Army of Debt
reservists and National Guard members risk their lives in
Iraq, their families
are risking bankruptcy at home
many stories, this has several beginnings. Here is one: On
a hot day in August 1983, just before my senior year of high
school, I walked into the Army recruitment office in Appleton,
Wisc. The purpose of my visit was practical. I wanted to go
recruitment officer was a smoker. The fumes had stained the
walls of his office, or maybe the plaster had actually been
painted that color. The place was warm. I remember that I
was dressed in a wool skirt my mom had made and that I should
not have worn wool in August. The officer asked a few questions,
talked a great deal, was respectful and told me I would be
a “good recruit.” I was susceptible to this praise.
I remember a few other things. One was that my incipient patriotism
took a running leap as he described how I might serve my country.
There was a familial component to this emotion. My father
and his brother were both Air Force men. My cousin had made
a career as a Navy SEAL, something all of us looked on with
I was interviewing for the Army Reserve, and the recruiter
described the money the government would give me, enough to
pay for four years of university. In return, after I graduated,
I would serve full time in the Army for two years. I would
be an officer. It was the money, though, that made my blood
rush. I wanted it. I wanted an education. And I wanted to
get one without causing my family pain.
A few weeks later, school started up again, and I learned
that none of my friends was considering military service.
Peer pressure won. I didn’t join up.
The recruiters hadn’t finished with me, though. They called
my house more than once during my senior year. Even after
I entered college, they kept phoning. When I wasn’t home on
break, my parents took the calls. Together, we turned down
the Army perhaps a dozen times, in both flush periods and
on days when money for my education was hard to come by.
Over the years, I have come to see this decision, however
arbitrary, as pivotal and defining—one of those choices that
determines a life.
Some of my college classmates were in ROTC. They ended up
going to the Middle East for the first Gulf War. After we
graduated, I heard about their experiences in the desert and
on leave. Always, just as on the day when I first saw them
in uniform, I heard a bell sound in my brain. I sometimes
felt I was witnessing my other life—the one I turned down.
I heard that bell sound again as I reported and wrote this
Across the country, in small towns and big cities, the families
of our National Guard and Army Reserve are having trouble
paying the bills. Many are barely treading water. Some go
Many households of reservists—30 percent, according to a 2002
Pentagon estimate—lose income when activated. In 2002, the
U.S. Department of Defense also surveyed the spouses of reservists
who had been activated. Out of the 30 percent who said they
had lost household income, the Pentagon survey indicated,
half had decreases of between $500 and $2,000 per month. Another
23 percent forfeited $2,001 or more monthly.
Poor pay and economic strife are conditions the Reserve and
National Guard share with others in the regular military.
“Lower-ranking enlisted people qualify for food stamps. It’s
not how we’re used to thinking about government employees,
but there it is,” says Kathleen Gilberd, co-chair of the Military
Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild. “Active-duty
pay has traditionally not been enough to help people get by.”
Extreme financial crises set in when service people are deployed
because they then have no opportunity to get a second job
to supplement their income.
But reservists and National Guard members are especially hard
hit. “The ones who do experience income loss, it’s usually
a significant income loss,” says Shirley Calhoun, spokeswoman
for the National Military Family Association. Many have good-paying
jobs in the civilian world. But in the military ranks, the
same people may not yet have made officer, “so they are at
a lower pay level,” says Calhoun.
Part of the problem is the loss of overtime pay. In California,
many members of the National Guard are in law enforcement
or corrections, says Steven Maloney, the family assistance
manager for Operation Ready Families with the California National
Guard. They are used to working overtime for “10, 15, 20 hours
a week,” says Maloney. “That can be a big chunk of change.”
When a corrections or police officer is deployed, the overtime
pay disappears. “It’s a shock to the system upon deployment.”
For people who own their own businesses—and there are many
such people in the Reserve and the Guard—deployment can also
take a toll. “If you’re a doctor, lawyer, or dentist” in private
practice “and you walk away from your job,” you are going
to lose business, says Master Sergeant Retired Michael Cline,
executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National
Guard of the United States. “A client isn’t going to wait
for you to return to get his teeth pulled. He’s going to another
dentist.” For those who run businesses like contracting or
trucking, the results can be equally devastating, notes Cline.
“You go buy a $100,000 truck to drive down the highway and
that truck sits in the driveway, you still got to make payments
on that truck.”
Many members of the Guard “suffer a considerable amount of
financial loss,” says Cline. “There’s not a day goes by that
I don’t get a request” for financial help “to pay the mortgage,
make a car payment, buy food, pay the electric bill. Yesterday,
I had four of them come across my desk.”
