- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2013

Jamie Boling and her husband, Joseph, know that providing for a military family can be trying — waiting for orders, often living on a single income, and, in especially tough cases, supporting a spouse wounded in the line of duty.

Around the holidays, the challenges — especially the financial ones — can tax families already struggling to make ends meet.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit D.C.-based think tank, estimates that as many as 340,000 veterans rely on federal or state rental assistance. About 900,000 veterans live on food stamps, and an additional 5,000 active-duty service members are food stamp recipients.

The nonprofit groups Operation Homefront and Fisher House Foundation stepped in Monday to provide the Bolings and about 300 other military families in the D.C. area with grocery bags filled with the fixings for a holiday meal.

“My husband medically retired in October, and it’s a big transition to go from active duty to medical retirement,” said Mrs. Boling, 29, of Gaithersburg. “It gets hard around this time of year. My husband is making about 30 percent of what he used to be making. You have to start stretching dollars. This literally puts food on the table.”

Families received a bag of disposable plates, silverware, cups and napkins, as well as a bag of canned goods and a bag of dry goods, such as instant potatoes, pie crust and cornbread mix. They were also given Wal-Mart gift cards along with vouchers for turkeys and produce at the store.

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“The No. 1 request we hear is for assistance with food and to ensure children have a Christmas to remember,” said Vivian Dietrich, executive director of the D.C. area branch of Operation Homefront. “Families want to ensure their children have pleasant holidays.”

Wal-Mart provided the $2 million to help fill the grocery bags. The donation is part of a pledge by the big-box retailer to donate $20 million to veterans and their families by 2015.

Ms. Dietrich explained that in an expensive city to live in like the District, military families often face the challenge of balancing a food bill with other necessities.

Jennifer Allred said her husband is in the Army and the two of them live in Alexandria with six children, ages 4 to 13.

“We can’t not get gas,” Mrs. Allred, 34, said. So when it comes to cutting back, “the first thing to go is the fresh stuff.”

An average month of grocery shopping can cost upward of $800, Mrs. Allred said, and around the holidays, she and her husband have to figure out how to balance doctor’s appointments and food bills with Christmas wish lists.

“Stuff like this helps to supplement,” she said. “It makes it much easier. Families like ours get lost between the cracks.”

While the Congressional Budget Office a decade ago estimated that the total benefits and pay compensation package earned by the average active-duty service member was $99,000, basic pay for a soldier starts at $18,194 annually — below the $23,550 federal poverty line for a family of four.

Political battles have made the situation even more unsettling.

For the first time in 30 years, amid budget pressures from the sequester and an ongoing financial downturn, Congress and the military are considering changes that could cut soldiers’ retirement benefits.

And President Obama has suggested the possibility of paring back annual military pay raises, from 1.8 percent to 1 percent.

Vivian Greentree, director of research and policy for the advocacy group Blue Star Families, said the developments could seriously impact the finances of soldiers and their loved ones.

“We know military families face unique financial concerns that come with the military lifestyle,” she said. “For the thousands of military families living in poverty, the impact of frequent moves and cuts to military family programming or service member compensation will be felt even more keenly.”

Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, said some join the service hoping to escape financial pressures.

“Quite a few people now who are coming in to the military are married, have a child or two. They may have been unemployed on the civilian side and maybe have wracked up debt. And so they’re looking at the military for an opportunity,” she said.

“That entry-level military pay isn’t geared for a family. It’s more for that 18-year-old high school graduate,” Ms. Raezer said.

She said that according to the Department of Defense the military spouse unemployment rate is at 26 percent, and many military spouses who are employed are under employed.

“In some ways, military families are like every other American family,” Ms. Raezer said. “In some ways military families are better off. There is military pay and allowances, things like subsidized child care and commissaries with savings on groceries. But the military does some things that put families’ finances at risk that many civilian employers don’t do.”

Among those things is asking them to move with little notice.

Cody and Lauren Mohr are awaiting just such an order.

The Mohrs are the parents of three children younger than 7 and recently received word they would be moving across the country. But as the weeks went by, the family realized they would be in Maryland for the holiday and faced planning a last-minute Christmas.

They said the meal donation Monday would help tie their family over until Airman 1st Class Mohr received his orders to move to a new Air Force base in northern California.

“This program helps us immensely,” Airman Mohr, 27, said.

Mrs. Mohr, 26, pointed out that her husband was 25 when he joined the Air Force and that many people his rank either are just married or have only one child.

“For us this helps so much,” she said.

Kristina Wong contributed to this report.

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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