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Published: Wednesday, 8/13/2003

Soldiers' kin keep up struggle

BY RACHEL ZINN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The United States heaved a collective sigh of relief when the statue of Saddam Hussein toppled in Iraq, but hundreds of area residents are still holding their breath, waiting for loved ones to return from war.

While their relatives are deployed, many families are scraping by on military salaries that are less than half their peacetime incomes.

Local agencies set up to help the struggling families say they have little left to offer now that the war in Iraq is no longer front-page news every day.

“The response was overwhelming after everything first started, but now everything is winding down, so nobody has called to give,” said Patty Prater, head of the northwest Ohio family assistance center that is coordinated by the Army Reserve.

Mrs. Prater said the center distributed gift certificates and household goods to more than 75 families since it started in February, and people are still calling to request assistance.

“Right now, our food pantry is very low and we have run out of gift certificates,” she said. “I'm just brainstorming about how to get donations.”

Michelle Buck, who coordinates family support for the 323rd Military Police Company, agreed that more donations are needed to tide families over for the next few months. The Toledo-based 323rd is not scheduled to return from its nearly two-year deployment until January.

An Ohio National Guard spokesman would not reveal the 323rd's location, but several family members said the unit received new orders recently and will move from a base about 50 miles north of Baghdad to a spot near the Iranian border.

While her husband, Capt. Jeffrey Buck, leads the 323rd on its new mission, Mrs. Buck is helping organize a 5K race fund-raiser to collect money for the Salvation Army Fund, which donates to local military families in need. The race will be Nov. 2 at the Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee.

“The support from the community is dwindling,” Mrs. Buck said. “I hope people remember that they're still deployed, we still don't know when they're coming home, and we still need help.”

More than 240 reservists from the Toledo area are still deployed, according to military records. Many of the reservists are young men who left behind pregnant wives, said Julie Szychowski, coordinator for a Marine Reserves family assistance program.

Ms. Szychowski said one wife called her the other day for help with gas money so she could attend stress management sessions at the Marine and Naval Reserve Center in Perrysburg, which is about an hour away from her Michigan home.

“She said she's just tired of trying to take care of everything on her own - bills, housework, everything couples would usually do together,” Ms. Szychowski said.

Sharon Elieff, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Doug Elieff, is with the 323rd, said she recently started going to the family assistance center because her budget was too tight to afford treats for her three sons and unexpected expenses.

Mrs. Elieff, a nurse, has been forced to work fewer hours than usual so she can care for her children while her husband is away.

“Just recently, the brakes on my car went out, and they helped pay for the repairs,” she said. “The little things like that add up.”

One family assistance group has money left for those needing gas, food, or toiletries. Operation: Care, a grass-roots group formed in April, has about $2,000 available.

Tami Matthews, founder of the group, said the organization has received few calls from people wanting help.

“We have the money, but we don't know where the need is right now,” Ms. Matthews said.

Mrs. Prater said the family assistance center at 925 Research Drive will accept gift certificates and other donations during business hours.



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