Cline knows of several instances where families have found
themselves forced into bankruptcy.
wouldn’t believe the horror stories we have,” he says. Just
the other day, he says, a “guy’s car got repossessed.”
At the debate of Democratic presidential contenders shortly
before the New Hampshire primary, Sen. John Kerry brought
up the subject. “All across this country there are families
right now—all of us have talked to them—who are suffering
greatly because the Guards and Reserves have been called up.
They are overextended,” he said. “The troops of the United
States of America are overextended. Their deployments are
too long. The families are hurting at home because they lose
money from the private sector when they’re called up and they
get paid less in the military and nobody makes it up to them.”
Kathy Cruz is a bankruptcy attorney in Hot Springs, Ark. The
state is home to the 39th Infantry Division of the Arkansas
That division left Hot Springs in October to serve 18 months
total, 12 of these in Iraq. Already, Cruz’s office has accumulated
was looking at four files this morning, and this is one little
bitty law firm, and they were all military,” she says.
One of Cruz’s new clients, a family with four teenage children,
owned a gas station and convenience store. The father of the
family, an Army reservist medic, was called for his deployment
to Iraq in September. “When he’s gone, there’s no one to run
the store,” says Cruz. Within a month, the family ran into
serious financial trouble. “Better known as, ‘Who’s minding
the store?’ The answer is nobody. So now there’s no store.”
After they went bankrupt, family members realized that they
could not afford the monthly payment on their house, so they
gave it back to the mortgage company. Otherwise, it would
have been repossessed, says Cruz. The bad luck spread. The
soldier’s parents had cosigned on the loan for the store.
“If the grandparents don’t file” for bankruptcy, they’ll lose
their own home, says Cruz. “And that’s going to be real trouble
because now all four kids are living with them. Where else
are they going to go?” The grandparents are in their 60s,
she says. The grandfather is disabled, and the grandmother
has reentered the workforce to stay afloat. Recently, the
whole family came to Cruz’s office. “You’ve got three generations
sitting in front of you, scared out of their wits,” she says.
Cruz is certain she hasn’t seen the end of the bankruptcies.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” she says.
She explains how the downward spiral that leads to bankruptcy
can start. “If you were making $1,000” a month “and now you’re
making $500,” she says, you will tend to use your credit card
to make up the difference in the first month and hope that
you will catch up in the months to come. “And then if you
can’t pay up your credit cards, you go and refinance your
house” and live on that equity. “Pretty soon you run out of
Deceptive lenders who prey on military personnel can exacerbate
the economic hazards of military life. “We’ve seen credit
cards around here that have 49-percent interest rates,” says
Cruz. Some outfits say, “Apply online. Don’t worry if you
have bad credit,” she adds.
The National Consumer Law Center issued a report last May
called In Harm’s Way—at Home. It says, “Scores of consumer-abusing
businesses directly target this country’s active-duty military
men and women daily.” What makes matters worse is that these
businesses take advantage of “a military culture that urges
people to keep their finances in order as part of good conduct
codes,” the report notes. Fear of financial disorder can drive
soldiers deeper into debt. “Military codes of conduct call
for orderly personal lives—specifically including orderly
finances,” says the report. “This creates an incentive to
chase quick fixes when finances start slipping.” And unscrupulous
businesses heavily exploit—and exaggerate—the threat of punishment,
the report says.
I called the Pentagon to see whether it can punish servicepeople
for their financial hardships. “Personal bankruptcy of a military
member, by itself, is not a basis for discharge or denial
of promotion,” says a Department of Defense official. However,
“conduct underlying the bankruptcy” can get you discharged.
The official cites financial mismanagement involving “deceit,
evasion, false promises, or other distinctly culpable circumstances
indicating a deliberate nonpayment or grossly indifferent
attitude toward one’s obligations.”
sure any organization would frown on members of their institution
not taking care of financial obligations,” says Lt. Col. Dan
Stoneking, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense.
However, he says, the military’s emphasis is not on “admonition”
but on “support.”
Perhaps the message isn’t getting through. “What many soldiers
and sailors don’t realize is that isolated instances of financial
trouble almost never trigger military discipline. Some creditors
work hard to create the opposite impression,” reports the
National Consumer Law Center. According to the center, one
lender, Military Financial Network of Delaware, carried an
explicit warning on its loan contract: “If I fail to provide
these funds, I understand that this will be a violation of
Article 123a and 134 of the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military
Justice), punishable by up to 6 months confinement, forfeiture
of all pay and allowances, and a bad conduct discharge. .
. . I authorize the Military Financial Network to contact
my military superiors in these matters.”
