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Military Families Caught In Coronavirus Travel Ban Struggle To Make Ends Meet

Laura White, spokesperson for STEP, prepares care packages for military famil...

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Above: Laura White, spokesperson for STEP, prepares care packages for military families, April 1, 2020.

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Groups that help military families are quickly retooling to aid people caught up by the restrictions designed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Aired: April 14, 2020 | Transcript

Many families are struggling financially because of the coronavirus pandemic. But after being caught up in a worldwide travel ban, military families face some unique challenges.

In recent weeks, many groups who work with military families have switched gears to help troops and families dealing with the impact of COVID-19 and the military’s attempt to control it. The USO has begun offering care packages to troops in quarantine.

Support the Enlisted Project (STEP) typically provides financial counseling for military families having trouble paying their bills. A lot of their effort has switched to providing care packages with basic necessities, to families caught off guard by the coronavirus, said Laura White, spokesperson for San Diego-based STEP.

“What we’re seeing is definitely a little bit of panic, as we all are kind of feeling these days, but another level with our military families,” White said. “Because they have some stricter stay-at-home rules. You know when your spouse is deployed and you’re a parent. We don’t want that parent here to get sick.”

So they’re delivering supplies to single parents who are often living far from their own extended families.

In late March, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper imposed a 60-day stop movement order throughout the world. The Defense Department estimates that at least 90,000 service members will be impacted by the restriction. People were frozen in place. Kathleen Martinez’s husband is a Marine officer at Camp Pendleton. He was supposed to deploy overseas for the first time, but now that is on hold.

“We were going to have me go live back in the Midwest while he was deployed, because it is the first deployment,” she said. “We don’t have any family or support system out here. We thought that would be a smart idea.”

In San Diego, where apartment vacancy rates remain low, their lease will run out at the end of the month. They can continue to lease month to month, but their landlord has told her it will be significantly more expensive.

“I feel stuck, uncertain,” she said. “Everything is up in the air. I’m a planner and everything is up in the air right now, so that’s a little nerve wracking, just not knowing what’s next.”

The secretary’s order came down so quickly, some families were stuck mid-move. Some arrived in San Diego without their furniture. Other sailors and Marines had already leased their new place, at a new duty station, and were ready to move when the order came down. Blue Star Families – a military support group – is asking families about the disruption caused by COVID-19 and the military’s response. Jessica Strong is the senior researcher for the survey. She said she has heard from families in all branches who have similar stories.

“Because of this stop movement order, people were not allowed to move from one from one place to another,” Strong said. “Twenty one percent of our respondents in our week one said that they will be paying two rents or mortgages in the next 60 days. After they’ve just lost a position, or lost half their income, that’s not easy to do.”

By the second week of the survey 37 percent of respondents said their spouse lost their civilian job. About a third say they plan to dip into savings.

“There are a lot of financial issues,” Strong said. “People are without housing or are unable to make rent. Or are unable to afford food even.”

Laura White, with the group that helps military families, said denial plays a big role in compounding financial problems. She said she’s seen people come into her office with stacks of bills, left unopened after they decided they don’t have the money to pay.

“We want you to take a deep breath and realize that a big part of the world has just come to a halt,” White said. “So you're not in any different situation than a lot of other people. Get them in order and start making phone calls to each one of those people and talk about your situation. You’re going to be able to put some things on hold. You’re going to be able to come up with some payment plans.”

There is help out there. If a creditor won’t work with you, the next step is to contact state and federal consumer protection offices. New laws have put temporary holds on some evictions. People in the military should also reach out to their command, White said.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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