WASHINGTON – The Army is $500 million short of the money it needs to operate its bases this year because of the war in Iraq, forcing many posts to cut back on training, force protection and family support programs, House Democrats said Thursday.

Since June, some Army installations have had to close mess halls, reduce training time and cut back on ammunition, equipment, food and fuel to non-deploying units. Funds for family support activities, including child care, gyms, bus services and other programs have also been cut, hurting morale for families whose loved ones are fighting overseas, the congressional Democrats said at a press conference.

The Bush administration failed to anticipate the Army’s needs and budget enough money to cover those expenditures, the group said. The Democrats called for a congressional investigation.

“You can’t expect to fight an extended war without paying for it,” said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “Cutting services that support soldiers and their families is shortsighted and just plain wrong. We should not be rewarding their service this way.”

The problem has been building for several years, with the Army under-funding its base operations accounts. When fiscal year 2006 started last October, the Army had only 69 percent of the funds it needed for activities ranging from cutting grass and building maintenance to paying civilian workers to man security gates and equipment warehouses.

The Army was counting on money from the Bush administration’s $72 billion emergency defense spending request to help cover those activities, but when Congress failed to pass the bill before the Memorial Day recess, belt-tightening began.

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody warned in a memo in May that unless Congress passed the bill, the Army would have to cut back on spare parts and supplies and cancel travel and training, and in June it would have to stop hiring civilians and let temporary workers go.

Even when Congress approved $94 billion in emergency war spending in June, including $722 million for Army base operations, the Army was still $500 million short of the total it needed, according to the House Democrats.

Army spokesman Dave Foster said Thursday that he had no immediate comment on the Democrats’ analysis of the shortfall.

In testimony to Congress during the summer, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, testified that the Army needed a larger annual budget to address all of its needs.

For 2007, the Army has requested $5.2 billion in base operating funds and $17 billion to replace equipment damaged, worn out or lost in the war.

Skelton said the war has become a “black hole for resources” that is “sapping the non-deployed forces in order to support units in combat.”

Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., said cutting back on base services sends the wrong message to the men and women who are fighting overseas. It says “that even in a time of war that their country doesn’t care about them,” he said.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said Congress needs to exert more oversight and come up with ways of fixing the problem.

“At a time when they’re fighting for us, and we’re treating them this shabbily, that’s unconscionable,” Reyes said.

Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, said troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan want to know that their families are being taken care of back home. But she said indications are that services at many bases at getting worse, not better.

“Our families aren’t whiners,” she said. “They’ll accept a certain amount of sacrifice to support their service member, but they’re worried about the trend that seems to be developing.”

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-09-21-06 1843EDT

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