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Gulf call-ups mean financial battle for kin left behind WAR IN THE GULF

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Ed Fallon's National Guard unit went on alert last fall, Mr. Fallon went to the personnel office at the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, where he was a police officer, to ask if the Housing Authority would continue to pay his health benefits while he was overseas.

Someone in that office -- Mr. Fallon does not remember who -- told him the Housing Authority would continue to pay his benefits, said Mr. Fallon's wife, Pat.

Three days after Mr. Fallon left for the Persian Gulf in November, however, another representative of the Housing Authority called Mrs. Fallon to say that her husband had been misinformed and that the benefits would not be continued.

"Ed wrote them a letter to ask why and they didn't even write him back to say, 'We're sorry this has happened.' All of the people in Ed's unit are over there fighting for the principles of decency, and this is what he gets," Mrs. Fallon, a first-grade teacher at Carrolltowne Elementary School in Eldersburg, said recently.

The situation isn't entirely bleak, Mrs. Fallon says. She and the four children in the Fallon family -- her daughter and son, and Mr. Fallon's two children -- are covered under Mrs. Fallon's health plan with the Carroll County schools.

But that program doesn't include prescriptions. "And children get sick a lot in the winter," Mrs. Fallon says.

The Housing Authority considers Mr. Fallon's service with the Guard in the gulf a military furlough during which he is not entitled to continued pay or benefits, said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the authority.

In light of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision Jan. 29 to continue health-insurance benefits for families of city employees called to active duty in the gulf, however, the Housing Authority is reviewing itspolicy, Mr. Toohey said.

"If we decide to go along with the city policy, then Officer Fallon will get his benefits," Mr. Toohey said.

When reservists and National Guardsmen leave their jobs to go to war, their families sometimes find the financial going tough, military counselors say.

Differences between military and civilian salaries are a big problem. For example, an inspector in the Housing Authority police force, whose salary would be comparable to that of Mr. Fallon, makes $26,469 to $34,406 a year, Mr. Toohey said.

A National Guard sergeant on active duty, however, makes less than $20,000 a year, said Sgt. Larry Butts of the Maryland Guard family-assistance program.

Some younger soldiers live on such tight budgets as civilians that even a small cut in pay means their spouses can't make ends meet, counselors say. Other spouses, unaccustomed to bearing sole responsibility for the bills, allow creditors to browbeat them into paying more interest on loans than they are legally required to pay.

As the conflict in the gulf drags into its second month, even families on sound financial footing -- those who prepared carefully for a spouse's absence and who have income beyond a military paycheck -- are feeling some stress.

The families of the more than 600 members of the Maryland National Guard who have been sent to the gulf "are doing everything they can to make it on their own, to take the cuts and work through it," said Trisch Putman, the Maryland Guard's family-assistance coordinator.

"But if someone told you that all of a sudden you've now got $350 less a month to live on, and you've got bills to pay based on that $350, then something's got to give," Ms. Putman said.

Ed and Pat Fallon, for example, put aside $2,000 to cover emergencies while Mr. Fallon is in the gulf. Mr. Fallon's military paychecks have not begun to arrive regularly, however, and "I had to dig into the nest egg big-time" last month, Mrs. Fallon said.

The family is well-prepared in other ways, though. The week after Mr. Fallon got word that his unit was on alert, he began cleaning and fixing things around the house -- including a storm door wrecked by a tornado months before, Mrs. Fallon said.

Mr. Fallon also made a will, signed a power of attorney to his wife and developed a budget, Mrs. Fallon said. With no health benefits from the Housing Authority, "I've had to totally revise it, but we'll be OK. Financially, we're not in a hardship situation," she said.

Others aren't as lucky. "For some of my clients, even the loss of $100 a month has devastated the family," said Dennis McMillen, a financial-assistance representative at Fort Detrick, an Army post in Frederick.

Mr. McMillen has been working overtime since 100 Marine reservists with the 4th Light Armored Infantry Battalion left Frederick in November for Saudi Arabia. The reservists left 500 to 700 family members in need of varying degrees of help, Fort Detrick officials estimate.

Much of Mr. McMillen's time has been spent interceding with creditors who are either demanding that bills be paid in full despite the family's reduced finances or who are resisting lowering the monthly payments on long-standing loans.

Federal law allows reservists and guardsmen to require creditors to drop interest rates to 6 percent on all loans during periods of active duty.

Even so, rearranging some reservists' bills has required a juggling act, Mr. McMillen said.

"Most young people live on a tight debt-to-income ratio. I've had families of young soldiers come in with credit cards absolutely maxed out," he said.

The suddenness of the gulf call-up also threw some young families into chaos.

"With several of my clients, the spouse quit her job, then the husband and wife refigured their budget on just his salary. Then he got called up, and that broke the bank," Mr. McMillen said.

Most creditors have been willing to work with families struggling to pay bills while a spouse is on duty in the gulf, but "there have been those one or two creditors who say, 'I'm not honoring this' or 'I don't think that law applies here' or 'I'm going to sue you.' That scares some people," Ms. Putman said.

Even though family-support counselors such as Ms. Putman and Mr. McMillen advise family members to let the military step in and attempt to resolve the problems, "a lot of these people have never been in a position where they need help. Sometimes they're not willing to tell us they need us," Ms. Putman said.

When the spouse who usually handles family bills is sent overseas, the spouse left behind faces a new set of responsibilities, Ms. Putman said. "Some people don't even know how to budget or how to write a check," she said.

Bankers, accountants and other volunteers with financial expertise have been organized into a financial-counseling program for local Guard families, Ms. Putman said. Families who need budgeting help should call her office between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays at (301) 576-6019 or (800) 492-2526, she said. Those numbers reach Maryland National Guard counselors, Ms. Putman said, but no military families are turned away.

Difficulties still arise, however. One local private school, for example, refused to allow a student to return when her family could no longer pay full tuition because her father had been called up in the Guard, Ms. Putman said. Since the school is private, it is not legally required to keep the child as a student, Sergeant Butts said.

A local car dealer has been resisting requests by local Guard families who ask to have their car loan payments reduced, and some local landlords "have not been as agreeable as they might have been" when leases had to be broken because of the call-up, Ms. Putman said.

She declined to identify the school, the car dealer or the landlords, saying their unwillingness to cooperate with Guard families is a private matter.

Although federal law prohibits eviction for non-payment of rent while a reservist is on active duty, both Mr. McMillen and Ms. Putman say their offices have had to come to the aid of a few families threatened with the loss of their apartments.

Most cases are referred to the officer with the Army's Judge Advocate General office assigned to the family-assistance program, Sergeant Butts said.

The JAG officer operates as a civilian attorney would, writing letters to explain the federal law to landlords or creditors and asking them to abide by the law.

Sometimes families are able to resolve their problems with some simple advice from the family-assistance program, Sergeant Butts said.

In the case of a threatened eviction, for example, attaching a copy of the reservist's or guardsman's deployment orders to a form available from the local district courthouse and filing that in response to the landlord's request for eviction is enough to stop the action, he said.

The counselors fear that if the war continues into the summer, however, more families than ever will need help.

"I think honestly a lot of the families have built their ability to cope with this on the hope that their reservist or guard person is returning in March or April or May," Ms. Putman said. "If that changes, you'd have a lot of people who might be in trouble."

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