In sunglasses and shorts, several women, three young and one older, talk easily with me. Their children pull on their hands or wander a few feet away, then spring back and clutch Mom’s leg. The younger women say their pantries are not low. Anyone in dire need? “Nah, it’s just me and my son,” says one. “And he’s only two — he doesn’t eat that much.” Brooke, the most talkative of the three young women, says, “It’s nice just knowing that if things get tight at the end of the month, this is available.” (All the wives request I not use their last names since, during deployment and war, the majority are alone.)
The older woman, Darlene, insists that “some of these wives are in dire need of food because” a large chunk of their income goes for a “car payment.” Darlene and 12-year-old daughter Bridget, who also stops to talk, says that they first heard of the Ministries when they were renting an apartment. They drove to Cabrillo for the monthly food giveaways, where, she notes, there has always been a long line waiting for food. “It was a godsend,” Darlene says. “Because I wasn’t working —” and Bridget chimes in, “Because me and my brother have been getting sick a lot and because Dad’s been away.” Off base, rents are almost prohibitive, Darlene says. “The E-3s and below” — ranks for enlisted men and women begin at E-1 and go up to E-9, reflecting higher salaries for more time served — are “finding it very difficult to live here in San Diego.”
I ask about the housing allowance. “For E-4 and below,” says Brooke, “they’re expecting us to find affordable housing for a family of three on $1200 a month. It’s not possible.” While Brooke’s bleak assessment may not be true for all San Diego military families, it is undeniable that San Diego’s rents are highly inflated: thus, subsidized housing for soldiers is a boon. According to Gene Caldwell, a spokesman for the Navy’s Southwest Region, the Navy pays the rent for its families. Lincoln Properties, the Navy’s management partner, maintains San Diego’s 23 military housing communities. Lincoln pays for utilities, though telephone and cable TV are not included. Some 2000 people are on waiting lists for military housing in San Diego; the average wait is 12 to 15 months.
About deployments, Brooke speaks up again. “Mine’s on the Lincoln, hers is on the Constellation, and hers is in the Marines, on the ground, based in Kuwait.” Darlene, originally from Australia, says that her husband is a petty officer, second class, serving on the cruiser the USS Princeton. With 19 years in — and counting the months until retirement — her husband is an E-5. Prior to the war with Iraq, Darlene’s husband had been on board ships stationed near Iran, Somalia, Kenya, and Afghanistan.
Bridget says she communicates with her father by e-mail, phone, and letter. What do you say when you write? “I tell him the good things, not the bad things. To keep him confident. Some of the good things are, I’ve been chosen for a scholarship. When I get awards, I scan them and send them to him.” Her voice is buoyant and proud; clearly she misses her father. During her life, Bridget says, the pattern is, he’s “home one month and gone the next.”
I wonder if the government has a responsibility, whether in peacetime or wartime, to pay newly enlisted men more. Bridget says “yes” immediately. “It would help us a lot.” Darlene counters with “Bridget, hush. The reason the government should not pay for this stuff” — pointing at the large stacks rowed in front of us — “is that it’s donated. Military families can take budgeting classes. If they listen to the veterans, they can find out how to get things free or how to conserve on groceries or bills. A lot of the young people don’t understand the concept of smart shopping and smart cooking. You can cook ground beef a dozen ways —” and Bridget chimes in again, “A dozen ways, because I’m learning from her, and she knows, like, over a hundred ways.”
Volunteers by now have made a wall of boxes, six feet high and six feet deep. Along it, the food predominates; but there are also linens, toys, a dozen strollers, dishes, pots, and pans. In the middle of the parking lot, between the food and the line of women waiting, are five pastel-colored plastic bags. I open one, which emanates that powdery baby smell. Inside the bag are kitchen towels, an afghan, and quilts, made by the Sew-Sew group, a Presbyterian women’s circle. In the bag they always include an old-fashioned handmade ball consisting of puffed-up quilts, spongy soft, as light as a jewel case.
Before the food-getting begins, Sandy Bowen guides more prayer circles, first with the volunteers and then with the wives. She thanks the Lord that “these folks are going to be majorly, majorly blessed today.” She clears her throat and says to the wives, “I hope you pass the word in your community about all these blessings. When you go back today, knock on your neighbor’s door and tell them. All those people who have sent all this stuff are doing it because we so appreciate what you’re doing for our country. We just want to bless the socks off of you. Your lives are not easy right now. A lot of people are not willing to do what you and your spouses are willing to do.” She reminds them to take “all that you can use.” And, finally, “O Lord, we ask that You would guard those ships that are out at sea and those Marines and soldiers, the Air Force people and the helicopter pilots, all of them putting their lives on the line for our safety and for the freedom of the Iraqi people. We pray, Lord, that You would come alive in the hearts and the minds of all those people out there, that they wouldn’t be afraid.”