Gulf call-ups mean financial battle for kin left behind WAR IN THE GULF

February 14, 1991|By Graeme Browning Ann LoLordo of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

When Ed Fallon's National Guard unit went on alert last fall, Mr. Fallon went to the personnel office at the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, where he was a police officer, to ask if the Housing Authority would continue to pay his health benefits while he was overseas.

Someone in that office -- Mr. Fallon does not remember who -- told him the Housing Authority would continue to pay his benefits, said Mr. Fallon's wife, Pat.

Three days after Mr. Fallon left for the Persian Gulf in November, however, another representative of the Housing Authority called Mrs. Fallon to say that her husband had been misinformed and that the benefits would not be continued.

"Ed wrote them a letter to ask why and they didn't even write him back to say, 'We're sorry this has happened.' All of the people in Ed's unit are over there fighting for the principles of decency, and this is what he gets," Mrs. Fallon, a first-grade teacher at Carrolltowne Elementary School in Eldersburg, said recently.

The situation isn't entirely bleak, Mrs. Fallon says. She and the four children in the Fallon family -- her daughter and son, and Mr. Fallon's two children -- are covered under Mrs. Fallon's health plan with the Carroll County schools.

But that program doesn't include prescriptions. "And children get sick a lot in the winter," Mrs. Fallon says.

The Housing Authority considers Mr. Fallon's service with the Guard in the gulf a military furlough during which he is not entitled to continued pay or benefits, said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the authority.

In light of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision Jan. 29 to continue health-insurance benefits for families of city employees called to active duty in the gulf, however, the Housing Authority is reviewing itspolicy, Mr. Toohey said.

"If we decide to go along with the city policy, then Officer Fallon will get his benefits," Mr. Toohey said.

When reservists and National Guardsmen leave their jobs to go to war, their families sometimes find the financial going tough, military counselors say.

Differences between military and civilian salaries are a big problem. For example, an inspector in the Housing Authority police force, whose salary would be comparable to that of Mr. Fallon, makes $26,469 to $34,406 a year, Mr. Toohey said.

A National Guard sergeant on active duty, however, makes less than $20,000 a year, said Sgt. Larry Butts of the Maryland Guard family-assistance program.

Some younger soldiers live on such tight budgets as civilians that even a small cut in pay means their spouses can't make ends meet, counselors say. Other spouses, unaccustomed to bearing sole responsibility for the bills, allow creditors to browbeat them into paying more interest on loans than they are legally required to pay.

As the conflict in the gulf drags into its second month, even families on sound financial footing -- those who prepared carefully for a spouse's absence and who have income beyond a military paycheck -- are feeling some stress.

The families of the more than 600 members of the Maryland National Guard who have been sent to the gulf "are doing everything they can to make it on their own, to take the cuts and work through it," said Trisch Putman, the Maryland Guard's family-assistance coordinator.

"But if someone told you that all of a sudden you've now got $350 less a month to live on, and you've got bills to pay based on that $350, then something's got to give," Ms. Putman said.

Ed and Pat Fallon, for example, put aside $2,000 to cover emergencies while Mr. Fallon is in the gulf. Mr. Fallon's military paychecks have not begun to arrive regularly, however, and "I had to dig into the nest egg big-time" last month, Mrs. Fallon said.

The family is well-prepared in other ways, though. The week after Mr. Fallon got word that his unit was on alert, he began cleaning and fixing things around the house -- including a storm door wrecked by a tornado months before, Mrs. Fallon said.

Mr. Fallon also made a will, signed a power of attorney to his wife and developed a budget, Mrs. Fallon said. With no health benefits from the Housing Authority, "I've had to totally revise it, but we'll be OK. Financially, we're not in a hardship situation," she said.

Others aren't as lucky. "For some of my clients, even the loss of $100 a month has devastated the family," said Dennis McMillen, a financial-assistance representative at Fort Detrick, an Army post in Frederick.

Mr. McMillen has been working overtime since 100 Marine reservists with the 4th Light Armored Infantry Battalion left Frederick in November for Saudi Arabia. The reservists left 500 to 700 family members in need of varying degrees of help, Fort Detrick officials estimate.

Much of Mr. McMillen's time has been spent interceding with creditors who are either demanding that bills be paid in full despite the family's reduced finances or who are resisting lowering the monthly payments on long-standing loans.

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