Military families feel financial crisis

DALLAS Tue Oct 28, 2008 3:45pm EDT

1 of 8. A military family reunites at DFW airport in Dallas, Texas, October 22, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

DALLAS (Reuters) - Among those struggling in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression are members of the U.S. armed forces and their families.

"I'm concerned about our savings. Everything has gone up. You can't save when gas has gone up and electricity bills have gone up," said army wife Jessica Phillips, 22.

Phillips was waiting at Dallas-Fort Worth airport last week for her husband, Christopher, flying in from Iraq for 18 days of leave. Phillips, who lives near Fort Polk in Louisiana and is studying psychology and criminal justice, said she relied on her husband's income as an Army specialist.

A daily charter flight brings soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan to Dallas-Fort Worth, and in interviews last week military families said they were feeling the effects of rising prices, mortgage trouble and debt.

Amber Fithian, 24, waiting with her 2-1/2 year old son for her husband Adam, said her family was feeling the strain of rising mortgage payments on their home near Fort Hood, Texas.

"Our mortgage keeps getting sold so our rates keep going up," said Fithian, a stay-at-home mom.

Financial strain is an added burden, on top of long deployments in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They should get paid more. They put their lives in danger for everybody else," said Brenda Davis as she waited for her 23-year-old daughter Leilani Manibusan, returning for leave in her second Iraq deployment.

According to the Department of Defense's military pay scales, a basic recruit starts at $1,347.00 a month. That puts them ahead though not by much of someone working for the national minimum wage of $6.55 an hour, who will make just over a $1,000 a month at 40 hours a week.

Senior non-commissioned officers can earn more than $5,000 a month or $60,000 a year after 14 years of service. Excluding senior commissioned officers, military pay puts personnel in middle class income groups that are vulnerable to the crisis.

But military compensation is higher when various benefits, such as housing allowances, are included. And, while deployed in a combat zone like Iraq or Afghanistan, troops' income is exempt from federal income tax.

Unlike most jobs in the current financial crisis, the military offers job security, and it is one of the only sectors where employment is expanding.

The military has also offered bonuses for staying in the ranks that can easily total more than $20,000 based on rank, time in service and specialty.

Not all of the family members who spoke with Reuters said they were suffering.

"I've never been so stable financially. There are great benefits," said Richard Brown, a 22-year-old specialist back for some leave from his second Iraq deployment.

"My wife is due to have a baby in two weeks and she'll have the baby at the military hospital. I'll have no hospital expenditures whatsoever," he said as he smoked a cigarette and waited for a bus outside the airport terminal.

The Fort Hood-based soldier added that the extra money he made from his deployment was paying for his wife's college tuition.

Shannon Hurley, 25, works 32 hours a week at the front desk of a hotel. Her army reservist husband is currently in Iraq and she comes once a week to DFW to greet the returning soldiers.

She said they were not feeling too pinched.

"We're able to put a little bit away in savings and I'm still shopping up a storm," she said.

Matthew Knighten, waiting for his brother, spent three years in the army but left for greener pastures because of the pay.

"I was an E-4 or corporal and with my pay grade I was making crew leader pay at McDonald's," he said. "I work for Chesapeake Energy now, it's much better money."

(Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eddie Evans)

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