Originally created 04/08/00

Army challenges households



When her daddy left for Korea 13 months ago, Samantha Jenia was 10-months-old -- not yet old enough to walk and talk.

"She kind of oohed and ahhhed, cooed and crawled," said Heather Jenia, who handled the three-child household by herself until her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Gary Jenia, returned home last month.

"The changes have been dramatic," she said. "The children he came back to are not the same children he left. He's come back treating them as he remembers, and they are like `Dad, I'm not that little anymore."'

Welcome to the world of Army families. According to 1997 Army numbers, 67 percent of the fighting force -- 59 percent of the enlisted soldiers and 77 percent of the officers -- are married. That's an upswing from previous decades, when soldiers just didn't get married that often. In 1987, 48 percent of the enlisted soldiers and 69 percent of the officers were married.

More married soldiers translates into a number of things: more children, more demand for services from health care to schooling, more demand for houses and more complaints about Army salaries.

That -- coupled with family and marital strife that can cause morale and other problems -- creates challenges for both the Army and families.

Sgt. Angelina Fielding understands the challenges firsthand. When she's away during training, she must leave her four children behind.

"When it comes to the deployments, it gets kind of hard," she said, as she peered out of a foxhole during the fourth day of a five-day training exercise at Fort Gordon. "But when all this is done, I can take off my uniform and go home and be mom."

It's the deployments that are always the hardest on families. Sgt. 1st Class David McNease understands the difference between being married and being single -- and being deployed -- in the Army. He's been in 16 years and married to Gee Hyun for eight.

BUT IN 1990, HE wasn't married, and that made all the difference in the world. That's when he was sent to the Persian Gulf War and had to rely on other soldiers to watch his stateside affairs.

"I had to rely totally on the military," the 33-year-old Michigan native said. "Now everything falls on my wife. She has to be able to run all the finances. She has to be able to do everything."

For Mrs. McNease, a 32-year-old from Korea, being an Army wife has taught her to be self-reliant. She went through her pregnancy essentially alone because her husband was on deployment, and she's learned to take care of the household. Their daughter, Diane, is now 4 years old.

"Everyone calls us military dependents," she said. "I think we are really independent."

That's been a difficult lesson for Sgt. Keith Walker's spouse to learn.

"The Army has been good to me, but I've only been married for three years," he said. "My wife doesn't know a lot about the military. I'll do anything I can to protect my family. If getting out of the Army will make things better between me and my wife, I'll do it."

Such deployments would have kept retired Col. Dick Manion from ever joining the Army. A soldier today is three times more likely to be sent overseas on a peacekeeping mission than his counterparts from 15 years ago.

"I don't know how I could serve today, it is very difficult on the families," he said. "Even when I served, my family moved 20 times in 28 years. You are unable to buy a home; you are unable to do anything. You don't have any roots."

THAT'S WHY MANY on-post Army families create a community of support among themselves. In 1999, 2,218 family members lived in homes or apartments on Fort Gordon.

"Being on post I feel a lot more support from the community. I feel safer. It kind of feels like I am with my family," said Mrs. McNease, who's grandfather photographed Gen. Douglas MacArthur's landing at Inchon, Korea, for the local newspaper.

Off-post, however, the sense of military community isn't as strong, because 9,107 family members who don't live on post are spread throughout the Augusta area.

When her husband was sent to Korea, Mrs. Jenia -- who lives off Washington Road near Lake Olmstead -- had her family to rely on.

"Once he was gone, I was pretty much cut free (of Fort Gordon)," she said.

Whether they live on or off post, one complaint is the same: The pay is too low.

For example, Sgt. 1st Class McNease's base pay -- according to a basic military pay table on About.com -- would be about $2,497 a month, or about $30,000 a year. That's after 16 years of service in the enlisted ranks. Meanwhile, a second lieutenant -- the lowest-ranking officer -- with only four years of service makes $2,423 a month, or $29,076 a year.

And for privates it's a little worse. They make between $930 and $1,127 a month for the first year. By comparison, the poverty level for a family of four is $1,420.83 a month.

IN JANUARY, SOLDIERS received a 4.8 percent raise, and some specific pay grades will see an additional 3 percent increase July 1. It's all part of a plan to help close the 13 percent gap between Army salaries and comparable salaries in the civilian world.

"The (13 percent gap) is somewhat misleading, because there is no way you can compare the two because of the military pay system," said Rod Powers, military affairs guide for about.com -- a web community of more than 700 experts in various fields. "The military uses pay charts based upon a person's rank and time-in service. The civilian sector pays a person based upon what kind of job they do."

A sergeant first class with 18 years in the military makes the same amount whether he is a truck driver or a computer programmer.

"Compared to civilian wages, the truck driver is probably overpaid, while the computer programmer is dramatically underpaid," Mr. Powers said.

The low pay poses a problem for the McNeases, who are considering having a second child and know the strain that can mean to family life.

"There are people in the Army who are on food stamps," said Sgt. 1st Class McNease. "They are pinching every penny they can. It's tough."

In 1997, $9.4 million in food stamps and $8.3 million in Women, Infants and Children programs were handed out to Army soldiers throughout America.

ANOTHER PROBLEM FACING Army families is stability.

"I don't know where I'm going to be in two years from now," Sgt. 1st Class McNease said.

That's been the story of his military career. A few years ago, the couple actually bought a house in Texas. Soon after, he was reassigned and the McNease home had to be sold -- at a big loss.

The lack of stability also creates problems for spouses. Mrs. McNease would love to work but is afraid employers will hold being an Army wife -- and the potential temporary nature of military life -- against her.

"It's hard for her to have a professional career when I move around so much," Sgt. 1st Class McNease said.

And then there is the on-post housing -- which Sgt. 1st Class McNease calls substandard and cramped. He compares his family's house to a home he could have bought if he'd put the same amount of time into the civilian world that he's invested in the Army.

"There's just not enough money going around the system to give us a house maybe you would want to live in after putting in 20 years with a company," he said.

There is a plan being considered by Congress that would improve the off-base housing allowance program, known as Basic Allowance for Housing. The changes are designed to cover approximately 80 percent of the average rental and utility costs for an area around an Army post. The proposed plan will slowly increase the housing allowances until they cover 100 percent of average rental/utility costs by 2008.

Despite the negatives, there are a number of positives to Army life that the McNeases point out. Both have earned master's degrees, and he's working on a second one.

The Army was Sgt. 1st Class McNease's avenue of choice for education. He quit high school at 17, and went to work for Uncle Sam.

"If you only stay in until retirement, there's no reason you can't walk out the door with a degree," he said. "The opportunities for education in the Army are phenomenal, but you've got to go out and get it."

He considers the education an investment.

"When I do get out of the Army, that one will pay off," he said.

The educational opportunities -- coupled with other support programs -- are all part of the Army's focus on the "total soldier," from the actual military member to everyone in the family, said Gigi Linder, Army Community Service officer at Fort Gordon.

"When I first started in this business, there was a sense we had to get just the soldier ready," she said. "It's not a perfect system, but I think it is a responsive system."

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115.



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