Although military pay is at an all-time high, the stress of the recession and high unemployment among troops’ spouses have sparked a need among active-duty and reservist families, say the USO and other nonprofit groups that help the military. Bread lines have become an unlikely sight on and around military bases.
“It’s like a hidden world,” said Army wife Amy King, 36, who lives at Fort Belvoir. “People automatically assume because we are in the military we have it good, with everything given to us. They don’t understand we have to struggle just like everybody else does.”
Lynn Brantley, president and chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank, said that her organization decided to reach out to local military families last year after getting desperate calls from soldiers on its emergency hunger hotline. Overall, calls for help to the hotline are up 27 percent this year from last year, Brantley said.
In teaming with the USO, the food bank, the Washington region’s central resource for food for 700 agencies, distributes 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of fresh produce and other items to about 300 families at Fort Belvoir once a month. Some people stand in line for hours beforehand, camping out on lawn chairs and blankets.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, military pay has risen faster than pay in the private sector — by 42 percent, compared with 32 percent, according to the Defense Department. In some ways, soldiers, who get good medical benefits and housing allowances, have been more insulated from the poor economy than the general public.
But spouses of relocating troops have had trouble finding jobs; the 26 percent unemployment rate for military spouses is more than twice the national average. Others have quit jobs to stay at home with children when their spouses are deployed. Some National Guard members and reservists have returned to find their positions eliminated, or they lost chances at promotions after multiple deployments.
The strain is beginning to show. Service members and their families, including veterans, retirees and reservists, have used $88 million in food stamps at U.S. commissaries this year, according to the Defense Commissary Agency. That is triple the amount used before the recession.
“We’ve been at war for 10 years, and our families have felt the pressure of having a loved one overseas,” said Barbara Thompson, director of the Defense Department’s Office of Family Policy/Children and Youth. “I think we are a reflection of the American society at large. Just as people in American society have issues with credit and debt, our families have that, too.”