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American Homefront

For Young Military Families, The Financial Effects Of The Pandemic Can Be Severe

Laura White of San Diego's Support The Enlisted Project helps distribute supplies to military families who are suffering financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Laura White of San Diego's Support The Enlisted Project helps distribute supplies to military families who are suffering financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deployments, job losses, and the Pentagon's "stop movement" order are among the factors contributing to financial stress for troops and their families.

Many families are struggling financially because of the coronavirus pandemic, but, after being caught up in a worldwide travel ban, military families face some unique challenges.

In recent weeks, many groups who work with military families have switched gears to help troops and families dealing with the impact of COVID-19 and the military's attempt to control it.

The USO has begun offering care packages to troops in quarantine. Support The Enlisted Project (STEP) typically provides financial counseling for military families having trouble paying their bills. Now, they're providing care packages with basic necessities to families caught off guard by the coronavirus, including spouses of deployed service members who are living far from their extended families.

"What we're seeing is definitely a little bit of panic, as we all are kind of feeling these days, but another level with our military families," said Laura White, spokesperson for San Diego-based STEP. "When your spouse is deployed and you're a parent, we don't want that parent here to get sick."

In late March, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper imposed a 60 day stop movement order throughout the world.

People were frozen in place. The Defense Department estimates that at least 90,000 service members will be impacted by the restriction.

Kathleen Martinez's husband is an Marine officer at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. He was supposed to deploy overseas for the first time, but now that is on hold. So is Kathleen's pending move to be closer to her family.

"We were going to have me go live back in the Midwest while he was deployed, because it is the first deployment," she said. "We don't have any family or support system out here. We thought that would be a smart idea."

Their lease in San Diego will run out at the end of the month. They can continue to lease month to month, but their landlord has told her it will be significantly more expensive.

"I feel stuck, uncertain," she said. "Everything is up in the air. I'm a planner and I can't plan right now, so that's a little nerve wracking, just not knowing what's next."

The Secretary's order came down so quickly, some families were stuck mid-move. Some arrived in San Diego without their furniture. Other sailors and Marines had already leased a new place at a new duty station and were ready to move when the order came down.

Blue Star Families - a military support group - is asking families about the disruption caused by COVID-19 and the military's response.

"Because of this stop movement order, people were not allowed to move from one place to another," said senior researcher Jessica Strong. "21 percent of our respondents in our week one said that they will be paying two rents or mortgages in the next 60 days. After they've just lost a position or lost half their income, that's not easy to do."

By the second week of their survey, 37 percent of respondents said their spouse had become unemployed. About a third say they plan to dip into savings.

"There are a lot of financial repercussions," Strong said. "People are without housing or are unable to make rent. Or are unable to afford food even."

White said denial plays a big role in compounding financial problems. She said she's seen people come into her office with stacks of bills, left unopened after they decided they don't have the money to pay.

"We want you to take a deep breath and realize that a big part of the world has just come to a halt," White said. "So you're not in any different situation than a lot of other people. Get them in order and start making phone calls to each one of those people and talk about your situation. You're going to be able to put some things on hold. You're going to be able to come up with some payment plans."

If a creditor won't work with you, White said the next step is to contact state and federal consumer protection offices. New laws have put temporary holds on some evictions.

People in the military should also reach out to their command, she said.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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