Lengthy Deployments Have Created Financial Hardship for Reservists, Guardsmen and Their Families. The Frommes Could Lose Their Farm

By P.J. Huffstutter

When Pat Fromme shipped out last year for a six-month tour in Iraq with the Indiana National Guard, the citizen soldier left behind a farm, a wife, three kids and 27,000 turkeys.

Six months turned into a year, then 15 months. He returned home in March, and was promoted to another Guard unit. That unit has recently been called up for duty in Afghanistan. He knows he will have to join it; he just doesn't know when.

His wife and family will struggle to do their best and wait for him. The turkeys, however, may be gone by the time he gets back.

"If I have to go again right away, the farm won't make it," said Fromme, 39, a sergeant major now with the 76th Infantry Brigade.

The conflicts in the Middle East have created unexpected financial hardships for many of the estimated 364,000 part-time soldiers in the reserves and the National Guard who have been called up for service since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The deployment of citizen soldiers is the largest such effort since World War II; it is also one of the longest. Today, reservists and guardsmen are facing tours in Iraq as long as 20 months, as well as repeat deployments.

As a result, many soldiers have drained their savings to support their families while they are gone. Some have lost their homes. Others have lost their jobs at small businesses, which say they can't afford to keep the positions open -- even though they're breaking the law. And numerous small-business owners have shut down their companies or have had to declare bankruptcy.

Ted Valentini, an officer with the Army Reserve, lost his business that makes molds for plastics and electronics after a second tour of duty sent him to Iraq. The assets of the Beavercreek, Ohio, firm were sold off last year.

Danny Lewis, a chief warrant officer in the Marine Corps Reserve who is stationed in Baghdad, faced an equally tough situation. Unable to find a replacement for himself, Lewis closed his landscaping business in Moorseville, N.C., and laid off his two employees soon after he was deployed.

Such troubling tales are expected to grow. Troop levels are rising, not falling as had been anticipated. The Pentagon last week alerted 37,000 support soldiers -- mostly in National Guard or Reserve units -- that they would be replacing troops leaving the Middle East.

In Iraq, reservists and Guard troops are performing fundamental duties, from frontline combat to military policing at the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Military experts say the Pentagon relies heavily on such call-ups and tour extensions to accomplish its mission overseas.

Desperate for help, reservists and National Guard soldiers have flooded state and federal agencies with questions about bankruptcy protection, loan programs and rights in the workplace.

Despite a flurry of legislation -- mostly at the state level -- there are few easy solutions.

"It's one thing to leave your business for six months. It's another to leave it for two years or more," said Dennis DeMolet, vice chairman of the Small Business Administration's advisory committee on veterans business development.

"No one, not the military or the government, saw this being a problem. It's happening, and it's devastating."


Pat Fromme never imagined himself in this predicament. His father bought this land decades ago, building a home and a small business amid these gentle hills and a waterhole teeming with fish. The Fromme family farm is a 10-minute drive to the center of Ferdinand and its 2,300 residents; the closest city is Evansville, about 50 miles away.

For four generations, the Frommes have served in the military. Pat joined the National Guard's 1st Battalion of the 152nd Infantry Division after serving in the Marines for five years. His Guard duty was easy for the family business to handle: a few weekends here, a month or two there.

Intellectually, said Pat and his wife, Lori, they realized the Guard could demand far more from Pat. Emotionally, though, they didn't make the connection between the war and what it could mean to the family and their farm.

In December 2002, Fromme's unit was called up. Pat left. So did two of his brothers and two nephews. One of those nephews, 22-year-old Zachary Fromme, had long worked with Pat and Lori on the farm.

"When he joined the Guard, I thought I knew what it meant," Lori said of her husband's deployment. "But knowing that your husband could be called away, and actually living with the reality of how long tours are these days, are two totally different things. You just can't really understand what it's going to be like until it happens."

The deployment took away two-thirds of the farm's staff. Lori, 38, was on her own. She was already a farmer and a mother. She also became an accountant and an animal breeder, the tiny company's chief executive and its chief manure shoveler.

"I was scared," Lori said. "Determined too."

Lori used some of the farm's income and family savings to hire part-time help. Pat's aging father worked the land with Lori, until he suffered a stroke last spring while operating a skid loader. Neighbors also came by to help with the family's small herd of cattle and the thousands of turkeys.

An automated system routinely spits feed into the bowls scattered throughout the turkey houses. Someone needed to check on the turkeys three times a day, weeding out the dead and the diseased. Someone needed to make sure that the system had enough feed coming out, that the electronics were functioning properly, that a bird hadn't somehow crawled inside the piping, that the doors were still locked and the turkeys safely inside.

Neighbors and hired help could assist with those chores. They couldn't walk Lori through convoluted government loan paperwork, or tell her who to call for accounting and tax questions. They didn't teach her which farm-aid programs to apply for to reduce operational costs of running the business.

