Reservists and families unaware of benefits and support services

Reservists called to active duty for Operation Iraqi Freedom--and the family members they leave behind--need more information about the benefits and support services available to them, according to a new General Accounting Office report and an advocacy group.

"We ask you to remember that in [a] time of war, even more than during peacetime deployments, mission readiness is tied to service member readiness, which is tied to family readiness," said Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The stability of the military family and community and their support for the force rests on the nation's continued focus on the entire package of quality-of-life components."

The Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group last week asked lawmakers to ensure that the families of reservists and guard members called to active duty receive emotional support, health services and childcare, comparable to what the families of active-duty personnel receive. In addition, compensation is a "paramount concern" to reserve and guard members, many of whom have taken pay cuts to serve, without any contribution by their employers to make up the difference.

"Our guard and reserve families are meeting the challenge of our rapidly changing times and increasing military demands with varying degrees of success," Raezer said. "While many of the challenges they face are similar to those of active component families, these families must face them with a less-concentrated and mature support network and in many cases without prior experience with military life."

According to Raezer's association, there are many benefits and support networks in place to help reserve and guard families, but often the families do not learn about them, or have enough accurate information to fully understand them. This is partly because reserve families often live far from where reserve units go through predeployment briefings and cannot attend unless they pay their own way, according to Raezer's testimony.

Her group would like Congress to provide families with money to attend the briefings, or do a better job of supporting the volunteers who bring benefits information to families.

A March 19 GAO report (GAO-03-549T) supported the association's observations. According to the report, more than half of all reservists surveyed three years ago by the Defense Department either thought family support services were not available to them or did not know what services were provided. For example, 68 percent of reservists did not know whether financial counseling for family members existed on or near military installations. Nearly 20 percent believed the counseling was unavailable.

The situation has improved since Defense conducted the 2000 survey, GAO noted. A "Guide to Reserve Family Member Benefits" and a family readiness "tool kit" provide some important information about benefits and entitlements.

But many reserve families told the military family association they found the guides difficult to use. They said they would like to see support information standardized to all branches of military service, so that if, for example, an Army reserve member's family lived close to a Navy installation, members would know how to use the services offered there.

"Outreach to reservists and their families will likely remain a continuing challenge," GAO said. The outreach programs are heavily dependent on volunteers, the report stated, and some installations are suffering from a lack of volunteers.

The military family association suggested that Defense strengthen partnerships with national organizations such as the American Red Cross and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Those organizations' local chapters could provide valuable support for military family members.

Reservists and their family members also have problems with pay, the group told lawmakers. According to GAO, about 41 percent of reservists earn less money when they are on military duty than they earn on their regular jobs. "In addition to earning less, some Guard and Reserve members have experienced some problems with pay processing," Raezer said in testimony. "For some families, the delay in receiving a paycheck has led to overdue payments on bills, and occasional threats to foreclose on their mortgage or turn them over to collection."

The Defense Department has explored some debt management or restructuring programs to help out reservists who lose money during mobilizations, GAO said. Reservists and their families are also eligible for emergency, interest-free loans during mobilizations, the report said. For some military operations, reservists called up receive full housing allowances and a per diem during the entire operation.

In addition to these services, GAO suggested that the Defense Department reach out to make sure that employers are aware of reservists' rights during deployment. A lack of data on reservists' employers has slowed progress on outreach, but the department is developing a plan to collect more data on employers, the report said.

The Defense Department generally agreed with the GAO report.

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