Sunday, February 22, 2009

Neglecting the Troops

Our troops get lots of praise and attention for their service, and we hope they get just rewards. I haven't been one, so I don't know what their lives are like. I do know I have heard a few times about our troops having to go on public assistance to take care of their families. The pay must not be great. Now I discover that when they have a need and go to their own established assistance organization, their needs are not a big factor in that operation either.

There is, I find, Army Emergency Relief (AER), a charitable operation under the Army's auspices, that gets donations from the troops and interested parties. That AER is supposed to exist for the purpose of helping out in time of need. Mysteriously, there is much more reserved for the AER in savings than ever is given out in aid. An Associated Press report found some really sad facts in investigating the AER and its use by our troops.

As soldiers stream home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the biggest charity inside the U.S. military has been stockpiling tens of millions of dollars meant to help put returning fighters back on their feet, an Associated Press investigation shows.
Between 2003 and 2007 — as many military families dealt with long war deployments and increased numbers of home foreclosures — Army Emergency Relief grew into a $345 million behemoth. During those years, the charity packed away $117 million into its own reserves while spending just $64 million on direct aid, according to an AP analysis of its tax records.

Tax-exempt and legally separate from the military, AER projects a facade of independence but really operates under close Army control. The massive nonprofit — funded predominantly by troops — allows superiors to squeeze soldiers for contributions; forces struggling soldiers to repay loans — sometimes delaying transfers and promotions; and too often violates its own rules by rewarding donors, such as giving free passes from physical training, the AP found.

Founded in 1942, AER eases cash emergencies of active-duty soldiers and retirees and provides college scholarships for their families. Its emergency aid covers mortgage payments and food, car repairs, medical bills, travel to family funerals, and the like.

Instead of giving money away, though, the Army charity lent out 91 percent of its emergency aid during the period 2003-2007. For accounting purposes, the loans, dispensed interest-free, are counted as expenses only when they are not paid back.
The Army also exercises its leverage in raising contributions from soldiers. It reaches out only to troops and veterans in annual campaigns organized by Army personnel.

For those on active duty, AER organizes appeals along the chain of command. Low-ranking personnel are typically solicited by a superior who knows them personally.

Spiegel, the AER administrator, said he’s unaware of specific violations but added: ‘‘I spent 29 years in the Army, I know how ... first sergeants operate. Some of them do strong-arm.’’

It's not an economic time when there are a lot of options, and I understand that graduates getting out of schools are getting few offers. As I recently found out, jobs that have been lined up are even falling through as graduation approaches. The military seems like one of the few options many newcomers to employment age have. Making service worthwhile might attract a lot more of those, but that doesn't seem to be an operating principle of the AER.

The effect of its stewardship on the staff of AER appears to have been to make it cherish the money, rather than the troops they're there to serve. The time for a serious overhaul of this kind of uncharitable behavior is now, and should have been sooner. The people who serve this country in our military deserve to get help, not another instance of neglect.

Army Emergency Relief isn't a holding company, and building up a big bank account should never have become its design.

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Blogger Cosa Nostradamus said...

I was in line at the auto-cashier at the store the other day, and this young woman with three boisterous kids was right in front of me. She was obviously military; they really stick out in Hawaii.

Anyway, she was paying with change from a bunch of baggies full of coins; quarters, I assumed. I stood there patiently for a few minutes and then finally took a closer look.

The screen said her bill was over a hundred dollars, and she was feeding nickles and dimes into the machine. Literally nickles and dimes. I wished I had an extra hundred bucks to give her, but I didn't.

Her husband is probably on his third deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. And she has to scrounge change to buy necessities for her kids. Really sad. Third week of the month, and she's broke already.

She probably went to the self-checkout because she was embarrassed to pay a human being with all that change. But it would have been much faster to do so. She ended up being something of a spectacle, by taking so long to feed those coins in one at a time.

She was still there when I went around her to the next self-checkout station, scanned everything, paid and left. Still feeding small change into the machine, for a good twenty minutes while she tried to wrangle the kids, 4, 5, and 6, years old, I'd say.

Other people stood behind her for a few minutes and then moved on like I did, when they realized what she was doing. I guess nobody had a spare $100.

They were selling red white & blue plastic magnetic "ribbons" for your car for $5. They said "SUPPORT OUR TROOPS." It would be nice if the money went to the troops' families.

I guess things haven't changed all that much since I was in the Marine Corps. E-3 and below, the vast majority of all the services, don't make squat. If they don't get help or get smart about how the system works, they'll be living real poor. The big bucks are reserved for lifers, signing up for more than one tour, and picking up promotions, raises & more bennies each time.

It's the lifers & retirees who run things like the PX/ NX and Army/ Navy Relief. They tend to take care of their own, i.e., other lifers, and not the 1-hitch wonders that make up the bulk of our forces. Bit of a racket, actually. I'll bet AER has nice offices and pays good salaries, and I'll bet it's Army retirees that get them.

The worst of it is that the 1-hitch is not one, two or three years any more. Between "stop-loss" & reserve committments, they can be held indefinitely, with few if any promotions or raises, and no re-enlistment bonuses. The average is about 7 years now. That's a long time for an 18-year old. Especially if he or she is trying to stay married.

Recruiters say their job is getting easier, thanks to the Bush recession. Double-whammy. Talk about a lost generation.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Ruth said...

Thanks for your comment. I hesitate to accuse anyone, and have no knowledge, but keeping an exceedingly large balance in an account usually gives the depositor leverage with the bank in other affairs. I fear that I suspect the motivation behind not using funds that are supposed to be for the troops may be more than just inconvenient in view of the purpose of the funds, but downright venal.

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds just like those big fat college endowments to me. Hog all the cash for the big wigs and let out as little as possible. I would make sure the AER didn't invest in any REIT or other nefarious investments.

12:16 PM  

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