In a brightly lit community room near Fort Belvoir, the young parents of military families listened intently as Christine Vance explained how they could get some charity to survive the holidays.
Wearing a T-shirt reading, “I ♥ My Soldier,” Vance began by emphasizing that they shouldn’t feel ashamed to appeal for aid.
“I know what it’s like to be at the bottom,” Vance said. “I know how hard it is to ask for help.”
Shocking as it may seem, wearing your country’s uniform is no guarantee that you earn enough to provide Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for your family on your own.
Sergeants, corporals and other enlisted personnel with children regularly find their take-home checks don’t leave enough at the end of a pay period to afford meat or fresh produce.
For the fourth straight year, Vance has lent a hand. Wife of an Army sergeant and mother of six, Vance is the dynamo behind an informal food bank called “Heidi’s Pantry” for the Fort Belvoir community in southern Fairfax County.
The pantry collects and distributes food during the year and makes an extra effort at the holidays. For Thanksgiving, it handed out food baskets to 40 families. It’s planning to do the same for Christmas, plus give out stocking-stuffers and toys.
“We are supposed to be sisters in the military, brothers in the military, and it’s time that we acted as such,” Vance told the small crowd of parents at the Nov. 17 meeting, while a half-dozen toddlers played quietly.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Chardonnay Hamilton depends on Vance’s group. It provided her and her husband with a turkey, fresh and canned vegetables and apple and blueberry pies for Thanksgiving.
“It meant we had a very nice Thanksgiving.” Hamilton, 26, said Friday. In an earlier interview at the planning meeting, she said that Vance “was really the only source [of food] we had that was dependable.”
Hamilton, in her seventh year in uniform, said the high cost of living eats up her net pay of $1,270 every two weeks. Her husband works, too, but his pay barely covers child care for their two sons, ages 2 and 3.
Although she lives in military housing and “we budget really well,” Hamilton said, they can’t save enough to handle the holidays without help.
“As far as savings or putting money aside if something happens, there’s no way to do that,” Hamilton said.
She finds the struggle disheartening: “The fact that I can’t provide for them is really tough, because I feel like this is one of the most important jobs in America.”
Lindy Carmichael, 31, said her husband’s salary as an Army radio operator doesn’t stretch far enough to cover unexpected expenses. She uses the pantry regularly for food for their three children, ages 1, 5 and 7, as well as for Thanksgiving.
“You need an oil change, or your car breaks down, or the kids have dental stuff, it gets ugly,” Carmichael said.
She’s doubly worried this year because her husband is losing his job in May as part of a force reduction. He’s served for nearly 15 years, including two deployments to Iraq.
“I’m trying not to spend money on anything,” Carmichael said.
The Fort Belvoir families have plenty of company. The regional branch of Operation Homefront, a nonprofit group that provides emergency assistance to active-duty military personnel, says demand for food aid is constant.
“This year, we’ve all been struck by the need,” Cyndi Lucas, community outreach leader for the Mid-Atlantic Field Office in Sterling, said. “Registration for our meals program filled up in a couple hours after we posted on Facebook. We have long waiting lists.”
Spending reductions ordered by Congress are partly responsible.
“As a result of the cuts in the Defense Department, there have been a lot of cuts to the family services program,” Lucas said.
Vance set up Heidi’s Pantry to honor a close friend, Heidi Galvin, who died of a heart attack at age 45.
“Heidi was always the person who would give you a place to stay, food for your home, gas for your car, and everyone knew her as Aunt Heidi,” Vance said.
The pantry has a Facebook page but no official standing. It gets its food from local food banks, and from group and individual contributions. Many of its volunteers are people whom it aided in the past.
It’s heartening to see people coming together to help one another, especially at this time of year.
But it’s also sobering to be reminded of the day-to-day hardships of working people in the economy’s lower tier, even when they’re serving our nation.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.