FORT STEWART, GA. — A new top general took command at Fort Stewart on Friday and told soldiers who have seen a decade of back-to-back war deployments to brace for tougher times at home as the Army downsizes and as Washington budget battles threaten to impose even deeper cuts.
Standing before more than 2,000 soldiers in formation with flags blowing in a hot summer breeze, Maj. Gen. Mike Murray took charge of the largest Army post east of the Mississippi River and its more than 21,000 soldiers. The job puts him in command of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which has deployed four times to Iraq and sent several smaller units to Afghanistan since 2003.
"Our division and our installation, in fact our entire Army, will be facing some significant challenges over the next few years," Murray said as he addressed his troops for the first time at Fort Stewart's parade grounds. "Together as a team, we will tackle them head-on."
An Army officer for more than 30 years, Murray comes to southeast Georgia from the Pentagon after serving more than a year as the Army's director of force management. He takes command at Fort Stewart at a time when the 3rd Infantry still has more than 5,000 soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Murray said he expects the pace of overseas deployments to slow as the U.S. starts to draw down its forces in Afghanistan, but he cautioned it's still too soon to rule out further combat tours.
Meanwhile, budget cuts from Washington are already taking a toll on the homefront. About 3,100 civilian employees at Fort Stewart began taking one unpaid furlough day a week last month and will keep doing so at least through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. That's affecting a huge range of services, from security guards at access gates to check-out clerks at the commissaries where soldiers and their families buy groceries. Even schools on Fort Stewart will have to close one day a week when classes resume in the fall as teachers take their furlough days.
The automatic budget cuts that forced the military to furlough civilian workers haven't directly affected soldiers yet. But Murray warned that could happen in the next fiscal year if the president and Congress can't agree on a spending plan.
The Army is already downsizing now that the war in Iraq has ended and the U.S. is winding down in Afghanistan. In June, the Pentagon announced plans to shrink the Army by 12 brigades and roughly 80,000 soldiers. As part of that plan, Fort Stewart is scheduled to lose one of its four combat brigades — and about 1,300 total soldiers — by 2017.
"There are potentially more cuts coming," Murray said. "Our challenge is making sure that the Army five to six years from now is the Army we want it to be — the right soldiers and the right leaders stay for the right reasons and the training is sufficient to keep the readiness level where we need it."
Murray succeeds Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams, who is being promoted to lieutenant general as he heads to Washington to serve as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Abrams and Murray served together as brigade commanders at Fort Hood, Texas, nearly as decade ago. As he prepared to leave Fort Stewart, Abrams said there was nobody in the Army he'd rather see in his old job than Murray.
"He's as fine a soldier as you're going to meet," Abrams said. "He is cool, calm, doesn't get excited and is deeply committed to soldiers and family. He's got a broad view of the Army and brings a wealth of experience to this job."