce training, delay construction and even scale back pomp and ceremony.

The full extent of how, and when, the cuts will affect the nation's five service academies is not yet clear. However, representatives of the U.S. Military Academy, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy and the Coast Guard Academy pointed to some potential effects.

They said the more than $1 billion expected to be cut from Defense Department training and recruiting could mean everything from furloughs of thousands of civilian employees to delayed construction to the suspension of programs like band tours and educational trips.

No one at the Merchant Marine Academy could be reached for comment.

"We haven't had anything close to this" level of budgetary restriction in the past, said Air Force spokesman Meade Warthen.

The Naval Academy's director of media relations, Jennifer Erickson, said about 1,500 non-contract civilian employees at the school could face cuts in their work hours.

"We are deeply concerned about the negative effects of furloughs on the morale and effectiveness of our valued civilian workforce," Erickson said, also noting the potential effects on the home city of the academy, Annapolis, Maryland, and on the region surrounding the academy.

Naval Academy summer training is under budgetary pressure, and Erickson said semester abroad programs could be canceled. Sixteen educational international summer trips - involving 170 students planning to go to Armenia, Chile, China, France, Georgia, Italy, Japan, Oman, Russia and Spain - were axed, and fifteen international spring break programs for 73 students had already been canceled.

Erickson also said faculty travel would be reduced and that the academy has already pared its admissions outreach program, with implications for future classes of midshipmen.

At West Point, the Military Academy will downsize its Summer Leaders Experience program for high school students, which can be the first step for some students on their way to admission to the competitive, tuition-free school.

Other cuts are already being implemented: At least two of the academies have imposed hiring freezes and West Point has postponed the construction of its first new dormitory since 1965, slated to house 650 cadets, according to the Poughkeepsie (New York) Journal.

Francis DeMaro of West Point's public affairs office also pointed to "travel restrictions, a hiring freeze, reduction of family and community programs, and an impending furlough" of more than 2,000 civilian employees.

Travel restrictions related to cadet training have also hit the Coast Guard Academy, said school spokesman David Santos.

Other student programs have been hit hard too, with the Air Force Academy's band forced to cancel all of its national public concerts.

Even graduation ceremonies will display a bit less pomp and circumstance. The Thunderbirds Air Force Demonstration Squadron was forced to cancel its 2013 season because of the sequestration and will not perform flyovers at the Air Force Academy graduation parade and ceremony in May, according to a March 8 Academy release.

The Academy also canceled its annual Independence Day fireworks show due to budgetary concerns about sequestration, according to a March 21 statement on the USAFA website.

While the academies wait for further details on exactly how their 14,000 students will be affected, local politicians are lobbying to see if they can soften the blow.

U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, whose district includes West Point, tweeted on Wednesday that he had sent a letter to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urging them to find a "commonsense plan" that would reduce the impact of the sequester on the Defense Department's 800,000 employees.

"In these difficult economic times, I know that we must all make sacrifices," wrote Maloney in the letter. "But our middle class has made enough sacrifices; our federal workforce has made enough sacrifices; our military and seniors have made enough sacrifices; the staff and students at West Point have made enough sacrifices."

(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by Arlene Getz, Jennifer Merritt and Steve Orlofsky)

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