Why Are Military Families in Holiday Need?

by , December 22, 2009

Today, alongside the country’s meekest and poorest, thousands of children and wives of deployed soldiers are lining up for charity in order to make their holidays as full of cheer as the rest of ours.

How easily we accept that military children – in part because of low pay and the crushing financial burdens of multiple deployments – have taken their place among the season’s Little Match Girls and Drummer Boys, in need of our contributions and our sympathies.

But that is exactly what has happened. Just like our general resignation to the now eight-year war as just another inevitability of modern American life, so is our recognition of military families as part of the army of the needy at Christmastime. Spontaneous "missions" to feed and clothe and bring toys to soldiers’ kids have become annual campaigns, which now join the ranks of non-profits overwhelmed by the strain of the economic recession.

It does not seem to occur to most people to question how a country that can afford 566 low-performing battlefield helicopters with a price tag of $94 million each, has military families on food stamps relying on the generosity of strangers to ensure that Santa Claus will visit every child living at or below the poverty line on American Army bases today.

First Lady Michelle Obama touched on the issue recently in an appearance on Good Morning America:

"’It hurts. It hurts,’ the first lady said of hearing about military families on food stamps. ‘These are people who are willing to send their loved ones off to, perhaps, give their lives – the ultimate sacrifice. But yet, they’re living back at home on food stamps. It’s not right, and it’s not where we should be as a nation.'”

This likely came as a shock to the non-military audience, perhaps sparking a small brush fire of donations as these celebrity-driven illuminations often do. But as the leader of this "nation" the first lady alluded to, will her husband go beyond a presidential demand for more "family assistance" to acknowledge that his announced escalation of the Afghan war will only exacerbate the problem? I highly doubt it.

No matter. As "can do" Americans, we don’t ignore the plight of military families living on the edge. We throw money at it. We donate Christmas presents, clothing, time, and energy – even bus tickets – to bandage what has obviously become an embarrassing open sore on our already shaky social conscience. We are generous to a fault, allowing the Pentagon to keep its costs on this front to a minimum, and giving pro-war politicians a pass on the shame of creating more poor, traumatized families out of a population of Americans they constantly laud for their sacrifices on the battlefield, year after year after year.

But we never seem to have the guts to talk about the root causes of things, thus the wave of heartwarming but ultimately superficial holiday news stories about the proliferating charity organizations mobilizing on behalf of military families.

"I was talking about canceling Christmas or giving them [her children] one little thing apiece and that’s it," said Nicole Gardiner, 26, a mother of three in Raeford, N.C., whose husband is in Iraq.

Instead, Gardiner was able to take advantage of a massive $1.1 million Operation Homefront toy giveaway this year, allowing for at least three gifts for each child. Teaming up with Wal-Mart, Operation Homefront (which has been running for seven years now) will be providing toys for some 10,000 selected children through "pop up" stores outside six of the nation’s sprawling military installations (that’s in addition to their other holiday assistance/giving programs).

Like most charitable organizations, Operation Homefront is feeling a little overwhelmed this year.

“‘We’re seeing an increase in requests for assistance this year over the same time last year,’ says Jim Knotts, chief executive of Operation Homefront, a charitable organization that helps military families. Knotts cited an 86% increase in requests for food assistance over last year. ‘We attribute that to the effects of the economy.’

"Although active-duty troops can count on a regular paycheck from Uncle Sam, many military families face the same pressures affecting other Americans during this downturn: Spouses are having difficulty finding work, and mounting debts and foreclosures are forcing them out of rental homes, says John Alexander of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. …

"Alexander says 2008 saw a 70 percent jump in Marines and sailors needing financial assistance, compared with the previous year, and this year is projected to see an additional 18 percent increase."

Operation Homefront has become, essentially, the behemoth of non-profits dedicated to soldier/family assistance, having already provided $6.5 million in goods and services to families – including stuffed school backpacks for 10,000 kids and $5 million cash assistance to "military families in crisis" throughout the year – but there is a gamut of smaller programs that have popped up in response to a need most visible in the more depressed areas of the country, including military communities.

