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Secretary of Navy visits Whidbey

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus poses for a picture with personnel from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station during a visit to the airbase on Wednesday.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus poses for a picture with personnel from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station during a visit to the airbase on Wednesday.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Sailors at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station received welcomed news Wednesday when they learned from Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus himself that their pocketbooks will not feel the sting of the automatic spending cuts set to go into effect next month.

"There will be no impact on active duty personnel or their families in terms of salaries or benefits," Mabus told reporters, after delivering his message to hundreds of Whidbey sailors in a hanger on base.

"But there will be impacts on the Navy, potentially big impacts," he said.

Unless lawmakers in Washington D.C. come to agreement by March 1, sequestration along with ramifications of the continuing resolution for the 2012 budget will result in a loss of about $9 billion in Navy funding.

Globally, the Navy has prepared for the fiscal strike by implementing a hiring freeze for civilian workers, terminating some temporary positions and, most recently, reducing the number of aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf from two to one.

If a resolution in Congress can't be reached and sequestration becomes a reality, civilian workers would see about three weeks of unpaid furloughs and scheduled repairs and maintenance on ships and aircraft will be delayed.

That, of course, includes the airbase on Whidbey Island.

"We will train less. We will steam less. We will fly less," Mabus said.

While some of his message painted a possible future of reduced operations, the secretary and his message was well received overall. Along with alleviating fears about pay, he also encouraged sailors to "take care of each other" and to "keep being the best," Petty Officer First Class Philip Banks said.

"I thought it was great," Banks said. "I think it was just something people needed to hear."

Banks, who was there with his wife and two children, has a friend who about to lose his civilian job. Many active duty personnel have been living under a cloud of uncertainty, wondering how their jobs might be affected and the secretary's "positive" message was appreciated, Banks said.

"All of Sailors, Marines and civilian employees were excited to listen to and in many cases talk directly to Secretary Mabus," said base commander Capt. Jay Johnston, in a statement emailed to the Whidbey News-Times. "It was especially important for them to hear Secretary Mabus talk about national issues that are already impacting our global operations."

"Several of our sailors were also reenlisted by Secretary Mabus which was thrilling for their family members to see," he wrote.

Banks' wife, Petty Officer First Class Shannon Banks, was one of those to receive the honor. In all, Mabus oversaw the reenlistment of 12 Whidbey Island sailors.

The secretary also addressed the long-term viability of the airbase and that of Navy Region Northwest in general. The Western Pacific is currently one of the top three focuses of the Navy and assets located here are indicative that the region is on pretty solid ground.

"We're putting virtually every Growler we've got here," said Mabus, speaking specifically about Whidbey.

He added that the Northwest has been a terrific community, calling it one of the Navy's great partners.

"He's always been very appreciative of the mission at Whidbey Island," said Jim Slowik, president of the Oak Harbor Navy League.

Slowik is a former city mayor who has traveled to Washington D.C. and the Pentagon several times over the past few years with other city leaders to communicate support for the base.

His last trip in 2011 coincidentally occurred during the heat of the Libya crisis involving former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Despite the emergency, Mabus and other top Navy officials still took time out of their day to meet with the Oak Harbor contingent, Slowik said.

Examples like that and the secretary's supportive comments make it clear that their efforts are not in vain, that military leaders recognize, appreciate and value the community's continued support.

The Navy is the largest employer on Whidbey Island, employing 6,900 active duty personnel and 2,420 civilian workers – about 9,320 total – and is believed to contribute about $592 million to the economy.

Mabus did acknowledge and appeared well briefed on encroachment issues at Outlying Field in Coupeville and the growing unrest in Central Whidbey over jet noise at the practice air strip.

He emphasized the importance and value of the airfield for flight-carrier training, but also expressed optimism that a budding partnership among base and local elected officials will result in resolution.

"I think we can work through these issues," Mabus said.

The secretary also visited Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton, the USS Reagan, and was expected to officially name the USS Washington at a ceremony in Seattle on Today.

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