Money woes on home front

Call-ups often mean lower pay and hardship for National Guard and Reserve troops.

As the war in Iraq grinds through its third year, one number keeps going up: the number of men and women in Reserve and National Guard units mobilized for active duty. Last week, their ranks swelled again to 139,218.

But these citizen-soldiers are drawing not only tough assignments - they represent some 40 percent of all American troops in Iraq and, so far this month, two-thirds of US fatalities. They also find themselves burdened with financial problems back home. The challenge has become so common that some critics call it the "patriot penalty."

Spc. Blaine Hall of the Army National Guard in Washington State is one example.

Because of government red tape and the on-again, off-again orders for call-up and deployment, he was unable to obtain the government loan that would have allowed him to train someone else to run his bookstore in Gig Harbor, Wash., during the year he spent in Iraq.

"I understand the possibility for deployment can occur at anytime with little notice, and that it is our responsibility to keep our households and business ready for deployment," he told a US Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing at the Army National Guard Armory in Seattle last week. But in the end, he said, "I was forced to close my business and file for bankruptcy."

Staff Sgt. Kevin Romanelli of the Washington State National Guard, who served in Afghanistan, told the hearing of his difficulties in getting medical disability payments. As a result, Sergeant Romanelli said, his family of five is unable to make ends meet.

"I am constantly contacted by bill collectors," he said. "The most difficult thing for me is the hardship that has been imposed on my family."

A financial hit

Government studies show that about half of all reservists and National Guard members report a loss of income when they go on active duty - typically more than $4,000 a year.

Under federal law, companies must hold the jobs of guardsmen and reservists for when they return from active duty.

Some companies voluntarily make up the pay difference for their employees called to active duty, among them Cummins, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Sears, and Raytheon.

But most companies are either unable or unwilling to do this, and for the several thousand self-employed reservists and guardsmen there is no such possibility.

Senior Guard and Reserve officers worry that loss of income and other stresses will impair citizen-soldiers' ability to fulfill their missions, not to mention discouraging them from reenlisting or signing up in the first place.

In an internal memo to a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last December, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, warned that his command is "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."

In April, Lt. Gen. Roger Schultz, chief of the Army National Guard, told a Senate hearing that a variety of bonuses had brought about "some signs of a turnaround in our recruiting and retention numbers." But, he added, "We have a long way to go in achieving our year-end strength goals."

Relief from the states

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), more than two-thirds of the states provide property-tax or income-tax relief for part-time soldiers ordered to full-time service. Thirty states now cover the gap between the civilian pay and military pay of state government employees whose National Guard or Reserve units are mobilized.

"By contrast," the CBO reported in May, "the assistance that states offer to reservists' employers or reservist business owners appears to be very limited." And for those reservists or guardsmen who are not government employees back home, the penalty can be considerable.

"Bridging the gap between incomes during deployment makes all the difference for families trying to cope with the emotional and financial challenges," says Rhonda Daniels, who started the Family Bridges Foundation, a support group for families of National Guard members on New York's Long Island, after her husband's unit was sent to Iraq.

Tax breaks for firms

Some states - Florida and Pennsylvania among them - have begun offering tax credits to companies that make up the difference in the pay of their employees called to active duty.

But there needs to be a national program of this type, says Rep. Steve Israel (D) of New York, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Given the disruptions and dangers in their lives now, he says, reservists and guardsmen "shouldn't have to sacrifice their paychecks as well."

Representative Israel is sponsoring a bill that would provide a tax credit of up to $15,000 a year for companies that are already making up the salary difference for their National Guard or Reserve employees. The bill also would offer a direct payment of up to $50,000 a year to citizen soldiers on active duty who are self-employed or whose companies aren't making up the difference. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana is sponsoring a similar measure in the Senate.

Senator Bayh figures the proposal would cost about $1 billion - less than 2 percent of the $80 billion in extra spending for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush earlier this year asked Congress to approve, bringing the total to more than $300 billion.

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