After serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of servicemen and women will be home for the holidays. Many are leaving the challenges of war behind, only to face an unexpected challenge at home – how to support their families in a tough economy.
The higher than average unemployment rate among soldiers is adding to the seasonal demand already placed on charities that help military families. Operation Homefront, a national military charity based in San Antonio, TX, is seeing an unprecedented number of requests from soldiers who find themselves struggling to make ends meet. Through generous donations and support, the charity holds massive toy drives and packs Christmas dinner meals for soldiers.
“We’ve served over 160,000 families this year alone, and this year for Christmas, I would say a quarter of a million children,” says Kim Scofi, Chapter President for Operation Homefront in Georgia. “Right now because of the economy and the difficulty in finding a job, we have a lot of established families joining the military. So, we have an established husband and wife and children who - are joining on a buck private’s pay - and that is very difficult to live off of for a month.”
It is Scofi’s mission to make sure military families in Georgia have toys under the tree and a holiday meal on Christmas Day. She and a battalion of volunteers worked all year to organize Operation Christmas, a toy and food giveaway that had military families lining up hours in advance.
Army Specialist Jonathan Burman got up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning and drove 75 miles from his Dahlonega, Ga., home to an Atlanta hotel where toys, bikes, games, candy and stocking stuffers were being handed out.
He recently returned home to his twin three-year-old daughters and nine-month-old son after serving a second deployment in Iraq. He says he and his wife both work, but after bills and groceries, their combined salary was not enough to provide a good Christmas for his family.
“Working for the government, you are only limited to how much your pay can go up because it’s a government job,” Burman said. He added, he signed up for the Army and gladly serves his country every day. “I would never leave the Army, I love it to death. But it’s a tough road for us."
Staff Sgt. Michael Davis has served twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan and says that his family has the basics to get by, but he’s already cut out extra activities for his children, like going to the zoo. He says Christmas for his three kids would have been very thin if it wasn’t for Operation Homefront.
“Pretty much you have to cut things out. You have to basically sacrifice and figure out what is important. And around Christmas time you shouldn’t have to do that with your kids, so today was a blessing,” Davis says.
Scofi expects the demand for help to increase in 2012 as more troops return home to few jobs and lifelong medical issues from war injuries.
“We have so many wounded service members coming home,” says Scofi. “It doesn’t just change their life it changes the whole community. And we, as Americans, need to stop up and help them.”
But the struggles of providing for their family is especially hard for Army Specialist Dean De Witt and his wife, Mary. Dean is only 27-years old but he’s been fighting thyroid cancer and auto-immune disease.
“Financially, it’s been paralyzing, it’s been very difficult,” said Mary De Witt. “And we are just very grateful that we are at the place we are now, and that Operation Homefront has helped us so much. They have really been a God send to us.”
They both say it’s been years since they could even afford a Christmas tree or a big dinner. But this year, with the help of Operation Homefront, they will have both.
Military families who are getting that help say they are grateful for the food and toy donations this holiday season, and appreciate any recognition for their work and sacrifice – even if it’s a simple ‘thank you’ as they walk down the street.
“Even though the war is closing out, you should still support your troops and let them know that you are there for them,” says Dean DeWitt. “Just a simple thank you on the street is greatly appreciated and makes the soldier feel good about themselves.”