Baptism by fire for new leader of air reserve station in Valley

Air Force Col. James D. Dignan was sworn in Saturday as the new commander of the Youngstown Air Reserve Station and its 910th Airlift Wing with the reality of mandatory unpaid furloughs for more than 400 civilian employees staring him in the face.

But Dignan, who comes to the Mahoning Valley from the 446th Operations Group, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., can take comfort from the fact that he doesn’t have to deal with a reduction of the number of C-130 cargo and troop transport planes for at least another year. That’s because Congress approved a “strategic pause” in the Air Force budget for the Vienna Township base, thereby preventing the reassignment of four of the 12 airplanes.

Indeed, the one-day-a-week mandatory unpaid furloughs of the 409 civilian employees will require Col. Dignan to quickly familiarize himself with the operation of the vast facility adjacent to the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

The base is home to more than 1,300 Air Force reservists, 250 full-time Air Reserve technicians, 190 Air Force Department of Defense civilian employees and 184 Navy and Marine Corps members.

As the new commander will quickly learn, the Youngstown Air Reserve Station is more than just a military installation. It is an integral part of the Mahoning Valley. It pumps about $100 million into the area’s economy each year, making it one of the key factors in the region’s stability.

Dignan will also find that political, business and community leaders and a majority of the residents of the Valley are unwavering in their support of the military facility.

Every time YARS has been threatened with closure or a realignment of its mission, the region has launched an aggressive campaign to stop the Pentagon from taking action.

But, the threat is ever present, which is why Col. Dignan, who replaced Brig. Gen. Brian Dominguez, should view the current upheaval, brought on by the automatic cuts in federal spending as an opportunity. Because Republicans on Capitol Hill and Democratic President Barack Obama could not agree on a way to avoid sequestration, $85.4 billion is being slashed this year. Of that, $42.7 billion will come from defense; $28.7 billion in discretionary domestic spending; $9.9 billion in Medicare cuts; the rest from other mandatory spending.

Estimated savings

The furlough of the 409 civilian employees at the Youngstown station will save an estimated $3 million.

Col. Dignan will also have to deal with the possibility of an 18 percent reduction in baseline flying hours, which would limit valuable training time for the 910th air crew personnel and members flying C-130H Hercules aircraft.

As outgoing commander Dominguez told The Vindicator, “We will work hard to keep our personnel and the local community in the loop as we receive the latest information about the developing situation.”

We have no doubt that the base personnel and the Mahoning Valley at large stand ready to do whatever is necessary to soften the blow of the federal spending cuts.

As for the future, the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber, which has led previous campaigns to keep the base open, will work with the new commander, Dignan, to develop a response to the next round of base closings.

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