Thousands of soldiers from the North Carolina National Guard arrived at Fort Bragg on Friday ready to participate in an assault on an urban training complex.
The training would have involved more than 20 M1 Abrams tanks, 30 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. Dubbed Operation Hickory Hammer, it was designed to coincide with similar actions in three other states and would serve as a validation of the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team before a large-scale exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas, later this year.
But on Saturday morning, before a single tank could roll onto the target objective, soldiers began packing up and getting ready to go home.
Late Friday, Congress failed to reach a deal to avert a government shutdown. That brought a halt to the North Carolina National Guard’s training plans and leaves many on and around Fort Bragg preparing for lean times.
On Monday, Department of Defense civilians will report to work to learn whether they will be furloughed during the shutdown. Troops will report for duty as usual but may have to work without pay unless separate legislation is passed. They will also likely have fewer support services on post during the shutdown.
Casualties of the shutdown are expected to include many of Fort Bragg’s approximately 20,000 civilian workforce.
On Friday, Fort Bragg officials said as many as 800 of its 1,235 civilian employees who work for the garrison could be furloughed for the first time since 2013.
Fort Bragg schools are expected to cancel some extracurricular activities, and local commissaries are set to follow an “orderly shutdown to reduce the amount of perishables on hand and properly safeguard equipment and facilities,” officials said.
Another victim of the shutdown was Fort Bragg’s monthly Saturday Proficiency Jump Program, which helps local paratroopers obtain additional training jumps in a family friendly environment at Sicily Drop Zone.
For the North Carolina National Guard, the shutdown put an immediate halt to training, including Operation Hickory Hammer.
An exercise that took six months to plan and involved more than 2,600 local soldiers was to have been dismantled by noon, said Lt. Col. Matthew DeVivo, a spokesman for the North Carolina National Guard.
“This exercise – the size and complexity of it – it’s an amazing undertaking,” DeVivo said. “It’s a big deal. The bottom line is, this shutdown decreases the readiness across the Guard and Reserve.”
The 30th ABCT is based in Clinton, with subordinate battalions in Wilmington, Fayetteville, Goldsboro and Charlotte. The brigade also has subordinate units in South Carolina and West Virginia.
Nearly all of those units, and troops from across the three states, were set to participate in the scheduled three-day exercise at Fort Bragg and elsewhere.
On Monday, DeVivo said, the North Carolina National Guard’s 2,100 full-time employees will learn whether they will be furloughed during the shutdown.
He said more than 1,000 employees would be sent home.
In addition to the furloughs, the North Carolina National Guard will be barred from buying equipment or from conducting further training. The only exceptions are for units scheduled for overseas deployments, DeVivo said.
The National Guard is not ceasing all operations, he said. Its soldiers and airmen will remain on call in the event of a state disaster or emergency.
“We’re not going to shut down the National Guard,” he said. “But we hope this is remedied soon.”
The government shutdown occurred after lawmakers failed to pass the latest stopgap measure to temporarily fund government operations before the midnight Friday deadline. The federal government has operated on those stopgaps for years, something military leader have repeatedly denounced for the danger it poses to readiness and future operations.
On Saturday, Defense Secretary James Mattis issued a memo:
“We will continue to execute daily operations around the world – ships and submarines will remain at sea, our aircraft will continue to fly and our warfighters will continue to pursue terrorists throughout the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. While training for reservists must be curtailed, active forces will stay at their posts adapting their training to achieve the least negative impact on our readiness to fight.”
On Fort Bragg, Womack Army Medical Center is expected to operate under normal conditions during the shutdown, but some elective surgeries may be reviewed more stringently.
Fire protection, law enforcement, air-traffic control, search and rescue, utilities, trash removal and housing and food service for military personnel are also expected to continue.
On Saturday, the Army & Air Force Exchange Service announced that all AAFES stores would remain open during the shutdown. That includes Exchange department stores, convenience stores, food courts and other facilities on Fort Bragg.
But the shutdown is expected to put a halt to duty travel that may have been planned for service members and could prevent troops and their families from being able to move to new duty assignments.
Congress has a little more than a week to pass a separate bill to pay troops during the shutdown. In 2013, Congress passed similar legislation before the shutdown.
Outside of Fort Bragg, some businesses have announced plans to help troops and families who may miss paychecks during the shutdown.
USAA announced Friday that the financial institution is prepared to offer a no-interest payroll advance loan to military members “in the event of a protracted shutdown that disrupts military pay on Feb. 1.”
The bank said it would also offer special payment arrangements to help members who find themselves in financial distress because of a disruption in federal payments.