WASHINGTON -- For three grueling months of Army Ranger training, Sgt. Jason K. Conklin will learn to survive in all climates, dine on bugs, track an enemy for miles and kill swiftly and quietly.
But there is one mission the 28-year-old paratrooper refuses to accept: strolling into the local social services office with his wife and two children.
"I'm not going to walk in there and apply for food stamps," says Conklin, though he knows at least four other soldiers stationed with him at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., who accept the help. It's about pride, he said. "Personal pride mostly."
Conklin is among an estimated 25,000 military personnel whose wages are so meager compared to their family size that they qualify for food stamps and other federal assistance programs. Those numbers are increasing, say military advocacy groups and lawmakers, primarily because military pay lags 14 percent behind civilian salaries.
For the Conklins, the challenge is living on $1,750 per month. Although Conklin won't take advantage of food stamps, his wife, Tracey, stretches the budget by exchanging vouchers from the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program for milk, eggs, cereal, tuna and other staples.
"You'd be surprised how many people on WIC are in the military," said Tracey, who knows more than a dozen military families accepting the vouchers at Fort Bragg.
Army personnel used $11 million in food stamps and WIC vouchers at military commissaries in 1990, a figure which increased to $18.5 million by 1995. Military-wide statistics were not available.
Troubled by the prospect of soldiers on public assistance, members of Congress are pressing the Pentagon for a more accurate picture of service members who live at or below the poverty line. Lawmakers are also searching for solutions to a problem they fear is eroding morale and impeding efforts to retain experienced troops.
'A terrible injustice'
"I think it's a terrible injustice that people in uniform need food stamps to make ends meet," said Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat, who called last year for a Pentagon study on poverty among military personnel.
But Pentagon officials say those drawing federal assistance amount to a small fraction of the nation's 1.4 million service members. The Pentagon study, released in August, found only 451 service members at or below the poverty level. It estimates the number on food stamps at 12,000 -- most serving in the Army.
And the food stamps figure is inflated, Pentagon officials say, because military housing is not counted as income for the purpose of determining eligibility. About 7,000 of those on food stamps qualify even though they live in base housing. The remainder are eligible because of family size.
Service members needing assistance are mostly younger enlistees whose lower pay cannot keep up with their larger families, said Army Lt. Col. Tom Begines, a Defense Department spokesman.
Col. John A. Smith, an Army spokesman, also played down the statistics. "There are people we have on food stamps. Is it a major problem in the Army? No," he said. "Most of them have made choices about their lives that put them in the category of needing them."
Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee on military personnel, doesn't want to discourage young people from joining the service.
"I don't want to send the message to recruiters not to recruit those with two or three children," said Buyer, a major in the Army Reserve.
Joyce Raezer of the National Military Families Association said the problem of making ends meet in the enlisted ranks is greater than statistics show because many eligible families like the Conklins don't apply for food stamps because of pride.
Among them are Army Staff Sgt. Christopher L. Cummings, 28, his wife, Kim, and their four children -- including two from her previous marriage -- who shun food stamps but feel more comfortable using WIC vouchers and other benefit programs.
"Just about everybody I know is on WIC," Kim Cummings said.
Even so, she's troubled by the cold glares from civilian shoppers when she pulls out her WIC vouchers.
"You feel like telling them, 'My husband is in the military and he's serving his country. We're working and we're not taking advantage of the system,' " she said.
Two kids too many?
The Conklins and the Cummings bridle at the Pentagon's argument that their families are too large for their income.
"Do you consider two kids too many?" asked Tracey Conklin.
"I didn't know there was a limit on how many kids you can have," Christopher Cummings said sarcastically. "We have four kids because [Kim] had two from a previous marriage."
Pentagon officials point out that many qualify for WIC because the income threshold is much higher than for food stamps. The income limit for WIC is $29,704 for a family of four, compared with $20,868 for food stamps.
Meanwhile, military personnel also are using military-run relief programs in greater numbers. One is the Army Emergency Relief fund, created in 1942 to provide interest-free loans to soldiers. In 1997, 53,000 soldiers borrowed $34 million -- a slight increase in numbers and dollars over the previous year and the fifth highest amount in the fund's history.
Like many soldiers, Cummings used AER for auto repairs. While stationed in Alaska, he borrowed $800 to repair the family's 1984 Dodge van. Tracey Conklin borrowed $400 to visit her family in Washington, while her husband was deployed.
While neither Tracey nor Kim have jobs outside their homes, Pentagon statistics show that about 60 percent of military spouses are working or looking for work -- a percentage higher than among the civilian population.
Kim, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology, said working is difficult now that her husband is frequently deployed and the family moves every two or three years to another military base. "He's spent half the baby's life out in the field," she said.
The pay gap
The real issue is military pay, said Jason Conklin, who points to the long hours of training and missions away from home.
"We're probably the lowest paid government employees there are," he said.
"We stay the same and everyone else goes up," added Christopher Cummings.
The gap between military and civilian pay has grown from 11.7 percent in 1992 to 14 percent in 1998. This year, the Clinton administration pushed for a 3.1 percent pay increase that Congress raised to 3.6 percent.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, wants the Defense Department to submit "low-cost options" that would eliminate the need for service members to rely on food stamps.
Effects and alternatives
"Not only is our readiness suffering from this short-sighted treatment of personnel, but our ability to retain valued and trained members is seriously deteriorating," Domenici said.
But Defense Department officials say there are no "low-cost options" to ease the strain of those on assistance.
Eliminating dependency on food stamps for enlisted personnel, regardless of family size, would cost more than $20 billion, according to a recent Pentagon report. Raising salaries for enlisted members now receiving food stamps above the eligibility threshold would cost $72,640,000.
The Conklins and the Cummings say they know of fellow soldiers who are fed up with long hours and low pay, as well as the added embarrassment of applying for public assistance.
"People are thinking of leaving because of it. You always hear people say that," said Jason Conklin.
Some soldiers work part time cleaning floors in supermarkets or driving a truck, he said, and decide to shift to that more-lucrative work full time.
But both sergeants say they plan on sticking with the Army and the challenges of the Special Forces.
For soldiers struggling to feed and house their families, the hazardous-duty pay associated with commando units increases their salaries through such benefits as high-altitude jump pay.
As Cummings, who is training to become a communications specialist with the Green Berets, put it: "They say there's more opportunity to make more money."
Army families in need
Redemption of food stamps and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) vouchers in 1997 at various Army commissaries.
Installation .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Food stamps ... .. ..WIC vouchers
Schofield Barracks, Hawaii .. ... $1.3 million ... .. . $585,000
Fort Bragg, N.C. .. .. .. .. .. . $1 million .. .. .. . $500,000
Fort Lewis, Wash. .. .. .. .. ... $539,000 .. .. .. ... $846,000
Fort Campbell, Ken. .. .. .. .. . $361,000 .. .. .. ... $474,000
Fort Carson, Col. .. .. .. .. ... $186,000 .. .. .. ... $406,000
Fort Drum, N.Y. .. .. .. .. .. .. $217,000 .. .. .. ... $332,000
Fort Riley, Kan. .. .. .. .. .. . $170,000 .. .. .. ... $402,000
Fort Wainwright, Alaska .. .. ... $122,000 .. .. .. ... $323,000
Fort Irwin, Cal. .. .. .. .. .. . $34,000 .. .. .. .. . $240,000
Fort Meade, Md. .. .. .. .. .. .. $94,000 .. .. .. .. . $141,000
Fort Belvoir, Va. .. .. .. .. ... $85,000 .. .. .. .. . $115,000
SOURCE: Association of the United States Army
Pub Date: 9/08/98