Spring should be the busy season for the Brinkers' Columbia home improvement business. But instead of cashing in on the jobs that will come up as the weather improves, Lynn Brinker is calling customers to cancel thousands of dollars' worth of work.
It was less than five months ago that her husband, Sgt. Mark Brinker, an Army reservist with the 400th Military Police Battalion, returned from a year-long, post-Sept. 11 deployment to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. To get through that tour, Lynn Brinker cashed in savings bonds meant for the education of their three children, took out a bank loan and borrowed $15,000 from a relative.
Now, Mark has been called up again, this time for the impending war in Iraq, and she doesn't know what they're going to do.
"There is just no way we can make ends meet with him gone again," she said. "It's just ridiculous. We're in our forties, we've worked hard, and we didn't expect to have to be starting all over again like this."
As the Pentagon continues to activate reserve and National Guard troops, some of the biggest sacrifices are being made on the home front. In addition to risking their lives, many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are risking their livelihoods, leaving civilian jobs that pay much better than the military. Families are selling second cars, canceling vacations and postponing paying bills as they steel themselves for drastic reductions in income.
For the reservist on inactive status, the duty can be a welcome source of extra cash. A private with less than two years' experience can pick up $2,849 a year for one weekend a month of drilling and an annual two-week training exercise. A staff sergeant with six years can get $4,628. With a call to active duty, the pay bumps up -- $16,282 for a private first class and $26,448 for the staff sergeant, which is tax-free while the military member is in a combat zone.
There are other benefits. Mortgage and credit card rates are reduced. In some cases, the law prohibits landlords from evicting military families even if they haven't paid rent. And employers are required to take reservists back once they return from duty, with no loss in pension benefits or seniority.
But the package comes nowhere near making up for many civilian salaries.
The reservists are volunteers, of course. They have been reminded repeatedly that active duty could come at any time. But many say they signed up for the several thousand a year in extra pay and other perks, not for war.
"I thought I could get some money for school," said Spec. Robert Moore of Pasadena, who spent a year on active duty with the Army's 443rd Military Police Company after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was shipped off again last week for training at Fort Lee, Va. -- most likely a prelude to deployment overseas. "I think most people just thought: 'We're just the reserves. We're not going anywhere.' "
Sgt. Kevin Green hears similar comments from his Army National Guard troops in the 1229th Transportation Company.
"They don't want a weapon in their hands, riding around in another country, worried that they won't come back," he said.
As of last week, 168,083 reserve and National Guard troops were on active duty, including thousands from Washington, Maryland and Virginia. They have guarded al Qaeda and Taliban detainees from Afghanistan at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and patrolled Iraq's no-fly zone. Now, area troops are getting ready to set up refugee camps in northern Iraq and to transport equipment to the front lines. In the Maryland National Guard, 3,000 of 8,000 members have been called up since Sept. 11, 2001.
"The military can't conduct a war without the National Guard and reserve components," said Maj. Charles Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard.
Green's unit probably will be placed somewhere in the Middle East, he said. He doesn't yet know where, but it will be a world away from his civilian life, where he has two children and is in charge of Sears deliveries in Maryland. While on active duty, he expects to lose about $1,000 a month, the equivalent of his monthly mortgage payment.
Green was called up during the Persian Gulf War, and this time around, he thought he knew how to prepare. But still he was caught somewhat off guard.
"You try to put a few dollars away in case of an emergency," he said. "But this isn't an emergency; this is a crisis."
Now, he's praying for two things: "I hope we win the lottery, or at least that our car doesn't break down."
His fiancee, Wanda Jones, will have to work overtime at her pharmaceutical company job to help make up the difference. And they've already had a conversation about finances when he's gone.
"I'm going to cut out shopping at the mall," she said.
Some firms continue to pay troops on active duty, or at least to make up the difference between military and civilian pay. A survey by the Reserve Officers Association of the United States found that of the 154 Fortune 500 corporations that responded to a query, 105 make up the difference in pay. Last year, just 75 of 132 responding companies did so, and in 2001, the number was 53 of 119.
Army Reserve Sgt. Jeffery Brooks, a fraud detection manager from Woodbridge, said his company, Capital One, has agreed to pay him the difference. Otherwise, he would be losing $2,200 a month. "I'd be in real trouble," he said.
Daniel Ray, editor in chief of bankrate.com, an online financial information service that helps reservists, said many people are not so lucky. "Those are generous bosses to have," Ray said. "But if you're self-employed, or you've built up your practice over the years, it can be very hard. When you go away, your practice dries up. Then it doesn't just affect you but your secretary and the people who rely on you."
Not everyone takes a financial hit. Army Reserve Lt. Orlando Amaro would make the same amount guarding a POW camp in Iraq as he does as a D.C. police officer patrolling the streets of Columbia Heights. If he is shipped overseas, where his income wouldn't be taxed, he may come out ahead.
"It won't affect me at all," he said.
Lynn Brinker isn't thinking about coming out ahead. She may sell the Chrysler she and her husband recently bought. She wants desperately to let her 12-year-old son, Chris, continue private viola lessons, and for Kevin, 10, to keep up with the trumpet. She wonders whether she'll be able to afford the registration fees and equipment for youth hockey in the fall.
"My thinking is we'll tap this line of credit and try to keep my kids' lives as normal as possible while their father is away. It's very traumatic for them," she said.
"People may say, 'Well, he signed up for this. You knew this could happen.' But he was away for an entire year, and then leaves four months later. And now we don't know how long he'll be gone. I don't think he signed up for that."