Feeling the Pinch of a Marine Salary |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 1999; Page A1
On a muggy Saturday at Quantico Marine Corps Base, about two dozen Marines and family members quietly poked through piles of discarded furniture, clothing and household goods in what has become a weekly ritual at the big Northern Virginia installation.
Those who defend the nation were trying to make ends meet.
At 8 a.m., the patch of lawn was covered with beds, tables, dressers and desks. Within 45 minutes, almost all the furniture was gone. The price was right – everything was free.
The items had been gathered by volunteers who go "trashing" every Tuesday, scouring garbage left at curbs on the base. Every Saturday, they give away what they collect to needy, eager Marine families.
Their efforts reflect a cold reality for thousands of low-ranking men and women in uniform assigned to high-priced Washington and elsewhere: military salaries, never substantial, often fall far short of what they need.
"We're talking about the basics of life here, and they don't have it," said Lisa Joles, a Marine wife who created the volunteer network two years ago. "Sometimes, they don't have a thing. I didn't know how large the problem was until I got to Quantico."
Of the 40,000 enlisted soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen based in the area, many feel compelled to work part-time or even full-time civilian jobs to supplement what their country pays them, according to military families and officials. Hundreds more, especially low-ranking troops with families, rely on food stamps or other forms of federal assistance. Many depend on the charity of their fellow troops.
"How can we send members of the military to Kosovo and expect them to do their job if they're concerned about the family being able to afford new school shoes?" said Sydney Hickey, a spokeswoman for the National Military Family Association in Alexandria.
Since 1982, military salaries have fallen nearly 14 percent behind civilian pay, according to federal figures. After pleas from military supporters, Congress has tentatively approved a 4.8 percent pay raise, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, and many service members will receive a second raise six months later.
But the raises still will leave a military-civilian gap of more than 11 percent, according to studies. The situation is particularly hard on families – and 53 percent of the enlisted force nationally is married.
"A single Marine, with due diligence, can get by," said Thomas Loughlin, who heads the Marine Corps Community Services at Quantico. "The real problem is people with families. It's a sad indictment of society that somebody who's willing to give his life for his country gets paid close to minimum wage."
Pentagon officials acknowledge that some service members face severe hardships, not only in the Washington area but also in other parts of the country. But they insist that such cases do not reflect conditions for the vast majority of troops, and they point to statistics showing that junior enlisted service members earn more than the general population of high school-educated 18- to 23-year-olds.
At the same time, the officials said that improving pay is critical to Pentagon efforts to solve problems in retaining people in the armed forces. "A lot of our troops are waiting to see what happens with the pay package," said Rudy de Leon, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Military pay varies considerably by rank, length of service and other factors. A single Marine private first class, for example, would earn a base pay of $1,075 a month, plus a subsistence allowance of $225 a month for food. Those who live off base also receive a housing allowance that varies by jurisdiction and would be $612 for someone living near Quantico.
In addition, members of the armed forces receive some benefits, such as medical care, at a fraction of the cost for most civilians. Commissaries offer items that are 30 percent cheaper than at civilian stores, according to Pentagon figures. Service members also do not pay federal taxes on their food and housing allowances.
A recent Pentagon study found that, overall, only 450 of the 1.4 million members of the armed forces were living at or below the national poverty level, which is $13,332 for a family of three.
But advocates for military families said that the statistics and benefits do not reflect how difficult it is for many men and women to both serve their country and live comfortably in peacetime.
"We believe there are an awful lot of families who are living at the wire, and frequently fall over it," Hickey said.
Several evenings each week, as soon as he finishes duty at Quantico, Lance Cpl. Harry Schein darts off base, picks up his 14-month-old son from day care and drops him off with the boy's mother.
Then he drives up I-95 to Arlington and joins a group of Marines who moonlight by moving office furniture until about 11 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, he works from 4 p.m. until midnight as a security guard in Alexandria.
"Most of the Marines I know are living check to check and barely making it by and have to get some kind of supplement," said Schein, whose pretax paycheck is $2,168 a month, including housing and food allowances. That, he said, is not enough to pay for his $595-a-month apartment in Dale City, buy gas and car insurance, pay for day care and get clothes and food for his son, Devantre.
On top of his part-time work, Schein has had to turn to the government's Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, which provides federal vouchers so he can buy formula, juice and baby cereal. The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society also gave him several hundred dollars in commissary vouchers to buy food.
"All the pride in the world, all the awe people have when they see a Marine, all that isn't going to pay the bills," said Schein, 22.
The Queens, N.Y., native said that he joined the Marines to make his parents proud but that he is likely to leave when his enlistment runs out next year. "As much as I love being a Marine, monetarily, I can't," he said.
Military installations do not generally track how many troops receive public assistance. But many officials who work with low-income service members in the Washington area said that the problem is significant and has grown worse in recent years.
Many soldiers "can only afford food, clothing and shelter and getting to work," said Brenda Robbins, an Army Community Services worker at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "Saving is almost obsolete."
A recent survey of 165 soldiers at Walter Reed found that 41 percent were using some form of public or private charity, according to Bill Swisher, a spokesman.
Commissaries at Fort Belvoir, Fort Meade, Fort Myer, Andrews Air Force Base, Quantico and Patuxent River Naval Air Station collected more than $800,000 worth of food stamps and WIC vouchers last year, according to the Defense Commissary Agency.
More than $21 million worth of WIC vouchers were redeemed at military commissaries last year, according to Pentagon figures. Nearly 12,000 service members – less than 1 percent of the force – received food stamps in 1995, the last year a study was conducted.
"I think it stinks, really, that a member of the armed forces has to go to food stamps," said Lance Cpl. Damon Durre, 25. But that's what the Quantico Marine did after finding he could not support his wife and two children on his take-home pay.
Service members in this area do not receive cost of living adjustments in their pay, unlike those in New York, San Francisco and Boston. Washington does not qualify as a high-cost area under a formula used by the military.
Housing allowances are adjusted according to jurisdiction, but many service members say it is not enough to cope with area rents, and many end up living 40 or 50 miles from their duty stations.
"The cost of living will eat you alive," said Sgt. Edna Jackson-Jones, a Marine at Quantico who tried to find affordable housing near the base but instead lives with her three children in an apartment in Fredricksburg. "I had to go further south because it's cheaper down there."
Quantico offers classes in budgeting and buying cars and directs needy Marines to emergency aid, but officials say it is difficult to assist all those facing difficulties.
"We have a lot of problems reaching out to them, because many times, they don't want you to know they have a problem," said Maj. Kim Hunter, deputy director of Marine Community Services. "It's not their nature."
One result is that members of the military routinely work second jobs, often without seeking permission from superiors, as required, military officials acknowledged. Enlisted men and women sell goods at Potomac Mills, flip hamburgers at fast food restaurants, do construction work, deliver packages for UPS, stock lumber at Home Depot.
"Seems like everybody who's been here awhile has a part-time job," said Marine Lance Cpl. Robert Hayes, who has a second job as a mover. "You really don't have enough money to make it to the next pay check otherwise."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company