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Far From Soldiers of Fortune

Lengthy deployments have created financial hardship for reservists, guardsmen and their families. The Frommes could lose their farm.

May 12, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

FERDINAND, Ind. — 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."

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