New Mexico troops battle financial problems. Imagine you live paycheck-to paycheck. Since the majority of Americans do, that should be an easy lifestyle to consider. But then imagine you live paycheck-to-paycheck and have to support a family and all its related expenses: mortgage, car payment, insurance, children, you name it. Now imagine that your income was just cut by one-fifth, or even more, and at the same time you had to say goodbye to your family in hopes of seeing them again in about 18 months.
In New Mexico, that's the reality for many of the more than 1,000 New Mexico National Guard troops and reservists who have been called to active duty in support of national security and the U.S. military engagements underway in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last week, another 200 New Mexico guardsmen were ordered to active duty by the Pentagon. According to Maj. Kimberly Lalley, a national guard spokesperson based in Albuquerque, the 642nd Maintenance Company based in Las Cruces and 1115th Transportation Company based in Taos will be augmented by soldiers stationed all over the state. They'll follow a Springer-based unit of 59 national guard members recently sent to Forth Hood, Texas. By early next year, they'll all be heading overseas.
“We're really busy in the guard,” Lalley said. “They'll be doing a dangerous commission, getting supplies to soldiers, airmen and Marines wherever they need them.”
Lalley said the orders are for 365 days “boots in country,” but the national guard members need to be “prepared” to leave their jobs for 18 months, once time is factored in for training on the front end and “decompression time” when they return.
Once activated, troops will forego their paychecks as teachers, engineers, firemen, police officers, small business owners—or in the case of the Springer company, six of the guardsmen worked at the boys school.
They'll begin pulling a paycheck from the Department of Defense, the amount determined by military rank, and in many cases it will be a significant decrease in wages. And although a federal law requires that the soldiers receive equal pay and equal status when they return to work, while they are on duty they must somehow manage financially with less.
“There is nothing in the law that makes up the difference,” said Capt. Tracy O'Neal, an administrator for the New Mexico National Guard in Albuquerque. “That is something they know when they swear in, so we hope they plan for it. If they own their own business, unfortunately there is no protection.”
Operation Homefront. Now imagine that you are on duty someplace away from your home and family and you know that the money you are sending home as the primary bread-winner is no longer enough to cover your now diminished, paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle. 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.
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 Henson said has shifted its focus to “keeping money in the hands of New Mexico's guardsmen and reservists.”
But to hear some of the more intimate details of the financial struggles the soldiers have experienced, it sounds like 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 raised a total of $400,000 in the past two years, and paid out more than half of the total in small payments to more than 130 families throughout the state.
Operation Homefront serves “qualifying” members of New Mexico's National Guard and reserve units that have been called to active duty over the past two years. To qualify, a soldier must have completed boot camp training and retain an E-3 status or higher. Then, if the soldier has incurred a 20 percent or greater loss in pay, Operation Homefront will reimburse the lost income up to $500 per month, for the entire length of deployment.
“We received cards from families telling us they would have lost their homes,” said Henson.
Henson said his organization often sends checks directly to mortgage companies. He said they also send checks directly 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.
While some employers will supplement a soldier's lost wages, Henson added that unfortunately many soldiers work for a small business that can't afford the expense, or some might be self-employed, or, as is often the case in New Mexico, others are employed by the government.
“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.”
(For more information: Operation Homefront, 345-6060.)