War prompts many to seek favors from Congress With conflict in full swing, Capitol Hill gets requests ranging from flags to discharges. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN


WASHINGTON -- Trashana Hall joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 1988 mostly for the experience and partly to make a little extra cash.

In December, the Army told the 22-year-old Forrest Park woman she would have to leave the grandmother and younger siblings that she supports to go to Saudi Arabia. Hall decided to get reassigned or get out.

But her appeals to the Pentagon fell on deaf ears. Not knowing what her next step should be, she called on Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, to flex his political muscle. With Mfume's help, Hall received an honorable discharge Jan. 23.

Hall is one of many voters looking for something from her congressional delegation since the bombing of Baghdad began, according to an informal survey of Maryland's eight congressional and two senatorial offices.

Mostly, the favors are requests for flags, better mail service to the gulf and interpretations of war-related legislation, such as the sole-survivor exemption. The exemption allows a soldier to be discharged from service only if the family already has lost an immediate relative during wartime or has had an immediate family member completely disabled in combat.

Recently, the mother of a 20-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., asked the office of Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-3rd, to find her son, who had told her he was being transferred to Fort Jackson, S.C. She hadn't heard from him since early January, said Dawana Merritt, Cardin's spokeswoman.

Although members of Cardin's staff learned that the soldier had been sent to Saudi Arabia, they still don't know exactly where the young man is or why the mother wasn't notified of his deployment, Merritt said.

Reservists often want Congress to help them get out of the armed services -- or just to be reassigned near their families.

But sometimes civilians want their legislators to put in a good word for them to get into the military, congressional officials said.

"You'd be surprised how responsive the Pentagon is to congressional requests," said a spokesman for Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th. "It shouldn't work that way, I guess, but it does."

The arm of congressional pressure reaches beyond the Defense Department, of course.

Tami Schultz, a staff assistant for Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, recently took on a Baltimore bank because of a complaint that the institution wasn't lowering its interest rate as required by the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act.

Officials for the bank, which Schultz declined to identify, told her they intend to honor the rate drop and were "just a little slow getting started," she said.

Schultz plans to call the bank again to make sure it "got on track," she said. Although congressional offices can't solve every problem, staff members said, they can reduce the bureaucratic nightmares that military families face. Congressional aides depend on liaison offices for each branch of the service to answer constituent claims.

The offices must answer congressional requests within 24 hours, although that doesn't mean the problem is solved that quickly, said Denise Nooe, director of the Annapolis office of Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Because the favors may mean the difference between life and death for those who request them, fulfilling them can result in long-standing loyalty for the legislators -- as in the case of Trashana Hall.

"Mfume called, thank God for that," Hall's grandmother, Effie, said. "He will always have my vote. He's had it and he will always have it. I couldn't ask for anything better."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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