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WASHINGTON — After going to Capitol Hill last week to hear about issues affecting the U.S. Army, members of Friends of Fort Campbell left with a very uneasy feeling.

That's because the group members were told by members of the Tennessee and Kentucky congressional delegations to brace themselves for the defense cut proposals coming out of the Obama administration.

"It's pretty crazy," said Tommy Vallejos, Montgomery County commissioner. "None of us could believe the proposed cuts coming out."

The group's visit came on the heels of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposing to reduce troop strength to between 440,000 and 450,000, down from the 490,000 level set in motion by the automatic spending cuts — or budget sequester — passed in 2011.

It would be the Army's smallest troop level since before World War II. Such a cut would result in many being forced out of the military, members of the group said.

Hagel, they learned, also is proposing a pay freeze for generals and other high-ranking officers and a reduction in pay raises for enlisted personnel from 1.8 percent to 1 percent. Other proposals include cuts in health benefits, housing allowances and more miscellaneous items, such as military commissaries.

An Army captain could lose up to $2,100 a year in benefits, Vallejos said. For sergeants, he said, it could be as high as $1,400.

"You can't balance the budget on the backs of the military," Vallejos said. "We're going to risk the security of our nation."

Details of how the cuts would affect Fort Campbell are not yet available. Some additional information may be revealed next week, when the president releases his 2015 budget proposal.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said troop strength will be below that required of a superpower.

"This is going to be an Army that struggles to meet its national commitment," Eaglen said.

But she added: "Based on the numbers he was handed by Congress and the White House, (Hagel) had no choice. This is the fourth year of defense cuts, and all the easy choices have been made."

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, who hosted Friends of Fort Campbell at a breakfast Thursday, said afterward, "I have plenty of questions about how Secretary Hagel is proceeding."

She said she planned to work "hand in hand" with Friends of Fort Campbell to "advocate for a strong military."

Vallejos, who served in the Army from 1980 to 2001, said the only way to stop the cuts is for those concerned "to become vocal."

He added, "All the veterans organizations are up in arms."

Clarksville City Administrator Bill Harpel said that while the military has to take its share of cuts, "you can't come in with a big chainsaw."

The Tennessee delegation, he said, was "very receptive" to the group's concerns.

"We hope they can do whatever they can to minimize (the cuts)," Harpel said.

Carolyn Bowers, Montgomery County mayor, said the proposals for reducing troop strength are alarming enough.

"That, to me, raises a big red flag," she said.

Like Vallejos, she said more people need to be informed about how the proposed cuts could affect a community such as Clarksville.

"What concerns me are the people who don't live in the military community," Bowers said.

Contact Paul C. Barton at pbarton@gannett.com.

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