July 25 VCS in the News: Florida Reclaims Money Set Aside for Deployed National Guard and Reserve

St. Petersburg Times (Florida)

“That’s tragic,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. “Because the financial need is definitely still there.” 

July 25, 2008 – With patriotic fanfare, state lawmakers set aside $5-million in 2005 to help families of deployed Florida National Guard and Reserve troops facing financial difficulties.

But thus far, just $606,907 has been paid out to 172 citizen soldiers and their families.

In the last year, payments slowed to a trickle with just $128,000 paid to 32 families in need.

No news conference trumpeted what happened on July 1: Lawmakers took back most of the money, reducing the fund to a mere $400,000.

“That’s tragic,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. “Because the financial need is definitely still there.”

State lawmakers and bureaucrats struggled to explain why the Florida Family Readiness Program never performed up to lofty expectations.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a co-sponsor of legislation creating the fund, acknowledged that lawmakers might have overestimated the amount of money troops and their families would need.

“Maybe we put too many dollars in there,” said Fasano on Wednesday. “One of the things I wanted to be certain of when we created the program was that it wouldn’t be underfunded. I didn’t want one family turned away because of a lack of money.”

He added: “We thought it was a great idea. Never did we think the money wouldn’t be utilized.”

The program allows families or troops to get financial help for a variety of things, from paying the mortgage to car repairs or buying groceries. They must demonstrate an inability to make payments themselves.

The payments can be made up to four months after the troops return from deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Joe Negron, the former member of the House who helped create the program, thinks many people are just too proud to ask for help, equating the payments to charity.

“I’ve talked to families that asked for money, and they’re almost apologetic that they had to ask for help,” Negron said. “I know in my heart many families are simply too proud or self-reliant to ask for money. And I’m not sure there’s anything we can do about that.”

While Guard officials said they are confident they adequately informed their troops about the fund, state military leaders said they thought it almost impossible to get word out to all Reserve troops.

Glenn Sutphin, legislative director for the Florida Department of Military Affairs, which oversees the program with the Guard, said Reserve troops are stretched all over the map in many different units.

That makes it harder, he said, to inform them of the fund.

Guard leaders have met with Reserve officials to better communicate. But Sutphin said, “I just think there’s an information glitch that’s more prevalent with them.”

Reserve officials could not be reached to comment. But a year ago, they said it was a myth that deployments caused financial hardships.

In fact, a RAND Corp. study found that reservists who weren’t deployed suffered a wage drop more often than those who went overseas. That might be because of extra combat pay.

Since 2005, about 3,000 Florida Guard troops have deployed overseas, and about 700 troops are currently serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. No numbers are available for the Reserve.

Ron Tittle, a spokesman for the Guard, said Florida deployments have fallen in the last three years, something that led to a reduced reliance on the assistance fund.

In another year, Florida may have as many as 5,000 troops deployed, and if the financial need increases, lawmakers will undoubtedly approve more cash, Tittle said.

The federal government allocated $1.8-million in 2007 to pay the families of active duty troops who face financial hardships, a program separate from the Guard and Reserve fund.

“They spent it all in a heartbeat,” said Sutphin, who said he didn’t know why families of active duty troops demonstrated a greater financial need than their counterparts in the Guard and Reserve.

Sutphin said his department agreed with lawmakers to reduce the Guard and Reserve fund to $400,000.

“We didn’t want to be greedy,” Sutphin said. “It wouldn’t have been fair to all the citizens of Florida to keep it.”

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