Imagine you are serving in the National Guard or Army Reserves in Iraq or Afghanistan and the money you are sending home as the primary bread-winner is no longer enough to cover your family's basic living expenses. Imagine you are failing to make the mortgage payment and face losing your home, or that your spouse can no longer afford to remain enrolled in school, or your family is about to lose their health insurance, or the propane tank needs to be filled and there's no money in the coffee can to get it done.
Beyond imagining, Charles Henson has seen this fate fall upon plenty of New Mexico families this year. When Henson joined with fellow members of the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association in the weeks following the 9-11 atrocities to raise money for the victims, he said it was out of the desire to help folks in New York and Washington. As a result, he said his association raised $200,000 within a few months and founded the non-profit Operation Homefront, which in the past two years has shifted its focus to keeping money in the hands of New Mexico's guardsmen and reservists.
To hear the intimate details of the financial struggles the soldiers have experienced, it's clear Operation Homefront is doing more than keeping money in their hands. In some cases, the group's donations are saving local soldiers from financial ruin.
Henson said his organization has expended more than $400,000 in the past two years, while the requests for assistance continue to flow through his office on a weekly basis. Just this month, the organization has sent checks to over 20 families across the state. The money, ranging from $500 to $2,000 goes for "whatever their needs are," said Henson, adding: "We don't restrict what they do with it." About half of the requests are "probably reduced pay because civilian pay is more than military pay," he said. In that case, the group will subsidize the qualifying soldier's lost income up to $500 per month for the entire length of deployment. Other families are categorized as hardship cases: home repairs, auto repairs, mortgage payments and so on, which are dealt with on a case to case basis.
"We received cards from families telling us they would have lost their homes," said Henson. They send checks directly to mortgage companies and to insurance companies, like in the case of one soldier who asked for $187 per month to cover his wife's health insurance while she battled cancer. Henson said he has heard stories of troops going through divorce because of financial stress while they are in Iraq.
"When you sign up, this is a harsh reality of what could happen," Henson said. "It's not a program about whether we should be there or not, it's about dealing with the fact that we are there. It's going to take care of these people while the problem exists, not after the damage is done." What's more, every penny donated to the program goes directly to needy families, since the automotive dealers association covers all of the administrative costs. (For more information: Operation Homefront, 345-6060.)