Official defends armed services budget at Bradenton awards luncheon

BRADENTON -- With the U.S. government staggering under trillions of dollars of debt, the Department of Defense is facing budget cuts along with all other federal departments.

"We know it has to be cut, but not so fast," retired Navy Capt. Donald R. Freese told members of the Bradenton Chapter of the Military Officers Association during their annual Junior ROTC scholarship luncheon on Wednesday.

U.S. armed forces are fighting in Afghanistan and are stretched thin around the world, Freese, president of the Florida Council of Chapters of the association, said during the meeting at Bradenton Country Club.

Over the past decade, troops have faced repeated combat tours, which take a physical

and emotional toll.

One of the costs has been an epidemic of military suicides. In 2010, there were more military suicides than combat deaths, Freese said.

"They don't have any 'dwell' time," Freese said, adding that the Military Officers Association has advocated four years between combat tours.

Until the draft ended in 1973, most American families had some connection with someone in the military. Now, it's only about one family in 30, he said.

The association has also advocated against making extreme changes to the military pension system and against large increases to Tricare, the health-care system for military retirees.

"We understand the economics, but if there is a fee, make it reasonable," Freese said.

After the meeting, Jerry Koontz, president of the Bradenton chapter, said the last decade of war has placed a tremendous strain not only on service members, but their families.

During its lobbying of Congress, Freese said the association was looking out primarily for those in uniform, and those high school Junior ROTC cadets in the room who might some day join the military.

The association awarded $1,000 scholarships to seven cadets from Manatee County high schools and $500 to four others.

The cadets were joined at the luncheon by their families and by their Junior ROTC instructors.

Cadet Alex Weatherhead of Palmetto High School said he plans to attend Marion Military Institute in Alabama after graduation and then move on to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

"It's great recognition. I put a lot of work into Junior ROTC the past few years. To be recognized for it feels pretty good," Weatherhead said.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1