Ephrata, Washington Pays For The War A small town's National Guard soldiers trained hard for duty in Iraq. No one trained their families for the financial burden of their absence
By Joan Caplin and Ellen McGirt

(MONEY Magazine) – It's two minutes before parade time on a sunny Saturday morning when Sheila Kelly, 40, dissolves into tears. Her son Michael, 10, has disappeared just as he was to take his place in the procession. "Have you seen him?" she asks friends and neighbors. Ephrata, a farming town of 6,800 in eastern Washington, just south of the Grand Coulee dam, is an unlikely spot for a child abduction. It's a place where life is lived behind unlocked doors and on a first-name basis. But now there's an undercurrent of fatigue and worry. "It's been a really long year," Kelly says.

Her husband Wade, 41, is also missing. A lab technician with a chemical company in nearby Moses Lake, Wade is a Specialist E-4 in the 1161st Transportation Company of the Washington Army National Guard, based in Ephrata. Since May 2003, he and other members of the 1161st have been driving armored supply trucks in Iraq. They are on the longest deployment of any Guard unit since World War II. They've logged over 900,000 miles and carted 14,000 loads. They have been ambushed delivering mail to Fallujah and have driven over land mines; five of them have been injured seriously enough to be sent home, none fatally. Their tour of duty, originally six months, has been extended. Twice. This year's parade, part of Ephrata's 95th annual Sage-n-Sun Festival, was supposed to welcome back Wade Kelly and the other 129 members of the 1161st, 34 of them women, now in Iraq. Instead, their families will be marching without them.

For the past 18 months those families have had to earn, budget, spend and generally get along on their own, financially and emotionally. They've also had to dig deep into their pockets to pay for supplies for the citizen soldiers in Iraq. For some that has meant taking jobs (or second jobs) and spending their savings. They're not risking their lives the way the members of the 1161st are, but they are taking on big burdens and making big sacrifices all the same. It's been harder than anyone could have expected.

For many Americans in rural, decidedly not-rich towns like this, joining the National Guard is an economic choice, a part-time commitment in exchange for a second income or a way to pay for college. Grant County, of which Ephrata is the county seat, has a median household income of $32,336 a year. But people here think of the Guard as more than just a way to make money--it's also an opportunity to serve. Eastern Washington has been studded with military bases since World War II, and the Guard and other services are a big part of the local economy and of everyday life.

Now Guard and Reserve troops are playing a large role in a difficult and controversial war. About one-fourth of the 135,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq are Guard troops or reservists. "I don't think that any of us predicted that there would have been such a reliance on the Reserve brought into federal service for such a lengthy period of time," says Col. Rick Patterson, spokesman for the Washington Army National Guard. "The sacrifice for them, their families and their communities has been enormous."

In Ephrata, business is off in local bars and restaurants. Right in front of the SplashZone, a 10,000-square-foot community pool where most kids spend the summer, sits the armory that is home to the 1161st. "There was always something going on over there," says Wes Crago, Ephrata's city administrator. "Now it looks like an empty parking lot."

At the fire station across from the armory, Jeremy Burns, chief of the Ephrata fire department, is nervous about this summer. He relies on the 1161st a lot for help in wildfire season, particularly for quick repairs and heavy trucks to pull gear into and out of tough terrain. The past two summers were quiet, and the hills around town are full of dry grass and brush. "There's a lot of fuel out there. We really need them around," he says.

The economic strain on Guard families began before the 1161st shipped out. Tapped for service in February 2003, the unit spent three months training at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, about 200 miles to the west. The short distance made frequent weekend visits impossible to resist, so families packed up their kids and made the drive over the Cascade Range. Even on the cheap--$75-a-night motel rooms with kitchenettes--the travel costs mounted.

Then there were the supplies. The 1161st was outfitted mainly by the U.S. Army. "The Army wasn't ready for the deployment, so we had to buy a lot of stuff," says Kathy Bryson, whose husband Joe is a sergeant with the 1161st. The troops were to ship out with four uniforms, two pairs of boots and four pairs of socks. Some soldiers didn't get all that stuff or wanted extras, which they had to buy on their own. The Army also ran out of rain ponchos, compasses and some special equipment. Joe Bryson spent $70 on a training uniform and $50 for a rifle sling that fit better than the one the Army gave him. "Between visits and supplies, we probably spent $3,000 getting [each of] them out of the country," his wife says. "We sometimes felt that the Army should have been doing more for the guys. For us too. There was a lot to manage all at once."

