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WASHINGTON — Many guardsmen returning from overseas deployment are finding their families in debt and their small businesses on the verge of collapse, according to Sen. John Kerry, who unveiled a bill Tuesday to help ease that transition back home.

“A small veterinarian’s office or a small contractor, their business falls apart while their gone,” said Kerry, D-Mass., in a meeting with defense reporters. “In many cases they’re been sustained by the goodwill and patriotism of folks in their community so they can pick up when they come back, but it’s not without a lot of effort and a lot of work.”

Kerry’s legislation would provide tax incentives to employers who keep deployed guardsmen and reservists on their payrolls, and create new loans and grants for self-employed troops to help get their businesses running again.

“What we can do is try to provide economic incentives to cushion that impact and facilitate their efforts to survive,” he said.

Kerry proposed many of the same initiatives during his 2004 presidential bid, and several similar ideas also are being floated in Congress.

Kerry’s bill would also extend military health care benefits to all reservists and guardsmen, regardless of deployment, and expand posttraumatic stress disorder counseling services.

The National Military Family Association praised those ideas, saying that Guard and Reserve families in particular are facing challenges when their servicemember return home.

“About a third of those in the Guard are making less while serving than they would usually make in salary,” said Michelle Joyner, spokeswoman for the NMFA.

“Some private employers have taken it upon themselves to make up the difference, but there’s nothing that obligates them to do that. So we’re definitely concerned about what financial impact this is having,” she said.

Several portions of Kerry’s bill — the health care expansion and increases in the death benefit, for example — are already being considered in Congress. Kerry’s proposal also calls for 30,000 new Army soldiers and 10,000 more Marines, whom he says are needed not for Iraq and Afghanistan but instead for the future demands of the war on terrorism.

He used Tuesday’s forum to criticize President Bush’s decision not to send more troops to secure Iraq, and reiterated complaints from his failed presidential campaign that Bush has not really reached out to other nations to assist in rebuilding that country.

And he blamed his election loss on the power of Bush’s incumbency, saying that the administration has since used many of his proposals, such as increasing the military death benefit and improving national intelligence.

“They had a bully pulpit that we didn’t have and they have an automatic trust factor we didn’t have,” he said. “Americans accepted that I could be the commander in chief. What they were unwilling to do was shift commanders in midstream.”


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