The line begins to form more than an hour before the church giveaway is set to start. About 100 women, most of them behind strollers or holding infants, patiently wait in a parking lot to pick up bags of groceries, loaves of day-old bread, fresh fruit and used children's clothes.
Many of their husbands, Marine grunts, are in the Middle East waiting for war. But here, at Camp Pendleton, their wives are in a battle of their own: providing for their families.
"Anything we can get for free, we take it," said Rachel Turner, 20, the mother of a 2-month-old boy and the wife of a Marine whose take-home pay is $800 a month, plus housing on the base. "Every little bit helps."
The sacrifices that military families make go beyond the pain of separation and the threat of death. For low-ranking men and women -- the 60% of the Marines who are privates and corporals -- the sacrifice begins at home with the struggle to get by on pretax incomes that start at $1,065 a month, not including housing and food allowances. That's particularly the case for those stationed in high-cost areas like San Diego County.
"The situation is not good," said Mike Hire, director of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society's branch at Camp Pendleton. "These guys are proud. They're not looking for a handout. They're just looking for help at a time when they need it."
Last year, the private, nonprofit group provided $1.3 million in grants and interest-free loans to 1,784 Marines at Camp Pendleton -- most of them married with children. The money went to cover food, rent, utilities and car repairs. In 2001, the group provided $6.8 million in emergency relief in San Diego County alone -- about 16% of its giving worldwide.
"The cost of living here has a major impact on these families and their ability to get by," Hire said. "A lot of these young people come into the military from some small town, and they're learning to deal with -- and budget -- funds for the first time. Then they're faced with sticker shock."
Military pay has long trailed salaries for comparable civilian jobs, a fact that has challenged the Pentagon's efforts to retain expensively trained men and women in uniform.
A series of pay hikes that began in 2000 and will run through 2006 are intended to help close that gap by setting raises 0.5% higher than average private-sector increases.
For now, at least, countless military families turn to private and government programs for the needy to make ends meet. Last year, for instance, $25.8 million in vouchers from the Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children were cashed at military commissaries around the world.
"A lot of sacrifice goes on within an entire family when one member of that family is in the military," said Sandy Bowen, the interim director of Military Outreach Ministries, which provides food, furniture, clothing and other services to hundreds of Navy and Marine families in San Diego County each month. "These people are our neighbors, and they are sacrificing a great deal in order for their spouse to protect our country."
Bowen sees the people her group helps, most of whom are 18 to 24 years old, as no different from any other young, high school-educated workers trying to better themselves.
"They are moving upward. They're proud to be in the military, and they are taking charge of their lives," she said.
It's often not an easy journey. There are the women who call a week before payday, out of money and needing baby formula. The family that lived in a tent on the beach as they waited to get housing on base. The woman, 8 months pregnant, who was sleeping on an air mattress and called wondering whether she could get a bed.
"You learn to buy cheap and never off-base. You take hand-me-down clothes, clip coupons," said Mollie Stuckey, 25, who brought her 6-month-old daughter to the recent food and clothing giveaway at Camp Pendleton sponsored by Bowen's group.
"Half the Marines I know work part-time jobs in town," she said. "Pizza delivery, bartenders, jobs at night that have flexible hours."
Mary Oldham, a 26-year-old mother of two, worked as a waitress until her husband, a Marine sergeant, was sent to the Middle East.
"I don't make enough as a waitress to pay for day care," she said.
In a sense, she's lucky: Her husband's paycheck was boosted $300 a month by separation pay and hazardous-duty pay. "It makes up for what I was making."
It's a bonus, however, that threatens to bankrupt Lori Brown's family.
The youngest of Brown's three children, 3-year-old Hunter, has cerebral palsy, seizures, damaged lungs and an enlarged heart. Her husband, Steven, was recently promoted to staff sergeant, but even with the pay boost, the family still qualifies for the federal Supplemental Security Income program, which provides about $8,000 a month in medical care and other benefits.
But when Steven Brown was sent to Kuwait this year, he qualified for about $350 in "special pay" -- enough to deny the family supplemental income benefits.
"We even asked if we could forfeit the money, but the Marine Corps said no, he's over there, he's going to get it," said Lori Brown, 29, who has appealed to members of Congress and Gov. Gray Davis to have the rules changed during the military's deployment.
"We got probably about four weeks or five weeks [of SSI benefits] left," Brown said. "To be honest, after that, I don't know what we're going to do. It will kill us financially. But there are so many other families with special-needs kids going through this like us. A lot of them just don't know what's going to happen to them yet."
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Monthly basic pay for Marines ranges from $1,065 to $11,875, not counting housing and other allowances. Following are pay ranges for various ranks, with years of service determining how much each individual receives.
Monthly pay for selected ranks
*--* Minimum Maximum Rank Pay grade (under 2 years) (26+ years) Colonel O-6 $4,603 $7,990 Sergeant E-5 $1,625 $2,283 Corporal E-4 $1,503 $1,824 Lance corporal E-3 $1,357 $1,529 Private first class E-2 $1,290 $1,290 Private E-1 $1,065 $1,151
Source: Department of Defense