How to help military families at the holidays

CHICAGO Wed Dec 19, 2012 12:43pm EST

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - The December holidays stretch the budgets of the most financially secure families, but they pose special challenges for military personnel, their spouses and kids.

From frequent moves and post-deployment unemployment to disability and post-traumatic stress, many obstacles loom as these families struggle just to make ends meet, let alone have a joyous holiday celebration.

There are approximately 711,000 spouses of active duty members (93 percent are female), and 1.9 million children with a parent in the military, according to "Strengthening Our Military Families," a 2011 report by the administration of President Barack Obama.

Their needs are acute: The overall wage gap between civilian and military wives is 42 percent, and a 2011 survey by the National Military Family Association found that 39 percent of service families had suffered a recent financial setback.

"With their holiday budgeting and spending, the challenges are compounded," says J.J. Montanaro, a certified financial planner at USAA, a company that offers financial products primarily to the military community. "They have to move every few years, and many have faced multiple deployments since 9/11."

If you're looking to help our men and women in uniform this holiday, "The first place to look is close to home," says Montanaro, who retired from the U.S. Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. "You can do something as simple as talk to a unit chaplain, who has contacts in the local community."

There are plenty of other ways you can extend a hand through the groups listed below.

Soldiers' Angels (soldiersangels.org)

Donating $10 is as simple as texting "Soldiers" to 20222.

The Soldiers' Angels website also has a "Heroes Assistance" list where you can check out actual families and individuals in need and donate directly to them. "O'Neal," for example, served 21 years in the Air Force as a technical sergeant, and now suffers from PTSD and memory loss after deployments in Iraq and Kuwait. You can also enclose a note of encouragement.

Operation Ride Home (www.asymca.org)

This is a joint effort between Jack Daniel's Distillery and the Armed Services YMCA, which was rated in the top 3 percent of charities in 2011 by Charity Navigator. The organization distributes vouchers for plane tickets and pre-paid debit cards for gas, lodging and food to make sure troops can spend the holidays with their families. The vouchers apply specifically to junior enlisted (E-4 and below) single service members, military families and families of deployed soldiers.

To date, $200,000 has been raised to send about 1,000 service members and family members home this holiday season. But ASYMCA spokesperson Brittany Catton says Operation Ride Home still needs about $25,000 to $50,000 to serve its wait list.

A sample family from the Texas area includes an Army specialist who sustained injuries and is awaiting medical evaluation. He, his wife and four children want to fly to Michigan, having not been home since 2008. Specify "TRAVEL" in the comment section.

Toys for Tots (toysfortots.org)

While chances are that you've heard of Toys for Tots, you may not know that it's run by the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve. Marines are involved in coordinating the local toy campaigns in more than 700 communities covering all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

The toys go to disadvantaged kids of all kinds, including those in military families that request a donation. Toys For Tots spends 97 percent of its donations on toys, books and gifts, and has earned 4-star ratings from Charity Navigator every year since 2005. You can donate online via credit card, or visit the website to learn more about local toy collection centers.

Freedom Dogs (freedomdogs.org)

While the gift of a dog can spread holiday cheer, these dogs provide much more for struggling military families. This non-profit helps speed the recovery of servicemen and women with PTSD, which affects an estimated 40 percent of troops returning from armed conflict.

A donation helps provide specialty service dogs to soldiers at no cost, offsetting the $50,000 price tag to train and place each Freedom Dog over a two-year period.

"Over the years I've worked with a psychiatric service dog and the response of patients who were grieving, depressed, or struggling with severe anxiety, especially PTSD, markedly improved," says Villanova University College of Nursing Professor Linda Copel, a licensed psychotherapist who works with military families and is a PTSD expert. "There's a huge need for training psychiatric and other types of service dogs for soldiers with disabilities."

Operation Homefront (operationhomefront.net)

Aid recipients rank among the military's lowest-paid service members. This fund offers them help with food, healthcare, home repair and other services. Individual donations are bolstered by corporate sponsors, which this year include Wells Fargo, TurboTax and Walmart.

USO (uso.org)

The USO has a long record of helping those in uniform. The USO Holiday Box is its newest charitable program, bundling fun items that help servicemen and women celebrate holidays in remote locations without access to traditional USO centers.

A $30 donation sponsors two traditional USO care packages, and local USO chapters run special holiday programs for enlisted families. In Washington, D.C., a Project USO Elf matches wish lists from the children of junior enlisted service members and active-duty families with local sponsors in the community.

(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Dan Grebler)

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