Troops reach out for help feeding their families

November 23, 2011

Hundreds of financially strained military families in the Washington area are lining up for turkeys and free groceries this holiday season, depending on the USO to help put food on the table.

The USO of Metropolitan Washington, the organization’s largest national chapter, has launched food pantries at Fort Meade and Fort Belvoir this year and is planning mobile pantries at other installations. This Thanksgiving, the USO had to cap its annual “turkeys for troops” giveaway at 1,400 families, up from 150 before the economic downturn, a USO spokesman said.

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.”

In 2007, King’s husband, decorated Army medic Jermaine King, 37, patrolled the streets of southern Baghdad at the height of that country’s sectarian violence, risking his life to treat fellow soldiers injured by sniper fire and roadside bombs. But on a recent balmy afternoon at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, King waited in line with 240 active-duty families for free Thanksgiving groceries.

Amy King is disabled and unable to work, and supporting the family of five on her husband’s base salary of $29,000 can be tough, despite living on the base in subsidized housing. The Kings said they were grateful for the bag packed with canned vegetables, boxed stuffing, mashed potatoes and a gift card for a turkey.

“It’s difficult for everybody these days,” said Jermaine King, a sergeant. “It’s tough.”

Other nonprofit groups that work with military families are also seeing rising need. Requests for food assistance have doubled in the past two years at Operation Homefront, a national group based in San Antonio.

Jennifer Cernoch, executive director of the group’s Texas chapter, said that military wives at Fort Hood stayed up past midnight one day this month to try to be the first to register online for the operation’s holiday turkey giveaway. The list for 450 was filled in about an hour. The group also installed a food pantry two years ago, something officials never thought they’d have to do.

“I had a couple of weeks ago a wounded warrior, who was a single father applying for assistance,” Cernoch said. “I asked him if he needed food, and he said, ‘I think we can make it.’ Then his son came in, and I asked, ‘Are you guys okay?’ and he said, ‘It’s okay, ma’am, we can eat ramen again tonight.”

Many soldiers are too ashamed to ask for help, Brantley said. “They don’t want to be a burden to society, and that’s especially true of the military,” she said. “They feel they should be able to take care of themselves . . . the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality.”

This summer, the Defense Department took steps to help some of the families with an effort to link spouses with private sector employment, Thompson said. It has resulted in 8,000 hires.

The high cost of living in the Washington area adds to the burden for local military families, experts say. The region has the eighth-highest cost of living in the United States, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research, which tracks the index quarterly.

Mary Ann Jones, 22, the pregnant wife of a Marine lance corporal, said that the high cost of food makes her dread going to the grocery store. She and her husband, Matthew Jones, have been losing sleep, wondering how they are going to make it on his $22,000-a-year salary when the baby arrives in March, she said.

Mary Ann had to quit her job as a clerk because of pregnancy complications and said she is pessimistic about her chances of finding other work. The couple make do with a monthly free box of groceries for military families from an aid organization in Stafford County and picked up a holiday bag at the USO giveaway.

“We’re taking it as it goes. At least I am,” said Matthew Jones, 24, a military police officer. “If it comes down to it, and they have to eat first, I’m happy.”

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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