COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Emerging from more than a decade at war, military families are confronting a new worry at home: the prospect that a deal between Congress and the White House over federal spending cuts could chip away at military health insurance, pensions and other services long considered untouchable.
"It's a fear of the unknown, and it's worse when members of your family might be deployed," says military spouse Jeremy Hilton, of Burke, Va., who cares for a disabled child while his wife serves as an active duty Air Force officer. "We are all worried about what will happen. It could cut things my family really relies on."
If Congress and President Barack Obama don't agree on spending cuts by Jan. 1, a package of across-the-board cuts would take effect that would hit the military heavily. If they do agree on steps to ward off those cuts and stop automatic tax increases, it's likely the military will still see reduced spending, but more targeted. The talks about the so-called fiscal cliff are ongoing and details of what could be cut have not emerged.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey have warned it would be devastating to the all-volunteer force if the Pentagon were forced to make billion-dollar cuts in a short-order fashion.
"It makes all us peons crazy," said Hilton. "If our military leadership says it would be a problem, we are all worried about what would happen. We rely on our military community, on our military infrastructure, for support."
Hilton, 40, graduated from the Air Force Academy and switched to the Navy to serve eight years as a submariner. He decided to leave the uniformed military and stay home to care for the couple's two children, and work on a master's degree.
Because President Obama has said the paychecks and housing benefits of the uniformed military would not be affected if the fiscal cliff talks fail and automatic cuts start, defense experts say the cuts will fall most heavily on civilian Pentagon employees and contractors. Reducing their numbers would directly affect active duty military and their families because those civilians provide much of the day-to-day staff for base services including hospitals, day care facilities, commissaries and even the guards who man many of the gates.
JD Brunson, 47, whose spouse retired as a master sergeant after 24 years in the Air Force, says she and her 56-year-old husband contribute to their military health insurance by paying $41 monthly
Brunson said the military insurance covered everything for her husband's cancer surgery, which she said cost them only $100 even though it tallied a $99,000 bill. The Columbia resident says she is a certified nursing assistant and her husband does maintenance work for a local church and they still rely on the military health insurance, since their work doesn't provide such beneficial insurance.
"It's vital to us," she says. "It's owed us."
The automatic spending cuts and tax increases that would go into effect in January fall heavily on the Department of Defense, slashing some $500 billion from future defense spending. So far, the lame-duck Congress and the White House have been unable to come up with an agreement that works around the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts. These cuts would come on top of some $487 billion in spending reductions set to take effect over the coming 10 years.
One of the potential targets to budget cutters is the military's health care system known as Tricare. It provides health coverage to some 10 million active duty men and women, retirees, reservists and their families. Costs for the program have skyrocketed from $19 billion to $53 billion in the Pentagon's latest budget request, making it a possible target.
The uniformed military enjoys nearly cost-free care. In his most recent budget, President Obama has proposed increasing fees for those in the military who retired after 20 years of service and are still of working age. One proposal suggests changing a fee structure that has been unchanged for 11 years by asking $230 for an individual and $460 for a family. That is far less than what civilian federal workers pay for their health care, about $5,000 a year.
Air Force Reserve retiree Howard Rowell, 83, of Columbia, has survived a bout with prostate cancer, and his 77-year-old wife Tita has survived major surgery for colon cancer.
Rowell says their care is completely covered, with about 80 percent paid by Medicare and Tricare picking up the remainder. "It's a really good deal for us, because it doesn't cost us anything," says Rowell, who said he joined the Marines at 17. He entered the University of South Carolina and its ROTC program after three years in the Marines and went on to serve 25 years in the Air Force Reserve.
"We have no co-pays at all," Rowell said of his health insurance. Such costs could add up to about $2,000 out of pocket for him if the system were changed, he said.
Rowell said he has been fortunate financially as a private businessman and that he might be able to afford an increase in taking on some of the medical costs now covered by Tricare, should Washington decide to pare the program. But he uses his savings to help his five children, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, some of whom have no insurance.
"I sure hope they don't change it," he said of his health insurance benefits. "It's a big worry."
Rowell says he's disconcerted about the lack of information coming from Washington on details of the fiscal cliff talks.
"I'm in the dark," he said.
Susanne M. Schafer can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap