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Thousands of US Military Families Live in Poverty

The U.S. Military is preparing for possible war in Iraq. But the armed services are also struggling with a more domestic issue. By the Pentagon's own estimate, thousands of military families live in poverty. Despite recent salary increases, many enlisted men and women say they can't afford food and other basic needs.

At the end of a gray, cinderblock hallway, Amy Levesque unlocks a door and switches on the fluorescent light. A cavernous room is crammed to the ceiling with boxes of cereal, hamburger helper, and cans of stew. "The Department of Social Services donated the formula and the baby food for us," she said. "And we also have something that people forget about and don't think that people need, which is diapers."

Ms. Levesque runs a food pantry in Watertown, New York, a short drive from the Fort Drum Army base. She says Army families make up 20 percent of the people who come in, looking for free meals and supplies. "The military kind of has a 'we take care of our own' motto, which you realize that they kind of don't," she said. "And there are a lot of people who fall through the cracks and need the assistance who aren't getting it."

Ms. Levesque speaks from experience, as a social service worker, but also as the wife of a soldier. Her husband, an army specialist, brings home roughly $1,300 a month after taxes - not enough to pay for rent, food, utilities and other necessities. "I have always worked two jobs," said Amy Levesque. "And my husband, he's in the military plus he has a nighttime job. Luckily we don't have any children. With children, it would be very difficult."

But half of the military's 1.3 million soldiers and sailors do have children. Even with subsidized housing and extra pay during deployments, many find that it's nearly impossible to make ends meet.

Loretta Schwartz-Nobel is author of a recent book about hunger in America, called Growing Up Empty. She says the lower ranks in the Armed services are basically working poor. "Some of these kids see this as a way out, out of poverty, a way to fulfill the American dream, so to speak," she said. "However, no matter how skillful a person or a family is, when you are earning somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000 a month before taxes, and you have three or four children, you are not going to be able to survive comfortably, even if you know how to make everything stretch."

The most recent Department of Defense report, from 1999, found that 40 of lower rank soldiers face "substantial financial difficulties." For her book, Ms. Schwartz-Nobel interviewed families at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in San Diego. Some told her, they simply go hungry. "For several days at the end of each paycheck period, they often have almost nothing to eat - sometimes absolutely nothing," said Loretta Schwartz-Nobel. "That's when they turn up desperate at food pantries, soup kitchens, bread lines, because they've literally run out."

U.S. military officials acknowledge that poverty is a fact of life for some soldiers, but say they're working to change that. The different branches of the armed forces have begun new programs, designed to help spouses find better jobs and to teach young families how to budget their money.

For families already in crisis, the Defense Department has created "subsistence grants" of up to $500 each month. "There's never going to be a soldier, as long as we know about it, that goes without food," said Diane Hupco, an Emergency Relief Officer at Fort Drum. "And his family is in that same situation."

Every day, Ms. Hupco says, soldiers turn up here at the base's Family Center. It's a place where Army spouses and children meet to share support. Often, Ms. Hupco says, they come in frightened and hungry. "We last year had a 1,061 cases, requiring $657,000 in assistance," she said. "You're dealing with about 10 percent of the population that needs that help."

Defense Department officials say the situation is improving, with far fewer families needing government financial help to buy food. Another pay hike goes into effect this year. But troops at the lower pay grades will get half of what many officers receive. And soldiers say that extra money will be offset by the growing number of deployments and transfers. On a snowy afternoon, a woman in fatigues sits in her car outside a strip-mall, near one of Fort Drum's main gates. Her boyfriend has gone inside a check-cashing shop. The neon sign promises loans to military families. "If you know how to budget your money real good, then you can live just by getting by," she said. "A lot of things I have to worry about now, I thought I wouldn't have had to worry about."

The woman, in her early 20s, declines to give her name, but says she's an army specialist who's served for two years. Without Federal nutrition programs like WIC, which provides infant formula and low-cost food for young children, she says her family couldn't make it. "One thing I do get because my daughter, she's still a baby, I do get WIC," said the woman. "That's a good thing. And if you don't have WIC, that milk is really expensive. "

This kind of need is painful for soldiers. Amy Levesque, with the food pantry in Watertown, says many of her military friends are too proud to speak up. "They have a very hard time coming in here and saying, I need help," said Amy Levesque. "It's kind of a shame thing. They feel embarrassed. They feel like they can't provide for their own. Dignity, they feel like they're losing part of their dignity. "

Military bases around the country once allowed food pantries to bring supplies inside their gates. Here at Fort Drum, trucks delivered free food regularly, offering soldiers and their families more privacy. The trucks were banned after the September 11 terror attacks, forcing the families, and the problem of military poverty, into public view.