States shore up support for troops

From life insurance to utility bills and tuition, there's a surge of support for part-time soldiers.

This April, when Rhode Island residents file their tax returns, they'll be able to check off a box to donate part of their tax refund to an assistance fund for the state's National Guard and Reserve families.

Earlier this month, the governor of New Mexico signed a bill making his state the first to buy life-insurance policies - worth $250,000 - for all its active-duty Guard members.

And from South Dakota to Alabama, states have introduced or passed legislation ranging from tuition assistance, to free hunting licenses, to extensions on renewal periods for driver's licenses. Some of the perks apply to the military at large, but many are intended specifically for part-time soldiers.

Across the country, experts say, state aid to military personnel is growing. It reflects the increasingly critical role of the National Guard in Iraq and the broader war on terror, and the mounting frustration with what some politicians see as Congress's insufficient contribution to the welfare of troops.

Legislation on behalf of military personnel has flourished since 2002, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson (D) says 24 states have contacted his office about the life-insurance bill since he signed it into law Feb 2. "I believe this is spreading like wildfire because this is the right thing to do," he says. "There is so much frustration with Congress doing so little."

War, experts point out, strikes closer to home when entire units are called to the front from a single state. "States are kicking in because the use of the National Guard is more extensive than they are accustomed [to]," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. "It is their sons and daughters that are being called up."

The last major mobilization of the Guard for overseas deployments was during World War II, he says, when the draft was also in effect. "What's different now is that in World War II everyone went.... There was no major perception of inequity."

That perception, coupled with extended tours of duty and a mounting death toll in Iraq, have contributed to drops in recruitment numbers for the National Guard. Yet Guard and Reserve troops comprise about half of those fighting in Iraq.

Compounding their personal hardship, deployment often translates into financial strain: Forty percent of them earn less while serving abroad than in their civilian jobs, according to a Pentagon study, and experts suggest the real number of troops with a salary gap may be still higher - even without the inclusion of other costs, such as childcare when one parent is abroad.

That's where the Rhode Island Military Relief Fund comes in, says Lt. Col. Robert Behm, director of the Rhode Island National Guard State Family Program. Contributions of $140,000 have funded grants of $1,000 for families with a loved one injured or killed on duty, and up to $2,000 for emergencies, such as avoiding evictions and paying overdue utility bills.

Yet the greatest challenge, says Colonel Behm, isn't finding donations; rather, it's getting families to accept them. "Our biggest problem is that most of the time, we get families who are embarrassed; they don't want their spouse to know they couldn't handle the situation."

Officials expect Rhode Island residents to contribute even more money to the assistance fund come Tax Day. "There's almost not a week that goes by that we don't have some deployment or return," says Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty. "We have a state responsibility to do this."

Other state lawmakers feel the same way, according to the NCSL:

• Missouri is one of many states trying match Rhode Island's tax-form donation technique.

• Delaware grants veterans with 90 or more consecutive days on active duty one year of free access to state parks.

• Alabama exempts active-duty troops from hunter-safety education requirements.

State support is, of course, good public policy: States look to the National Guard to help with everything from riots to natural disasters. Now, as residents see neighbors and co-workers being deployed, there is a heightened awareness of the Guard's sacrifices in Iraq. "The National Guard is more integrated into the civilian community, in a way that activite-duty personnel are not, says Mady Wechsler Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.

In some ways, the state efforts are an extension of federal moves to boost compensation. The Pentagon recently announced plans to increase the tax-free federal death gratuity from $12,420 to $100,000 for survivors of military members killed in the line of duty.

Still, the federal government can play a larger role for National Guard and Reserve troops, says US Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana. In his state, he says, some of them have had to file for bankruptcy. That's why he's proposed a measure to eliminate the "patriot penalty" - the difference between civilian and combat pay.

The measure would provide a tax credit of up to $15,000 a year to companies that pay the salary difference, and would directly pay those service members whose companies do not make up the difference, up to $50,000 a year. "States have stepped forward with insurance policies" and other programs, he says. "But many states are really strapped financially."

It's a dilemma felt across the country. John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, notes the difficulty of setting state financial priorities. "Money is not endless; hard choices need to be made," he says. "How do you balance buying hardware with the supporting of service members and their families?"

The type of support that's needed - and increasingly expected - has shifted since 9/11, just as the nation's demands on its troops have changed. And with longer, more frequent deployments, many of those affected are pushing for a greater acknowledgment of how critical families - both their support of the troops and the military's support of them - really are.

"The whole family concept is something that, during the last few years, they realize there is a need for," says Behm.

But there is still much to do, says Amy Palmer, an Air Force veteran and the eastern region director for Operation Homefront, which provides day-to-day assistance to military families. "Because [the military] is more terrorist-oriented, it means a lot of frequent deployment," she says. "They are not looking at the transforming of the family to meet those needs.... And it gets harder every time."

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