Al Vaccaro, CEO of Military Financial, says last May’s report
of the National Consumer Law Center is “very outdated.” While
the company did have such language in its contract “a long
time ago,” it doesn’t anymore, he says. “We don’t do any type
of aggressive collections efforts at all,” he says. He also
says the report’s criticism of military lenders for taking
advantage of servicepeople is “very slanted.”
On Google in late January, if you typed in “Military Financial
Network of Delaware,” you would have found a box at the very
top right that said: “Short-term Military Loans, $150-$5,000
cash in hand today! No credit check, 99% approved. www.militaryfinancial.com.”
Economic stress among the National Guard and Reserve forces
is “a major problem all across the United States,” says Rep.
Chris Bell (D-Texas). It’s causing serious “hardship to families.
In many instances, they have to take severe financial pay
Together with Rep. Tom Lantos, (D-Calif.), Bell sponsored
an amendment to HR 1836, the Civil Service and National Security
Personnel Improvement Act. The provision would have required
government employers of federal, state and municipal workers
to make up the difference between their employees’ home pay
and their deployment earnings.
The amendment, which Bell says would have cost the government
$160 million, was approved in committee only to be removed
from the bill prior to the vote. Bell says he thinks the cost
is what killed the bill.
Donna and James Bramblett live with three children—Donna’s
daughter, age 16, and James’s two sons, ages 13 and 11. When
he’s at home, James works as an electronic technician for
the National Guard. He makes about the same money stationed
in Iraq as he would at home in Adrian, Ga., “a little town
with one red light,” as Donna calls it. Since James went to
Iraq, their finances have taken a hit. “His check is the same,”
she says. But “as far as household income, it’s very different.”
Before her husband received his activation orders, Bramblett
worked nights as a nurse at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation
clinic, a workplace she says was lively and interesting. That
shift allowed her to care for the children during the day,
while James watched them at night. When her husband went on
active duty last March, Bramblett quit her job. “And I loved
my job. I loved my job,” she says. “I have to be at home with
the children at night, and I have to be at home with the children
on the weekends, and that pretty much limits me to working
in a doctor’s office.”
The job switch has cost the family nearly $400 a week, not
counting the loss of overtime Bramblett says she put in at
her previous job. Bramblett had car trouble, so she borrowed
money from her mother. “Really, I probably owe my mother right
now about $5,000,” she says.
Money is not Bramblett’s only concern. On Jan. 2, she had
major surgery. “Seventeen years ago, when I had more money,
I had breast implants,” she says. “I had the old silicone
implants, which are dangerous.” After a time, she says, “the
scar tissue had grown around the implants and was squeezing
them real hard,” causing them to leak.
a nurse, so I knew what was going on. I knew I was sick,”
says Bramblett. “My breasts got really, really hard, and it
was just like someone was standing there and squeezing them
all the time.”
The surgery couldn’t wait. Bramblett sent a Red Cross message
to her husband’s commander, requesting a leave of absence
so James could care for the children during her recovery.
James Bramblett is staff sergeant with the 878th Engineering
Division National Guard Unit, which is under the First Armored
Division of the Army. The First Armored Division, Donna Bramblett
says, denied her request.
still full of stitches. I’m cut up, my breasts are so cut
up and swollen and draining, and I hurt so bad,” she said
in late January. “My doctor said I’m just not healing” and
told her she’s doing too much. But, she says, “I have to.
Somebody has to wash their clothes. Somebody has to make their
Bramblett has been connected with the military for most of
her life. Her grandfather was a veteran of World War II, her
father served in Vietnam, and her former husband was in the
first Gulf War. “I’m a little bit disheartened and hard-hearted
to the First Armored Division right now, and I want the American
public to know what our military families go through,” she
says. “If I can help another wife not have to go through what
I’ve gone through, then I will feel better.”
Bramblett is president of family support for Company A of
the 878th Engineering Division. She is hearing a lot from
other spouses left behind. One person in her company, she
says, “is almost going to lose her home.” Others have less-dire
money troubles, but that doesn’t mean things are easy.
know people are making deals with Georgia Power,” she says.
“They’re just trying to make billing arrangements. I heard
one woman say, ‘I want to stay at the meeting. I don’t want
to go home. It’s so cold there, but, hell, I can’t afford
to turn up the heat.’ She’s got two little kids.”
Another couple in the company “had their furniture repossessed
because they couldn’t make the payments,” she says. Bramblett
says most of the people in her family support group are afraid
to speak out for fear that their words may have repercussions
for their spouses.
Not Bramblett. “I have never seen anything like this in my
life like I’ve seen with the National Guard,” she says. “I
think it is ridiculous, and I think it is not fair. I’m a
military person, but I will go to my grave fussing about the
Cusac is an investigative reporter for The Progressive.