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NAPLES, Italy — For some servicemembers struggling to get by on a military paycheck, a jolly man in a red suit delivering free toys would be a most welcome sight.

One sailor at Capodichino in Naples, Italy, said that even though she lives on a strict budget, it’s difficult to save any cash for the holidays.

The 28-year-old single mother’s four children range in age from 6 months to 6 years.

“Plenty of people ask me how I get by month to month,” said the petty officer second class, who didn’t want to be named.

She got her first child support payment Friday, just in time to rush out and buy Christmas gifts for her kids.

At her last command, she received food vouchers to help out around the holidays.

Most bases have some sort of program to help out struggling servicemembers, such as toy drives and angel trees. And aid societies frequently team with chaplains to identify servicemembers in need.

In 2001, the Air Force Aid Society provided more than $300,000 in food assistance grants and loans to airmen’s families.

In Naples, chaplains recently worked with area chief petty officers to distribute commissary food vouchers to help out with holiday meals.

“Chiefs find families they feel are in need. We have to do that carefully so it doesn’t have a negative connotation,” said Command Master Chief William R. Clouse.

Chaplain Jeff Logan said servicemembers frequently turn to chaplains and other leaders for financial advice.

Those who are struggling are commonly lower enlisted with larger families, Logan said.

“The pay for E-3s and E-4s is just not that great. It’s tough for them,” he said.

According to a 2000 Fleet and Family Support Center study, personal financial management struggles are the No. 1 issue that leaders deal with most often. Sixty-two percent of military leaders indicated they had referred a sailor to FFSC for help with financial management in the last six months.

“After the holidays, we’re really busy — they often come see us after they’ve spent the money, unfortunately,” said Sheryl Rivers, financial educator for the Naples FFSC. “We try to encourage people to come in for one-on-one counseling, developing spending plans to make them more conscious of their spending habits.”

But Rivers said it’s not only the lower enlisted folks with large families who are struggling.

“I find that a good portion of single sailors find themselves struggling financially,” she said. “My opinion is they’ve come into a situation where they go from living at home with their parents to being in the military where they’re instantly getting a paycheck and they don’t have real financial commitments they have to meet. So their spending habits just kind of go wild.”

That independence at a younger age is one reason why military personnel struggle more financially than civilians, according to a 1997 RAND study sponsored by the Institute of Family Management.

The study found that 27 percent of enlisted personnel as opposed to 6 percent of civilians have a hard time paying their monthly bills. The study outlined other possible reasons: servicemembers tend to have children at a younger age, and many have unemployed spouses because of frequent moves.

Many run into trouble when they have an unexpected financial emergency, such as car problems. According to a recent General Accounting Office report, enlisted personnel have little cushion for emergencies: 54 percent reported having less than $1,000 in savings.

That’s where relief societies can help out.

The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society offers interest-free loans and grants for emergency situations to help with basic living expenses.

“They’ll use money to fix the car and now there’s no money for food,” said Margaret R. Copson, executive director of the Naples branch. She said January is a particularly hard time for folks. “You want to give gifts to people in your family for Christmas. Then January comes around and you’re more in debt.”

Servicemembers with young children also can turn to organizations like WICO (Women, Infants and Children Overseas), a nutrition program that provides food vouchers for eligible participants.

The Naples branch has been very busy, seeing almost 350 people since it opened three months ago.

“I think we will have another influx probably right after holidays when people have bills from Christmas,” said Cheryle Dean, nutrition counselor.

Rivers encourages people to find ways to celebrate the season other than racking up huge bills to put lots of gifts under the tree.

“If you encourage your kids to want all the things you can’t afford to buy them, then you put yourself in a position where you can’t get them what you want,” said Rivers, noting that instead of getting into debt to buy gifts, “hopefully families will become more creative and get in touch with the real reason for [the] holiday season.”

Need help?

Contact your local Fleet and Family Support Center for information on financial assistance. Or go to the following Web sites:

Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society:www.nmcrs.org

Air Force Aid Society:afas.org

Army Emergency Relief:www.aerhq.org

Coast Guard Mutual Assistance:www.cgmahq.org

National Military Family Association:www.nmfa.org

Want to help?

Donate a commissary gift certificate at anytime during the year. The certificates are not sold in commissaries. Buy them at www.commissaries.com, or call 1-877-770-GIFT. Select the “order” link for personal gifts or the “donate” link to donate certificates through the charitable organization page.

A standard charge of $4.95 pays the costs for printing, mailing and handling of up to 20 certificates, as long as they’re going to the same address. Installation charities can obtain a form at their local commissary to waive the handling fee.


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