Most afternoons, the uniformed men and women at U.S. Strategic Command do things such as oversee the nuclear weapons pointed at North Korea and protect Pentagon computers from Russian hackers. You know, fun stuff.
Tuesday afternoon, many StratCom employees were doing something else.
Starting at 1300 hours — that's 1 p.m. for you civilians — they vacuumed.
They dusted. They gathered trash.
The occasion: StratCom's first “Health and Wellness Clean Up Day,” announced in a memo written by Maj. Gen. William Grimsley, StratCom's chief of staff and sent to Stratcom's 2,200 military and civilian employees.
You may wonder if this housekeeping had anything to do with the $41 billion the U.S. military needs to slice out of its budget this year, part of those drastic federal government spending cuts known as sequestration.
StratCom's answer to that question: Yes. And also no.
Grimsley seemed to draw a direct line between the cutting and the cleaning in his memo to StratCom staff.
“As we continue to experience impacts associated with the current fiscal environment, it is anticipated that cleaning and landscaping contracts could potentially be minimized,” Grimsley writes in the letter announcing the new quarterly cleanups.
StratCom's chief of staff also suggests twice in the letter that the spring cleaning was virtually mandatory — “All directorates/commands will be required to participate,” he writes — and then listed the various projects to be completed.
Those projects included cleaning desks, vacuuming, dusting air ducts, carting busted furniture to the junkyard, replacing burned-out light bulbs and “picking up and disposing of trash found on the ground.”
But the story of cleaning day changed a bit when I got my grubby hands on the memo and called StratCom's public relations department.
No, cleaning day was not mandatory, said Lt. Cmdr. Stephanie Murdock, chief of StratCom's media relations. And cleaning day had little to do with budgetary pressures, she said.
StratCom employees have long cleaned up after themselves, Murdock said. The new cleanup days are simply an official version of what has long happened unofficially.
“This is sort of like an extra effort, picking a day when we could all collectively feel good about ... taking pride in our spaces and working together as a team,” Murdock said. “We work together as a team every day to complete the mission. This is a thing we want to do together to take pride in where we work.”
I'm not particularly bothered by this spring cleaning, as long as they don't make me team-build or dust. And I'm sure StratCom's lower-ranked members got a kick out of watching major generals scrub and vice admirals mop.
Here's the problem: I dug a bit deeper into the cleaning contracts at Offutt Air Force Base, and what I found is about as pretty as latrine duty.
Offutt Air Force Base chopped its custodial contract nearly in half during the 2012 fiscal year to save money.
The landscaping contractors still mow, said Ryan Hansen, spokesman for the Air Force's 55th Wing, which runs the day-to-day operations of Offutt Air Force Base. But they no longer trim trees, look for trash to gather or tend to flower beds, he said.
Similarly, the custodians still clean the bathrooms, but they no longer vacuum, sweep, dust or mop.
When Offutt chopped its custodial contract nearly in half, Goodwill, the provider of said custodial contract, in turn laid off 23 janitors and cut the hours of dozens of others.
And, sadly, most of those 23 laid-off custodians are mentally and physically challenged. They toiled for $10 an hour. They cleaned up after the pilots and intelligence analysts. They worked as part of a government program meant to give steady work and purpose to those who, by virtue of their birthright, struggle to get jobs in the private sector.
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And now they do not. They are victims of our budgetary belt-tightening. They are the early sacrifices of the budgetary rumblings that proceeded the larger shock of sequestration.
They are what we trim when we trim fat.
“We have an excellent relationship with Offutt,” says Todd Milbrandt, the local Goodwill's vice president of federal contracts. “But unfortunately, when the budget comes down from D.C., they have to look at the areas that can be cut, and custodial, those type of things ... they are probably one of the first things to be cut.”
There is a crucial caveat here: The StratCom headquarters building, where the StratCom military and civilian employees cleaned Tuesday, hasn't had its specific cleaning contract cut, at least not yet. That means the StratCom headquarters building gets the same level of custodial care that it always has, according to an Offutt spokesman.
But it does seem likely that StratCom's own cleaning and landscaping contracts are soon to fall victim to the budget ax.
Listen, I'm not here to even pretend that the decisions stemming from shrinking budgets are easy, though I do wonder if 23 disabled janitors got laid off because it was fiscally necessary or simply because they were the easiest thing to cut.
It is quite possible to view StratCom Spring Clean as admirable, with commanding officers down to the youngest grunt pitching in to make sure the inside and outside of the headquarters building sparkled by day's end. There is something very throwback, and very satisfying, about that idea.
But, since Tuesday was cleaning day, let's not sweep this fact under the rug: Budget cuts, even the seemingly insignificant ones, are real things.
Too much of our current discussion about military and governmentwide spending presents this cutting back as a mathematical abstraction, a giant number subtracted from an even more giant number to reach a number that is slightly less gargantuan.
But if you dig far enough into one cut, it eventually stops looking abstract and turns into something else.
A real face. A real paycheck. A real life.
Let's not scrub away that reality like it's grime on a StratCom desk.
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