- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

Several legislative proposals are being developed in Congress addressing the situation of military service personnel on food stamps. These include paying recipients extra subsistence dollars to ease their dependence. The Pentagon is even considering a separate military food stamp program.

Unfortunately, the motivation appears not to be to assist soldiers but rather to minimize a national disgrace. By and large, the proposals wouldn't increase the dollars going to military eligibles, but merely recolor dollars from being Department of Agriculture (food stamp), to Defense supplements. Another proposal would provide an income tax credit for soldiers instead of food stamps.

But all these ideas are concerned with image rather than easing the plight of the junior soldier, sailor, airman and Marine. Their cosmetic effect fails to address the underlying reasons for an unacceptable number of our nation's service members being eligible for food subsidies.

Americans might be surprised to learn that military personnel stationed overseas cannot apply for food stamps. Nor are they eligible for the WIC (Women, Infants, Children) program. They don't even qualify for the Earned Income Credit (EIC).

In short, personnel overseas are summarily stripped of basic economic benefits, citizenship rights accorded to all other Americans. The sole disqualification is that they happen to be serving on foreign soil: Out of sight, out of mind. Thus, the figure that about 6,300 enlisted troops are currently eligible for food stamps understates the problem.

Ironically, overseas federal civilians receive tax-free allowances as a subsidy for having to serve in such "hardship" locations as Germany, England, Italy, Japan and Korea.

Twenty years ago I was confronted with a situation I still think about today. At the time I was an infantry company commander stationed in Germany. Shortly after taking command, I noticed that Spec. Jones, a good soldier who obviously starched his fatigues at home rather than pay for quartermaster laundry, frequently arrived in the unit area carrying one or two plastic bags of garbage, which he deposited in the company dumpster.

The first sergeant informed me that soldiers living on the economy had to pay 2 marks (about $1.20) per bag of garbage picked up by the sanitation service. Spec. Jones didn't have the money. As I got to know him, I learned he had three daughters. His wife was expecting a fourth child. As she neared term, I purchased some baby blankets, outfits, and toys, and one Saturday visited the Jones family.

Upon entering the house, I noticed three boxes of powdered milk and a pitcher of constituted pale milk on the counter. Nearby was a stack of tuna variety cat food cans. As I began playing with the oldest child, I asked her what kind of cat she had. She didn't seem to understand. Embarrassed, Spec. Jones finally told me they didn't own a cat. On that date, I vowed that if I ever had the chance, I would try to do something about the situation that excludes Americans on foreign soil from eligibility for WIC and food stamps.

Whatever the solution to military on food stamps, it needs to include those who serve overseas. If our country truly cares about the plight of our uniformed personnel, it will make them eligible for domestic poverty aid.

A law that would protect those serving overseas would simply state: "No personnel of the Armed Forces of America or their families will be excluded from eligibility for any federal programs due to their being stationed on foreign soil."

A briefing on "Food Stamps in the Military" generated by the Office of the Secretary of Defense makes these points:

• It must be determined whether the program is a social benefit or social stigma.

• If the program is a stigma, the department must determine the right number on food stamps.

• Receipt of food stamps can be decreased by increasing income or resources, or redefining standards for eligibility.

The Defense Department has no plans to ask Congress to support legislation giving those stationed overseas the same rights as other Americans, and even illegal aliens living on American soil. But, I just can't help occasionally flashing back to Spec. Jones and his pregnant wife, whose WIC alternative was watered-down powdered milk and tuna entrails in cat food cans.

Rick Ballard is a colonel in the U.S. Army and is assigned to the Army staff, where he works on strategic issues involving the manning of the Army. The above are his personal views and do not represent Defense Department policy.

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