Money woes common in military families

SEATTLE — Military families aren’t surprised when they hear about the financial struggles that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, his wife and children faced at home. It’s part of their lives, too.

They say money problems can never justify doing what the military says Bales did: kill 17 civilians in a nighttime shooting rampage through two Afghan villages on March 11. Still, the details emerging about his life served as a prominent reminder of the hardship they have endured over a decade of two wars.

“The stress factors with the families is just unbelievable,” said Roger J. Mealey, a Vietnam veteran who runs a website to aid struggling military families.

While laws give active-duty soldiers extra combat pay, provide housing allowances and exempt them from taxes, experts say, families are straining under multiple deployments, frequent relocations and the difficulty spouses have in getting and keeping jobs in new cities.

A 2010 military survey found that 27 percent of service members said they had more than $10,000 in credit card debt, while 16 percent of civilians do. The study also found more than a third of military families have trouble paying bills, and more than 20 percent reported borrowing money outside of banks.

Service members and their families do have access to financial counselors, but many shy away from it because they don’t want their commanders to know, said Andi Wrenn, a financial and relationship counselor in Boston who has worked with service members.

The unemployment rate among military spouses is about 26 percent, according to a report from the nonprofit group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Last year, Mealey connected nearly 300 military families like the Bales family with another 300 “angels” willing to help them pay a few bills or send a gift card. He said he answers calls and emails every week from military families who are having problems negotiating base life.

Mealey’s website is one of more than 40,000 nonprofits, big and small, trying to help the troops these days. They’re called the “sea of goodwill,” said Kate Kohler, a West Point graduate and Army captain who is the chief operating officer of the PenFed Foundation, a nonprofit that helps troops with financial literacy, housing and emergency needs.

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