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'Abandoned Spouses Hotline' program may become a model

DONGDUCHEON, South Korea — U.S. Army officials have started an “Abandoned Spouses Hotline” here in hopes of helping women left stranded — both intentionally and unintentionally — by their soldier-husbands.

About 30 women have gotten help courtesy of the year-old outreach program, which officials hope will become a model for U.S. military communities around the world.

Most have not been abandoned in the classic sense. Many were foreign-born military wives who needed help working through the maze of immigration paperwork necessary to join their husbands in the U.S. or at their next duty stations.

However, in about a half-dozen instances, the program has come to the aid of women whose husbands have left South Korea with no apparent intention of taking their wives or children with them.

“That is really, really bad,” said Elizabeth Samarripa, the Army Community Services outreach program coordinator for Area I, the northernmost region of South Korea. “It is against Army regulations. You cannot abandon your family.”

In such cases, Samarripa said, she tries to contact the husbands. If her e-mails to the soldiers go unanswered, she refers those situations to the soldiers’ chains of command, and they are usually forced to take responsibility for their wives and families under the threat of court-martial.

An example of the kind of people helped through the outreach program is a 42-year-old Filipina whose Camp Casey-based husband of six years recently left South Korea on a month’s leave without giving his wife any money on which she and their three children could live. They could not pay their rent and were evicted.

Army officials have provided temporary housing for the family, but she has no idea what she is going to do long-term.

She said she doubts her husband plans to return to his unit when his leave is over, since this is the second time he has tried to abandon her. Last year, she said, they stopped in the Philippines en route from the U.S. to South Korea, and her husband disappeared while she was in a hotel bathroom.

She eventually managed to track him down through his unit, and they reconciled. But now he is gone again, and she said his relatives in the U.S. say they don’t even know where he might be.

Samarripa said the Abandoned Spouses Hotline was started in Area I because, “We have a lot of [foreign] spouses here.”

The key to the success of the program is getting the word out to the women who might need help. Public service announcements air on the American Forces Network inviting spouses left behind by their military husbands to call the hot line (0505-730-3635), where they are directed to leave a message and their contact information in one of five languages (English, Korean, Spanish, Russian or Tagalog).

The spouses often need help lining up visas, green cards and Social Security numbers, Samarripa said, as well as assistance getting access to base services, including medical care and legal advice.

Yu Young-nim is the director of My Sister’s Place — a social service organization that helps women in need in Area I — and an outspoken critic in the past of the U.S. military’s treatment of women in South Korea. However, Yu called the hot line a “really good” start in addressing a significant problem in the area.

Samarripa said she hopes the program is eventually copied in other military communities.

“I don’t think only Area I has this problem,” she said. “It is pretty much a worldwide problem.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this story.


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