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Bowen doesn’t skip a beat. “Is there anybody here who’s eight months pregnant?” A woman with two-year-old twin daughters and a three-year-old daughter — each one’s frizzy hair bulbed in a tight knob on her head — raises a cautious hand. “What are you going to have?” “A boy.” Bowen hands her the pastel yellow bag, “a present from our ministry.” The other women applaud, and the sun-warmed line of half-whole families starts to move with measured glee.

To find out why military families need monthly food donations, I spend a morning with four Navy wives — this, during the war — at a Presbyterian church in Chula Vista. They are making “Blue Star Service Banners,” a red border around a blue star against a white background. The banner, popular during World War II, is displayed in the wife’s window to let the world know her husband is on active duty. Though we begin with general, safer questions, eventually I ask them about the pay and what I’d witnessed at Cabrillo, a real need (dire or not) for food at month’s end.

Should the government increase their husbands’ pay? Angela, the oldest and savviest of the four women gathered around a large table, bristles: “Now there’s a loaded question.” Sensitive to its implications, the wives sidestep the query; they focus, instead, on what is already being given: medical benefits; tuition help at local colleges; low-interest loans; a housing allowance for rent and utilities; lower prices at the commissaries and exchanges (20 cents less for gas on base); and a sizable pension, upon retirement, when many soldiers, still young, can embark on a second career.

Again and again, they want to talk about the lack of planning in the military, not the lack of money. Sudden deployments, when the women become single parents, are their chief complaint. Orders always change. “In the military you learn to have plans A, B, C, and D,” Bonnie, the youngest, says. Adaptation is expected, but nobody likes it. Angela, whose spouse is on a submarine, says, “My husband always says, ‘Everything’s written in Jell-O.’ Warm Jell-O, to be kind.” The wives want things to be “as normal as possible for our children — whatever normal is.” The war has made Daddy’s presence with the kids a nonevent. “This year, out of 12 months,” Bonnie laments, “we’ll see him one month.” When he’s home, the kids get “quality time with Dad,” Angela says. “It’s banking memories.”

Another difficult question for young Navy mothers is whether to work. They often qualify only for temporary employment. Dawn, cradling an eight-week-old baby, has had possible employers tell her that investing in military wives is bad business. “ ‘You’ll be gone in a year and a half, so we don’t want to put in the time to train you,’ they’ll say.” A string of temp jobs never looks good on a résumé. That’s why, says Angela, “We volunteer more than anything else.” They make do on their husbands’ salaries and help out other women whose spouses are E-1s and E-2s. Dawn said that “the military member gets their degree first, so they get a higher rank and more money. Then the wife gets her degree.” Darlene (who is not the Australian Darlene I met at Cabrillo) also volunteers with the Ministries. She says that “when Daddy’s gone, you have to be there” for the kids. Her husband does his best to help raise their daughter via e-mail. He reminds the daughter that “ ‘Daddy’s on the ship, putting the bad guys in jail.’ When my daughter is asked by others at the end of school, ‘How come your daddy doesn’t pick you up?’ she says, ‘My daddy’s on the ship putting the bad guys in jail.’ ”

Especially during deployments, the wives tell me, they want to maintain a stable home so that, as Bonnie puts it, “my husband can visualize the house and the children. My husband even told me he feels better knowing that we’re here and not sharing a room at Grandma’s house. He knows we’re prepared if anything happens. He can visualize that while he’s standing watch for 12 hours, looking at the ocean. He knows we’re at home and safe, not traveling.” Angela agrees. “Staying where your husband is stationed is always the best thing for the family: you want to make things as constant and sane as possible for the children.”

The reason families must rely on charity as well as cultivate responsibility personally and in groups is simple. The basic pay for an E-1 with less than four months’ service is $1064 per month. E-1s receive a raise, after four months, of $86 a month. E-2s with under two years served get $1290; E-3s, $1357; E-4s, $1503; and so on, up to E-7s, who pocket $2068 per month. (E-8s and E-9s must have served eight and ten years, respectively, to reach that rank.) The more years in and the higher the rank, the more one makes. Roughly 50 percent of the armed forces are E-4 and below (though many have been in longer than two years). According to Newsweek, the “base pay for Army private with one year’s service” is $15,480 — not much money even with the housing allowance added on.

During the Clinton administration, many military families qualified for food stamps. But under George W. Bush, the soldiers’ salaries are now just over the maximum to qualify, typically by $5. One local food-stamp director told me that yearly military pay increases have remained steadily and fractionally above the increases in food-stamp qualifications. Even $10 less in salary would mean $100 more in food stamps. Families wonder why they don’t qualify: in calculating eligibility, the government includes the housing allowance as part of the salary. One military spouse put it succinctly: You have to “be really poor” to get food stamps.

The WIC program — federal food aid for women, infants, and children — is available to women who are pregnant and to families with children under five. Cindy Rich, who directs the WIC program on military bases through the American Red Cross, says that the program is funded in San Diego County to serve 100,000 caseloads per month. The Red Cross caseload is about 37,000, of which 30 percent are military families. That is roughly 11,000 local military families who are receiving, every month, about $100 worth of milk, beans, cheese, peanut butter, eggs, infant formula, carrots, and tuna. Breast-feeding women are required to meet with “lactation educators” for advice on basic nutrition.

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