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Sen.: Eliminate 'Patriot Penalty'

When duty called him to Afghanistan (search), Dr. Anthony Carter closed his family medical practice in the tiny Kentucky town of Tompkinsville and laid off his 10 employees.

The Army reservist relished the chance to treat wounded soldiers. But Carter worried about mounting bills, his children in college and his former workers.

Many soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq (search) suffer from the so-called "patriot penalty" — the gap between what deployed Guard and Reserve troops are paid and their civilian salaries. Legislation being proposed would eliminate that penalty by reimbursing troops for up to $50,000 of their lost income.

For Carter, the difference was in the tens of thousands of dollars, and it meant having to borrow money to reopen his practice after nine months away in 2003.

"I was glad to do it. I'm proud I did it, but financially it was a hardship," said Carter, 47.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (search), a Democrat, is proposing a measure to eliminate the "patriot penalty" and offer tax breaks up to $15,000 annually to corporations that supplement the incomes of employees called to service.

Bayh said he would offer his plan as an amendment to President Bush's proposal to boost government payments to families of U.S. troops killed at war.

About half of all troops in Iraq are in the Guard and Reserves. Based on a Pentagon study, Bayh estimates 40 percent of those troops make less money while deployed.

"These families are trying to do the right thing for our country, and it's not right they should be struggling when we're in the right position to help them out," Bayh said.

But some question whether his program — costing about $250 million a year — is the best use of resources.

"This is a difficult environment right now and there are so many needs," said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States. "It becomes difficult to say yes, we support it, or whether we don't. It's a real tough issue."

Bayh said most payouts would be a few thousand dollars — a small amount "compared to the tens of billions we're spending annually in Iraq." He believes they could help with recruiting and re-enlistment efforts at a time when the Guard is stretched thin.

Not all troops would qualify. Some make more in the battlefield than in the civilian sector. Those who are single often come home with thousands in savings.

But those who don't reap the benefits need the help, said David Carlson, an Evansville surgeon and Army reservist who spent three months in Iraq in 2004.

"A lot of them with families didn't have the savings or wherewithal to weather it very well," Carlson said of his fellow troops.

Roger Stradley of USA Cares, a Radcliff, Ky.-based group that works to help military families in crisis, said many are embarrassed to seek financial help.

"They're discouraged. They feel like they're all by themselves and they're not," said Stradley, whose group has provided military families $300,000 in food vouchers since the start of the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Carter and his wife, Teresa, a nurse who works as his office manager, are still feeling his loss of income.

Though her husband's salary supports their three children, ages 13 to 23, and pays expenses like malpractice insurance and payroll, Teresa Carter said many of those bills piled up while his practice was closed.

"If he got the $50,000 additional thing ... it would all be paying things back. I could see it going to zero really quickly," she said.

Carter's practice has rebounded and he has rehired his employees. But his wife said it will take two to three years to fully recover.

"I'm so proud of what he did that it's worth it," Teresa Carter said.

She worries, though, about young, less established Guard and Reserve families who might not have the background the couple did in handling money.

"For somebody who did not know about finances or things, it would be such a shock for them," she said. "I think it would be really tough."