When Pat came home in March, he found a farm in need. Paperwork for financial aid hadn't been finished. The posts in the barn had rotted. Buildings demanded repair.

Now, as Pat strides across the 410-acre farm, cleaning out sheds and fixing the barn, he said he tried not to grimace at the long to-do list or to worry about the uncertainty his future holds. He said he needed at least a year before he was deployed again if the business was to survive.

"When you're overseas, all you can think about is that home is falling apart," said Fromme. "When you're home, all you can think about is when you'll have to go back, and whether you'll be home long enough to save everything you've built."

This is a scene that's being played out across the country. As of last fall, as many as 60% of the part-time soldiers called up either worked for themselves, owned a small- or medium-size business, or were employed by such a company, government officials said.

For these businesses, losing one employee can be a genuine hardship, but when that employee is the owner, it can be devastating.

"You are the business. If you don't work, you don't get paid," said Angela Lewis, 36, the wife of the landscaper who was forced to close his business after his deployment. "Not only do I have the horrible emotional strain of worrying that my husband is going to be killed walking down the streets of Baghdad, but we're dealing with this financial nightmare too."

By federal law, companies of any size cannot discriminate against employees because of their military service, and therefore must ensure that the jobs soldiers leave will still be there when they get back.

But soldiers aren't protected if companies downsize or go out of business. And some companies, either ignorant of the law or willing to take the risk, fill the positions regardless, National Guard officials said.

Sgt. Adam Black of the Army Reserve returned home in February from Ft. Bliss, Texas, where he trained contractors headed to Iraq. He found out that his job as a warehouse foreman at a small interior-design company in Woodinville, Wash., had been filled. Black has filed a complaint with a local military office that handles such issues. He's resigned to finding work elsewhere but has encountered discrimination in his job search.

It's illegal, but it's happening.

"I'm proud of serving my country," said Black, who is still unemployed. "But as soon as I tell a potential boss that I'm in the Reserves, the interview is over."

Stories like Black's have spread among the ranks.

"We're getting phone calls from Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, everywhere. They're all looking for help, and we don't know what to say," said Eric Schuller, a retired guardsman who works for the state of Illinois, handling calls from soldiers with work and other financial problems. "Everyone's got a complaint; everyone needs help."

Officials with the Small Business Administration say such complaints are becoming more common.

Last fall, the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship asked the Congressional Budget Office to examine how part-time soldiers such as Pat Fromme were being affected by the extended deployments.

A report compiled by the Congressional Budget Office from data coming from the Reserves, the National Guard and each state's adjutant general is expected this fall. Committee members declined to comment, saying the review was incomplete. But Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president and the ranking member on the small-business committee, has repeatedly and publicly insisted that the laws need to be modified.

He introduced a bill in September that would give small businesses a tax credit of up to $12,000 if employees were called up for active duty. The bill is still under review in Congress.

Given the length of deployments, Kerry said last week, the government needs to approve the tax credit and find other ways "to allow [part-time soldiers] to rest assured that when they return from Iraq, their homes and their jobs will be waiting for them."


The sun rose on the Fromme farm a couple hours ago, and already the air is thick and heavy. Inside the long, low rows of turkey houses, the fowl give off the dense scent of ammonia. Thousands of turkeys, only a few days old -- each small enough to fit inside Lori's hand -- wait to be fed.

"If the turkeys are still sleeping, then so am I," said Pat Fromme, who was in charge of training 700 soldiers for security duty, including protecting convoys and guarding encampments in Iraq and Kuwait. "Thankfully, they don't get up nearly as early as roosters."

While the kids toast their Pop-Tarts, the parents open the farm for business.

Pat focuses on the office work: paying the bills for equipment, calling suppliers to make sure there's enough feed for the birds. Lori climbs into the truck and trundles out to check on the turkeys.

They wait for Zachary, who also recently returned from Iraq. When he arrives, the three head to the barn and the cattle. The calves have grown large enough to be sent away from their mothers, to other fields to graze. Zachary slips among the cattle, gently herding and lulling the black-and-white animals down the corral. Pat carefully backs up a truck and lines the trailer perfectly with a gate. Lori checks each animal off, and ensures that the path between the corral and the trailer is secure.

With a yell from Zachary, the animals trudge into the trailer, making the vehicle sway with their weight. When it's full of calves bleating with annoyance, the three drive off. Dust and dry hay roil the air, mixing with their sweat and stinging their eyes.

They go through this routine over and over again until all 150 calves have been moved. In one day, they get done what it would have taken Lori nearly five days to finish by herself.

There's even time for them to sneak away from the farm for lunch and get burgers in town.

"If Pat's got to go, I hope we'll be OK," Lori said. "That's all you can do. Work and hope."