Defense cutbacks worry some military families

Jan. 18, 2012 at 7:29 AM ET

Jim Seida / /
Hermes Corcuera, seen here with his wife Amber, in Gig Harbor, Wash., spent six months in Iraq and a year in Korea during his five years of military service. Now he's looking for a new career.

Hermes Corcuera joined the military because he wanted to give back to a country that has given him so much.

But now that he’s done his duty, the 25-year-old Cuban immigrant is finding himself in a position that could be familiar to many soldiers in the coming months and years: Out of the military, and out of a job.

The move to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and potentially cut military spending significantly over the next 10 years is translating into pocketbook worries for many military families.

A new survey finds that middle-class military families are more likely to be setting stringent savings and spending goals this year, as the military gears up for some major cost-cutting of its own.

The First Command Financial Behaviors Index, which tracks the finances of families with income of $50,000 or more, found that 49 percent of military families were planning to cut back on excessive spending in 2012, compared with 42 percent of nonmilitary families.

In addition, 47 percent of military families said their goals for 2012 included getting out of debt, compared with 38 percent of nonmilitary families. The military families who responded to the monthly survey also were more likely to say they planned to do things like learn to budget responsibly and improve their credit scores.

First Command also found that just one in four of the military families they surveyed think there are enough jobs out there for unemployed veterans.

Corcuera, who immigrated to the United States as a young child, said he is glad to have been in the military.

"It is a very rewarding job,” he said. “I get to serve my country.”

After training as an interrogator and community liaison, Corcuera spent six months in Iraq and a year in Korea. A Specialist E4, he was most recently stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state.

He said he enjoyed the work.

“It’s another way of saving lives,” he said.

But as the military works to withdraw troops from the Gulf, he said there was not nearly as much need for interrogators and community liaisons. Although he was offered the option to re-enlist, he said the available jobs would have been a step down from his current position, and a foot injury left him ineligible for some of the available positions.

He left the military on Jan. 4, after five years of service.

He is applying for police department jobs, but he said it will likely be months before he hears back. He said many of his colleagues are looking at contract intelligence jobs, but he would rather be a police officer because he likes the idea of working with the community.

“I want a stable career, and for a family that seems like the best option,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said his initial claim for unemployment benefits was declined so he’s sorting out the paperwork for that.

His wife Amber, 31, is hoping she can pick up more personal training work to keep the family afloat until Hermes lands a job. She said the couple, who have two children from Amber’s previous marriage, didn’t have much time to prepare financially for the change.

They are especially nervous about keeping up on their bills because they know a ding in their credit score could affect Hermes’ job prospects.

“We’ve done some things that save us a little bit of money, (but) all in all it’s just a matter of, ‘Hey, I guess we’re broke now,’” Amber said.

The couple said they don’t think they could afford for Hermes to go to school, even with military aid, because they need income to support the family. Amber said they’re struggling to figure out what other options and support systems are out there for veterans.

“As long as you’re in the military, it’s a great career to have. But because it’s a lifestyle rather than just a job, when you’re out, you’re out,” Amber said. “There aren’t a lot of avenues, realistically, for a military person to take.”

Such worries are legitimate, said Sharpe of the American Legion.

Sharpe noted that the unemployment rate for veterans of the most recent Gulf war efforts is already quite high at 13.1 percent. The comparable, non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the general population is 8.3 percent.

Sharpe expects joblessness among veterans to become an even bigger problem now that the military has withdrawn from Iraq and is working to reduce its presence in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the military is being asked to reduce defense spending by $487 billion over 10 years as part of the government’s effort to keep the deficit in check. The tight federal budgets also may mean that there are fewer government jobs available to veterans, Sharpe said.

Sharpe also said military personnel don’t necessarily have the certifications or other training they need to do private sector jobs that are similar to their military training. And although the nation's employment picture is improving, the competition for jobs is fierce.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult,” Sharpe said.

Sharpe is also a reservist at Fort Bragg, N.C., and he said many of the troops he serves with are worried about potential cutbacks. Some are putting off big expenses like a new car and others are planning to use their tax refunds to pay down debt. He said some are even stocking up on items they can get more cheaply at the commissary in preparation for leaving the military.

“There seems to be a wave of panic going through the military community there at Fort Bragg,” he said.


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