Once the 1161st got to Iraq, its members found they needed everything from bug spray, toilet paper and tampons to construction supplies. They were responsible for building their barracks and camps. Again the families picked up the slack. Joe Bryson sent home lists, and Kathy went to the hardware store for duct tape, a drill, a table saw, hinges and a screwdriver set. She even sent an air conditioner. She says, "It's kind of like running two households." Kathy says that she has spent about $3,000 on hardware and supplies and another $2,200 or so shipping it all to Iraq. Domestic rates apply to letters sent to soldiers overseas via U.S. mail, but there is no discount on packages. Kathy says the expense has wiped out their savings.

National Guard spokesmen say that there is often confusion among soldiers during deployment about what gear is required and what is optional. Guard spokesman Col. Patterson says the 1161st had most of what it needed, but "sometimes it's just a matter of supplies getting there. Our guys were sent early on, and they saw shortages that other people didn't."

Patterson says, "The Army is pretty clear. They give you what is necessary and what will work. Typically, the items that the families supply are considered comfort and specialty items." One frequently requested extra, for instance, is baby wipes, which are excellent for cleaning sand out of the eyes. Patterson says, "Do they make the soldier more comfortable? Yes. Would I [send them to] my loved one? Absolutely. Is the Army going to supply baby wipes? Not likely."

The volunteer spirit is visible throughout Ephrata. Stories about neighbors mowing the lawns for families of the 1161st in Iraq are ubiquitous. At Second Hand Prose, one of two bookstores in town, a carton full of donated books and CDs sits in front of the cash register. These are shipped off twice a month to the Middle East. Meanwhile, the 1161st Family Readiness Program, a self-funded volunteer group that supports family members and acts as a liaison between them and Guard brass, has been working hard to raise money for the big celebration they plan to hold for the 1161st's eventual homecoming.

All of the families of the 1161st have had to bear a burden, but that burden hasn't been the same for everybody. According to a March 2003 report by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, 29% of reservists reported earning more on active duty than in their civilian jobs, 30% reported no change and 41% reported an income loss. Wade Kelly is in the last group. His National Guard pay is about 40% less than the roughly $65,000 he earns as a lab technician for Moses Lake Industries. But the Kellys are lucky: The company has helped them out to the tune of about $1,600 a month. (Federal law requires employers to hold jobs for Guard troops called to active duty but not to pay them or provide benefits while they're away.) The company also kept the family on Wade's health insurance plan--and even pitched in when Sheila's washer-dryer broke down. The company sent a repairman and paid the bill. "They've been so good to us," Sheila says. "We could have lost our home, our car. When your income just meets your expenses, you can't take that kind of hit."

Lately she's found herself with a lot of extra expenses. Things that Wade would have handled--a broken doorknob, a stalled lawnmower, a leak in the bathroom--have fallen to her. "The leak caused a mold problem. It cost $1,800 to fix it," she says.

One of Sheila's biggest expenses has been phone bills. Soldiers in Iraq can call the States with discount AT&T phone cards for 25¢ per minute. Many members of the 1161st and their families didn't know about the military discount until recently and wound up paying more than twice as much. Wade Kelly bought a cell phone to stay in touch, which was even more expensive. Sheila says that cost up to $1,000 a month, "but I'd pay anything to hear his voice." Lately he's switched to the discount phone card.

And then there's the question of how to spend those expensive minutes. "The military tells you not to tell [soldiers] any bad news because it upsets them," Sheila says. She didn't tell her husband when their elder son, Brice, 17, was hospitalized for pneumonia shortly after Wade shipped out last May. When he came home on furlough and found out, Wade was angry. "They get mad when they think you're keeping things from them," Sheila says. "The illness did not hurt the family financially. We did not have to go through what the others did with the government health insurance."

Still, even with all that help, Sheila, a cook for the Moses Lake school system, has had to get a second job tutoring middle school kids in an afterschool program called Gear Up. "I'm fighting tooth and nail to make sure that Wade has something to come home to," she says. Brice has sacrificed a summer job so he can look after his sister Sarah, 11, and brother Michael while their mother works.

Activated National Guard soldiers and their families get benefits they are not entitled to in peacetime. One of those is a set of health insurance plans called Tricare, which are managed by private companies hired by the Department of Defense. For families who were otherwise uninsured, the coverage is a godsend. But for those who lost good insurance that they'd been receiving through a civilian employer, things are more complicated.