"It started with that one little girl who broke both of our hearts," said John Michael Vincent Moore, the founder of Operation Deployed Santa in Onslow County, N.C., home to Camp Lejeune and more than 43,000 Marines. Moore, director of a special response unit at the county sheriff’s department, said he and his partner chipped in to buy a doll for a little girl whose mother had committed suicide. They had been the first to respond to the call. That was nine years ago.

According to the local Daily News, Operation Deployed Santa grew out of a desire to "give Christmas toys to children whose military parents are incarcerated or have been brought into the sheriff’s office for other reasons, have been killed in the course of duty, or are specially referred by a chaplain."

This year, local artisans are making toys by hand. The program joins others serving the base community, including Christmas Cheer, Angel Tree, and Toys for Tots. They expect to collect 1,400 in donated toys this Christmas – the same as last year, when Operation Deployed Santa gave away all but four toys to needy military children.

Meanwhile, the National K.I.D.S. (Kids in Distressed Situations) program has worked with Operation Homefront to distribute some $1.5 million in "cribs, diapers, baby bottles, care seats," and juvenile products "to help [military] families stretch their limited resources and budgets while their loved ones fight overseas for our freedom" and "to ensure that families with loved ones fighting for our security are taken care of."

One wonders why it is not the responsibility of the Department of Defense to "take care of" these families. Funny, U.S. taxpayers are expected to foot the bill for the $663 billion annual defense budget, but they are also encouraged by private organizations to give generously throughout the year so that, as K.I.D.S. puts it, "parents and children who live courageously on their own will be properly clothed, have gifts to give during the holiday season, receive baby products, and can enjoy something a little special while their loved ones are serving abroad."

At the risk of sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, why? Is it not the moral responsibility of the government to ensure its soldiers can properly clothe and feed their families when they are gone? Family charity isn’t the only place the DOD falls short. When soldiers who have literally given limbs to Uncle Sam need a place to stay outside military hospitals so they can make frequent appointments, it is the private sector that builds them houses and provides lodging for the wives and children who need to take care of them. Americans over the years have also been asked to provide adaptive clothing for amputees, phone cards, and other comforts for hospitalized veterans and their families.

Meanwhile, when a bunch of National Guardsmen being shipped off to a hellhole in Afghanistan want to see their families for Christmas, it is up to little old ladies and working stiffs to help buy them the bus fare home from training, because, as reports note, federal "budgetary and regulatory restrictions" prohibit the government from doing it.

So, again, regular people step up. "My sons … both of them are being deployed. I want them home, but I want everybody’s son home, too. The fact that so many people gave is just beautiful," said Vietnam vet Bill Muetze, who chipped in $200 that he "saved for Christmas" to help bring 200 members of a Fort Mill, S.C., National Guard unit home for the holidays. Another family, whose relative had been in the unit but had died upon returning home from two previous tours, threw in $1,000.

In Connecticut, where 700 members of two units are slated to deploy to Afghanistan after Christmas, individuals and businesses raised more than $200,000 to get them home from training in Indiana and Wisconsin for the holidays. The state’s Operation Home for the Holidays is part of Operation ELF, an annual toy and clothing drive for needy military families.

Unfortunately, Americans tend to focus on the material. Despite the overwhelming generosity in money, toys, clothing, and bus fare, it cannot fix what has really been broken among military families over the course of eight years. Earlier this month, researchers at RAND published a study in the journal Pediatrics that found that children of deployed soldiers are much more emotionally fragile and at risk than children nationwide. While this is no surprise, the study goes beyond the anecdotal evidence we have been seeing for years and suggests that unlike previous wars that had a fixed beginning and end, the Long War has the potential of wrecking a substantial swath of an entire generation.

"That military children are more stressed in wartime was not a revelation," noted a report in Stars and Stripes. "But researchers were surprised to learn [the children’s] problems deepened with longer or more frequent deployments. This challenged an assumption that children might, with repetition, get used to a parent being gone and later reintegrating with the family."

Exactly right. While we as a society "get used to" picking up the slack, of seeing military children and families as another charity case during the holidays, the root problems only get worse with time. Our New Year’s pledge should not be to give more, to raise more, to sacrifice more for those in need, but to help end the wars – the vicious cycle – that create the need in the first place.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos