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Guest Opinion: Many military families will go hungry this Christmas

While Americans battle crowds at shopping malls in their quest for a merry and plentiful Christmas, many of our nation’s military families – about half of whom reportedly have children – are struggling just to put food on the table.

As author Barbara Ehrenreich points out in “The Odd Warfare State,” “The poverty of the mightiest military machine on Earth is no secret to the many charities that have sprung up to help families on U.S. military bases.”

At Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton near San Diego, women and children line up to wait for day-old bread and frozen dinners in slightly damaged boxes. It is a scenario played out at military bases across the country as the families of enlisted men and women turn to food banks and outreach ministries to supplement their meager incomes.

Exact statistics are hard to come by, but estimates place the number of families of servicemen and women eligible for food stamps at about 25,000.

Considering that the Defense Department’s most recent report on the financial condition of the armed forces came out in 1999, one can only speculate about the current state of affairs for the nation’s 1.3 million military families.

But the outlook is dismal, indeed, if what various charitable groups – and military families themselves – say is anything to go by.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has reported that charitable groups that operate food banks at military bases are scrambling to fill a need not seen since World War II, with supplies running out before the lines do.

Amy Levesque, a military wife and volunteer for a local food pantry near Fort Drum in New York, says that Army families make up 20 percent of the people who come in seeking free meals and supplies.

Nicole Purselley, a mother of three and the wife of a hull technician aboard a Navy assault ship, says she wouldn’t know what to do without the donated food. “One week,” Purselley recalls, “we couldn’t come to get food because we didn’t have gas money.”

In “Growing Up Empty,” Loretta Schwartz-Nobel’s book about hunger in America, military families talked about their struggle to make ends meet.

“For several days at the end of each paycheck period, they often have almost nothing to eat – sometimes absolutely nothing,” writes Schwartz-Nobel. “That’s when they turn up desperate at food pantries, soup kitchens, bread lines, because they’ve literally run out.”

Some stories are downright heartbreaking.

Barbara Chavez, the director of Military Outreach Ministries, a charitable organization that provides bread and other staples to troops and their families at Miramar (Calif.) Military Base, recalls a late-night call for help from one military mom who ran out of baby formula and diapers.

“She’s 22 with two kids under 3 and her husband is in Iraq. She was distraught and cried for 10 minutes.”

Stories like these should serve as a harsh indictment of a government bureaucracy that will shell out $500,000 for the Sparta Teapot Museum in Sparta, N.C., while military families struggle to survive on meager salaries. Even with pay raises, many still have trouble affording the basics.

No matter where you stand on the war in Iraq, there should be no disagreement among Americans over what needs to be done about the plight of military families. Even one family suffering such hardship is too much.

The following are just a few things you can do to help ease the strain for these families in need:

● Donate food and money to local food pantries near military bases or volunteer with a local military food pantry. You can find these military outreach ministries by contacting the nearest military base.

● Adopt a military family in need. By doing so, you could provide Christmas gifts and other necessities to a struggling military family.

You might even provide a Christmas dinner for a military family. Better yet, invite one of these families to your family Christmas dinner. Check your local Yellow Pages for organizations that coordinate such efforts.

● Arrange for your church, synagogue or other religious institution to take a special offering for a military family or families for Christmas. Most churches could easily provide a military family in need with a monthly gift of at least $100 as a continuing expression of Christmas giving.

● For those who live near a military base, organize an ongoing military outreach ministry that provides emergency assistance to military families.

● Finally, let your voice be heard. Call, write and e-mail your congressional representatives about the need to increase active-duty pay and improve veterans’ benefits.

Christmas is a season for giving. According to news reports, the average American gives quite a lot – at least when it comes to spending money on Christmas gifts for friends and family.

Last year, the average American spent $738 on gifts. Even more was spent on lavish parties, dinners and get-togethers.

This Christmas, instead of spending on our inner circles, wouldn’t it be nice to give something back to the brave men and women in uniform who are putting their lives – and their families’ welfare – on the line for the sake of our freedoms?

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. E-mail: johnw@rutherford.org. This Guest Opinion appears online only and not in the Tucson Citizen’s print edition.

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