JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was in Jacksonville on Tuesday morning for a town hall event at the Fleet Readiness Center Southeast at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
It is part of a tour Hagel is making of East Coast military bases to discuss current and future readiness and the impact of $42 billion cut from the Department of Defense budget due to the sequester.
About 100 civilian employees attending the town meeting had the opportunity to ask Hagel questions. Nearly 7,000 civilian employees at NAS Jacksonville -- including nearly 3,000 who work at the Fleet Readiness Center Southeast -- are being furloughed for up to 11 days now through Sept. 30. The unpaid days off equal a 20-percent pay cut over the next three months.
"I know that this has been difficult for everybody, and it may get more difficult," Hagel said. "I understand the hardships this is putting on families. If there was any other way, I would have done it."
Hagel said cutting pay and production is an effort to save the government $37 billion this year.
"You already know that we are not flying a lot of planes, we are not doing any new training in the Army, we are not sailing a lot of our ships," Hagel said. "This is hurting our readiness terribly. It's hurting our readiness now."
Hagel delivered more disappointing news that more steeper cuts are anticipated next year. The audience then voiced their concerns.
"Have you planned for a reduction in force, and if so is it going to be a targeted reduction?" a member of the audience asked.
"If we have to take a $52 billion cut in 2014, there will be further cuts in personnel," Hagel said.
Hagel said the government is preparing for the worst, but how cuts will be carried out next year is uncertain. Employees say they're making the necessary adjustments to save money.
"We refinanced our home, so we've done some things financially cutting back on a lot of expenses that we can do without," said Dora Quinlan, a civilian employee at NAS Jacksonville. "But more than having to do that, I feel a real passion for my job and what I do."
George Smith and his wife work at NAS Jacksonville. He said they'll be driving to work together.
"Saving gas back and forth. It's those little things that add up," he said.
"I've got to be responsible for the security of this country, along with you, and I will continue to do that as responsibly as I can," Hagel said.
He said the $52 billion sequestration cuts would go into effect in January.
Speaking to soldiers and civilian workers at Fort Bragg on Monday, Hagel told the audience that the cuts are more dramatic than in past years.
"If these dramatic reductions continue on the course they're on through current budget cap sequestration, this is forcing us to take deeper, steeper and more abrupt reductions than we've ever had to do," Hagel said.
Hagel said the Defense Department hopes to avoid another year of furloughs but that if the cuts stay in effect, the department will have to consider further action to reduce personnel costs, including involuntary reductions in force.
"I suspect this is the most difficult time of your service. I know that. I accept that. I understand that. Your leaders understand that," Hagel said. "But we have no choice but to get through it, and we will get through it. This institution and its people, the people are the fabric of any institution, are just too good, and our commitment is too strong."
U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw issued a statement on Monday welcoming Hagel to Jacksonville and believes the furloughs of civilian defense employees will be one of the primary topics discussed at the meeting.
"I welcome Secretary Hagel to Jacksonville and have no doubt the visit will leave him with a lasting impression that Northeast Florida is vital to our national security interests. I look forward to attending the town hall-style meeting with him where I'm sure the subject of civilian furloughs will be front and center," Crenshaw said. "In my book, furloughing our critical Navy aviation repair specialists at FRC Southeast is detrimental to our military readiness," Crenshaw added. "Civilian defense workforce furloughs are a stark reminder of the devastating and real effects of sequestration, and I hope we can find a solution to reduce the amount of furlough days necessary.
"I have long advocated that Congress and the administration come to an agreement and end these across-the-board cuts that are eroding our national security," Crenshaw added. "Our civilian defense workforce in Florida and across the nation plays a key supporting role in defending our national security and keeping our military forces as strong as they can possibly be at home and around the globe."
Copyright 2013 by News4Jax.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.