This column was written by Sonny Bunch.
American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan face any number of difficulties every day. From dodging IEDs to rebuilding war-torn nations, our GIs are bombarded from sunup to sundown with problems we civilians can only dimly conceive. Imagine, on top of that, losing your house or having your family evicted from your apartment.
Some troops are facing just such a dilemma. The unprecedented number of reservists and national guardsmen called up to serve in our post-9/11 conflicts has led to unforeseen consequences, including the drastic drop in pay many of these soldiers now face.
R. Lee Ermey, a veteran of Vietnam and an actor most famous for his work as a drill instructor in "Full Metal Jacket," explains the problem thusly: While most of the troops he served with were young, single recruits, the troops in the field today are more likely to have families. Upwards of 60 percent are married. "The biggest problem," Ermey told me, "is that young men and women were worried about their families at home." Soldiers have a hard time supporting their families when they are called up and sent overseas, because they often see an enormous loss in wages; the military doesn't pay what most civilian jobs do.
Faced with lost wages, families can be forced to make tough decisions: Do they pay the mortgage or put food on the table? "We need to support the troops, plain and simple," Ermey says, shaking his head. To that end, he has teamed up with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vermont American (a part of the Robert Bosch Tool Corporation) to ensure that our fighting men and women don't have to wage a war on poverty as well as terrorism.
Vermont American has given the VFW $1.25 million over the next five years to cover the administrative costs of running Unmet Needs, a charity dedicated to assisting military families facing financial hardship. The VFW, in turn, is in charge of raising the funds to distribute to America's servicemen and women, and organizing skills and time donations. Because of Vermont American's generosity in defraying the day to day costs, every dollar that comes in to the program goes back out to military families in need.
Bud Haney, the deputy director of the military assistance program for the VFW, told me "Vermont American came forward and said they would stand by us to help service members that face difficulties during their deployments and activations. We're talking about our neighbors, national guard and reserve folks especially. . . . We're able to fill in those gaps for families that otherwise would have lost their homes, not be able to pay major medical bills." The issue does not get the sort of attention that it should, according to Haney. "Normal American people have no idea about the sacrifices these kids are making when they get called to duties.
"Take a contractor," he posited. "He may have been making $70,000 to $80,000 a year, and all of a sudden, he's a private first class, and he's likely making $20,000 a year. We're asking these people to give up their lives as they know it."
To assist those families, the good people at Vermont American got in touch with the VFW to figure out how to best help those in need. "It is easier to do through a private organization," Kevin Enke, Vermont American brand manager, told me, "The VFW especially. . . . They had existing programs [and] a group of people in place to qualify who are the neediest people and who needs these funds the most." Enke added that "They're very organized in getting grants out there. In 2 years, we've had the ability and flexibility to help 700 families, giving out $1.1 million in grants that they don't need to pay back. That's the cash that has come in and gone out."
Cutting a check is not the only way to help out Unmet Needs. They also accept "skill and time" donations. For example, if you're an auto mechanic, through the program's website (www.unmetneeds.com) you can get in touch with the VFW and volunteer to help a soldier's wife diagnose what's wrong with the family minivan. If something needs to be replaced, you can donate your labor and the family or Unmet Needs will pay for the part.
The nation's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps is also getting in on the act. The Wentworth Military Academy is challenging other JROTC units to raise money for the program. "If 500 JROTC units raise just $500 each over the next year, the Wentworth Challenge will drive up to a quarter of a million dollars directly into the Unmet Needs program," says Maj. Gen. John H. Little.
While many people claim to support the troops, R. Lee Ermey knows actions speak louder than words. "People come up to me all the time and say, 'I support the troops'," Ermey said. "I ask them how. They stop and think and say, um, 'I don't say anything bad about them.' Well, that's nice." Unmet Needs is one way people can put their money or their time where their mouth is.
Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.
By Sonny Bunch