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Mil Fams Face Money Problems

Financial problems

SEATTLE -- Military families aren't surprised when they hear about the financial struggles that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, his wife and children faced at home. It's part of their lives, too.

They say money problems can never justify doing what the military says Bales did: kill 17 civilians in a nighttime shooting rampage through two Afghan villages on March 11. Still, the details emerging about his life served as a prominent reminder of the hardship they have endured over a decade of two wars.

"The stress factors with the families is just unbelievable," said Roger J. Mealey, a Vietnam veteran who runs a website to aid struggling military families.

While laws give active-duty soldiers extra combat pay, provide housing allowances and exempt them from taxes, experts say, families are straining under multiple deployments, frequent relocations and the difficulty spouses have in getting and keeping jobs in new cities.

A 2010 military survey found that 27 percent of servicemembers said they had more than $10,000 in credit card debt, while 16 percent of civilians do. The study also found more than a third of military families have trouble paying monthly bills, and more than 20 percent reported borrowing money outside of banks.

Servicemembers and their families do have access to financial counselors, but many shy away from it because they don't want their commanders to know, said Andi Wrenn, a financial and relationship counselor in Boston who has worked with servicemembers.

The unemployment rate among military spouses is about 26 percent, according to a report from the nonprofit group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Bales' life reflected some of that financial turmoil.

Court records and interviews showed that he joined the military 11 years ago after a Florida investment went sour. He had a Seattle-area home condemned, struggled to make payments on another and failed to get a promotion a year ago. His wife has had two, one-year jobs since leaving Washington Mutual four years ago.

His wife put their Lake Tapps, Wash., home up for sale days before the rampage. They bought it home in 2005, records show, for $280,000. They listed it for $229,000.

Last year, Mealey connected nearly 300 military families just like the Bales family with another 300 "angels" willing to help them pay a few bills or send a gift card. He said he answers calls and emails every week from military families who are having problems negotiating base life.

Their pleas for help are posted on a simple red-white-and-blue website: a soldier at Fort Stewart, Ga., with a wife and two kids can't afford $300 for a new dress uniform; a veteran in St. Louis with a wife and two kids needs help with power bills; and a San Diego Navy wife with four kids just got laid off from her job.

Mealey's website is one of more than 40,000 nonprofits, big and small, trying to help the troops these days. They're called the "sea of goodwill," said Kate Kohler, a West Point graduate and Army captain who is the chief operating officer of the PenFed Foundation, a nonprofit that helps troops with financial literacy, housing and emergency needs.

She said their hearts are in the right place but so many of these organizations are just giving handouts and not trying to fix the underlying financial problems the troops face.

Although Kohler's organization also gives emergency loans and grants, most come with some required financial literacy training.

The mostly young servicemembers have little experience dealing with their own finances and don't know what to do with the ups and downs of military life. She described one symptom as the Disneyland effect: overspending when troops return home to make up for lost time with family.

An Iraq War vet who runs an organization to help veterans and active-duty military said he sympathized with Bales' family and other military families.

It's not easy supporting four people on a staff sergeant's salary -- about $39,000 a year -- especially when one member of the family keeps getting sent overseas, said Patrick Bellon, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.

There are laws to protect military families from speedy foreclosures and predatory lenders, but Bellon wasn't confident those laws are being enforced.

Mortgage lenders and landlords are supposed to give military families more time to make their payments during a deployment. The armed forces have several employment programs to help military spouses, including special training for jobs they can take with them from base to base.

"It just frustrates me," said Mealey, who started his one-man New Beginnings website for military families in 2003 after retiring from Motorola.

After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started, he wanted to find a way to help the troops.

"If we're asking them to serve their country and put their life on the line, I don't think their families should be put in the position where they're sleeping on the floor or don't have enough food to feed their kids," Mealey said.

-- Associated Press writer Phuong Le contributed to this story.

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