Families of the 1161st had a choice between Tricare Standard, a fee-for-service plan in which patients can pick their own doctors but pay 20% for outpatient care, and Tricare Prime Remote, an HMO that offers less choice but is free. Neither plan charges premiums. There was a good deal of confusion at first--for the patients as well as the providers--about who had what coverage and which doctors accepted which plans. Some families have spent months navigating the system looking for doctors. "There's lots of means to get information to people, but it doesn't always work," admits Steve Lillie, deputy chief for joint health-plan coordination with the Tricare Management Activity of the Department of Defense.

Dr. James Irwin, a general surgeon at the Samaritan Hospital in Moses Lake, accepts Tricare. "Reluctantly," he says. "I feel an obligation." Tricare reimburses doctors at rates close to those paid by Medicare, the federal program mainly for people 65 and older. Medicare reimbursement rates are generally much lower than those of private insurers.

Irwin, 63, himself a Navy reservist who returned from Iraq last September after a 5 1/2-month tour of duty, joined the Reserves in the mid-'80s. When he was deployed, he was worried about what would happen to the busy practice he'd built up. His wife Frances, a registered nurse, managed the office while he was away, hiring surgeons to see his patients. The patients' insurers paid Irwin, and he paid his replacements a per diem. The expense of keeping the office open, however, was more than Irwin collected in fees. He lost $200,000 while he was away. He was willing to pay the price to keep the practice going rather than have to start it up from zero when he returned.

The Irwins did get some relief from a federal law that caps interest rates on loans to service people at 6% while they're on active duty. The Irwins have two mortgages above that rate, as well as credit-card debt. Irwin says he had few expenses overseas, but within the first three weeks of his deployment, "the dog got sick, we lost one horse and another horse needed surgery. Big vet bills. Plus, the pump went out in the well." Irwin says that he had to borrow $30,000 to pay his employees' salaries and the lease on his office when he got back.

The financial toll of war hasn't been as tough on Marcee McLain's family as it has been on some others. Since being deployed, her husband, Sgt. First Class Merle McLain, 36, has been making $1,000 a month more than he did in peacetime as a full-time National Guard employee. Roughly half is for combat duty; the rest is from the tax-exempt status extended to soldiers in certain combat zones. "I'm paying off our debts," says Marcee. "It's been a great financial thing, but I'd give it all back to have my husband home."

Budgeting used to be Merle's job. Shortly after he left, however, Marcee, who is a self-confessed "huge shopper," bought herself a bunch of financial primers and taught herself to save. "All the books said pay yourself first," she says. It took her several months to figure out how to put away 15% of her husband's paycheck, even with the extra income. Now she makes a list before she sets foot in a store, and she keeps her credit cards sealed away, literally, "frozen inside a gallon jug of water," she says.

Marcee, the baby-faced 31-year-old mother of three-year-old twins Alex and Sara, is now the civilian coordinator of the 1161st Family Readiness Program. She admits to having "days of peace and other days." One of those other days came this April when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced an additional 120 days in the sand for 6,600 deployed members of the Reserves and Guard. "I felt like I'd been sucker punched," she says.

But with newfound stoicism, Marcee soon snapped back. "My husband has not complained once," she says. "It's very humbling when it's 92º here and I'm in shorts and a tank top and hot, and it's 152º over there and he's in his combat uniform."

It's one minute to parade time, and a sheepish Michael Kelly emerges from the nearby high school, where he was hanging out with other kids. His mother Sheila dries her tears and beams. "Let's have a parade," she says, laughing. Accompanied by the drumbeats of the 133rd Washington Army National Guard Band, the families clamber into pickups and flatbeds and begin to wave flags and blow kisses to their neighbors waiting in folding chairs up and down the one main road through town. The people along the route shout their encouragement and thanks.

Sometime later in the afternoon, at a ceremony on the courthouse lawn, Marcee McLain takes the podium, her knees shaking: "I would like to thank the citizens of Ephrata for all you have done for each of us the past year and a half. While it might have seemed small to you, it meant the world to us." After her speech, Marcee found her mother. She was crying. "She said I would never have done this in high school," Marcee says. "She told me, 'You have blossomed.'"

Sage-n-Sun behind them, Marcee and the other family members are looking forward to the day the 1161st returns home--maybe this October, but no later than February 2005, when the company will have hit the maximum of two years on active duty. The families are planning a big celebration, "a humdinger of a bash," Marcee says. "Heck, we [will have] made it through 116 weeks. We deserve a party too. I truly believe anyone who was left behind serves their country too."

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