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Family struggles when primary breadwinner serves in Iraq

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Posted: Monday, August 30, 2004 10:00 pm

LOCKEFORD -- Korina Self doesn't like to discuss the family's financial situation with relatives or friends, let alone the whole county.

But Self, 33, and her husband Jim, 38, are in a financial bind. And it started when Jim, a correctional officer at the California Youth Authority institution at Newcastle in Stockton, was called for active duty with his National Guard unit in 2001.

For the Lockeford family, what had been a comfortable lifestyle suddenly changed after Jim Self was activated twice; the first time for duty at Fort Lewis, Wash. The second time, in 2002, was for deployment to Iraq.

Since then, the Self family has found themselves not only fighting to save their modest home but also having to file for bankruptcy, Korina Self said.

In Iraq, Jim Self, because of his law enforcement background, provided security at Baghdad International Airport as well as supply routes around Baghdad, Korina Self said. He also provided support for convoys, looked for explosives and any suspicious activities.

In other words, Jim Self put himself in harm's way in Iraq.

While Jim Self was in Iraq, Korina Self was in Lockeford raising the family the two started -- four girls and two boys -- while trying make sure the bills got paid.

When Jim Self was at home, that wasn't a problem. After all, with his regular and overtime pay from Newcastle, his Guard drill money, plus the money Korina would bring in from being a wedding hostess at the University of the Pacific, as an artist and taking care of foster children, the Selfs were bringing in about $6,000 per month on average.

After his first deployment to Washington for one year, the Selfs realized that money was going to be tight.

Korina Self said the family made adjustments, even got creative financially.

But she said the two realized that taking in foster children wouldn't work anymore.

"This was no longer a home that foster children could thrive in," she said. "It needed two parents."

She thought that once her husband returned from Fort Lewis, they could slowly right things. Instead, a year later, he was deployed to Iraq, Korina Self said.

Soon thereafter, things really started to fall apart.

Working at Newcastle, Jim Self made about $3,800 per month, Korina Self said. His pay for hazardous duty in Iraq was from $1,434 to $1,684 per month.

While the state made up the difference between the two, it wasn't enough, Korina Self said.

"With him gone, I was unable to do it," she said. "The $1,200, the $1,300 and the $300 here and there, all that was gone."

While she thought of going back to work at the Save Mart pharmacy in Lodi, a job she held for seven years, the cost of daily child care and a 3-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy stopped her, she said.

"We'd have to hire a nanny and I'd be working just to pay child care," she said.

She called her husband in Iraq and even tried to get him back home on a hardship case. But it didn't work and her husband, who was patrolling the streets of Baghdad in a Humvee, told her to do what she needed to.

And during his time on active duty, Korina Self said creditors were held at bay through the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act.

That act forces creditors to drop the interest rates to 6 percent if it wasn't there already. It also stopped foreclosure proceedings.

But that all changed when Jim Self returned from Iraq.

Suddenly, the creditors were no longer being held off and the Selfs were forced to declare bankruptcy.

The children, mostly the two oldest who attend Lodi High School, haven't been made aware of the problem but they've quietly made their own sacrifices, Korina Self said.

"When it's time for a birthday party, there would be no discussion of birthday party," she said. "And when I'd ask them for a Christmas list, they wouldn't ask."

The elder children have even stopped doing after-school activities, she said.

"There are no after-school football games, no movies with friends."

The problem isn't unique to the Selfs, said Jim Lubey, executive director of the California National Guard Association.

But the problem is unique to California where legislators still have to be educated about what and who the National Guard is, he said.

"It's an uphill fight," Lubey said. "But we're moving ahead."

The association is working with legislators and right now there are eight bills addressing the inequities, he said. One bill would offer free child care payments if their parents are on active Guard duty, according to Lubey.

The trouble is that while other states offer members of their National Guard units benefits such as free vehicle registration and no fees for community college, California has nothing, he said.

"No one has fought for anything," Lubey said.

Another reason for the discrepancy is that a member of the National Guard was thought of as a citizen soldier, he said. But with the deployment to Iraq, the problem has become more apparent.

Lubey said that eventually the problem will become so profound that people won't enlist in the National Guard.

Technical Sgt. Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California National Guard, said it's a soldier's decision to join the National Guard.

"They know what they're going to get paid," he said.

While he admits there are pay inequities, he said "it's part of being a soldier to plan for contingencies."

Hughan said once a National Guard member goes active, such as the case with Iraq, they no longer belong to the state.

"They belong to the federal government," he said. And the federal government is responsible for an active Guard's pay.

"Sure, they need to pay us more, and I'd love it if they paid us more," Hughan said. "But it's just the way it is."

As for the child care bill, while it might make it to the governor's desk for a signature, it won't do any good if it's not federally funded, according to Heather Dauler, legislative advocate for California Alternative Payment Program Association.

"Although it's a great program and we're happy to assist, it will go nowhere unless we get federal appropriations," she said.

The federal bill was sponsored by Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and it's making its way through Congress, Dauler said. Calls to Edward's Senate Office for comment on the progress of the bill were not returned. Edwards is the Democrat Party's nominee for vice president.

But Dauler was optimistic that the bill would pass through Congress.

"It's a hot-button topic," she said.

Contact reporter Les Mahler at lmahler@sjnsnews.com.

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