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2003-04-14 - 8:20 a.m.

The Military Fight, Their Spouses Stand on Welfare Lines

There is something seriously wrong in a country as rich as America when the spouses of our military personnnel have to stand in welfare lines or receive charity because they cannot make ends-met on military paychecks. And yet, this is exactly what is happening to many of the lower-ranking military families. What makes this even more tragic is all the cuts the Bush Administration has planned against our vets and the families of the military.

US soldiers' wives fight bitter battle of their own
April 14 2003

As US troops battle remnants of Iraq's fallen regime, their wives are locked in a bitter struggle against money woes that have forced some to resort to charity handouts to survive.

Low military salaries and the high cost of living in parts of the United States means that families of many of the lower ranking US troops fighting in Iraq live a hand to mouth existence.

"I know several wives of Marines with small children who line up at churches for grocery handouts which are the only way they can survive the month and feed and cloth the baby," said military wife, Natalie Castro, 19.

"Military salaries are so low that they are almost impossible for a family to live on, leaving some women desperate, especially now when we also have the emotional turmoil of worrying if our men are safe in Iraq," she said.

Like many of her friends, the mother of a seven-month-old boy, relies on an American Red Cross program to supply her with crucial baby formula and on additional help from the military community.

Castro, the wife of a 21-year old Marine private, is one of around 130,000 residents of Oceanside, which is dominated by Marines from the nearby Camp Pendleton base and lies near the upscale Californian city of San Diego.

Much like other US military towns, Oceanside's main street is festooned with US flags, patriotic messages for the troops in Iraq and miles of yellow ribbons symbolising the town's vigil for loved ones who are fighting abroad.

Like much of California, the sun drenched seaside town boasts an idyllic beach and a resort town atmosphere. But it also comes with the higher rental and retail prices that go with life on the glistening Pacific coast.

The main street is lined with scores of loan agencies that lend cash strapped soldiers up to $US250 ($A413) dollars on their next salaries in return for a post-dated cheque and a hefty $US44 ($A72) dollar charge on the transaction.

Low ranking privates and corporals - they make up 60 per cent of the US Marine Corps - take home only around $US800 ($A1,323) dollars a month after tax, or $US9,600 ($A15,881) dollars annually.

The US Census Bureau classifies a family of three as poor if its cash income is less than $US14,128 ($A23,371) dollars a year, or $US11,569 ($A19,138) dollars for a married couple.

"We get a lot of young Marines' wives who need things like eggs, bread, vegetables and such items to get through the month," said Manny Garza who helps hand out food to the needy at Oceanside's St Mary's Church.

"It's tough for them because they are so proud of what their husbands are doing, especially now that we are at war, yet they're battling at home," he said adding that many families did not like to talk of their financial woes.

Even a combat pay boost awarded to troops in Iraq has not ended the monthly cash crunch that families of low ranking soldiers feel.

"I've heard of women who are on welfare or use food stamps to go shopping, which adds to anxiety that wives with loved ones in Iraq are feeling," said Michelle Kester, the wife of a Marine recruiting master sergeant.

The Military Outreach Ministry gives boxes of essential monthly groceries, including baby nappies, to around 400 families of personnel at Camp Pendleton and San Diego's naval station.

But it reaches up to 10,000 people a month who need additional handouts of items ranging from furniture to baby formula to medical assistance to household repairs.

"Sometimes we have families which can just afford to move into a home off-base, but who then can't afford to furnish it, not even with a bed," said the ministry's Aline Bradley.

"It is difficult, but the military does have programs, including ours, that provide a major safety belt for service families in trouble - they just have to know how to get that help."

To help families manage their money, the military even provides courses on household budgeting and balancing chequebooks to soldiers' wives.

But even with help from the military community and other groups, times are tough for young military families trying to live the American Dream in sunny California.

"After tax and after paying for the car and its insurance and medical bills for the baby, there's nothing left," Castro said.

"My husband and most of his friends all have second jobs or work whenever they can just to survive, which seems really wrong to me given the job they're doing for is Iraq."


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