Monday, Jan. 5, 2009 | 2 a.m.
A pregnant woman, a couple huddling together and two others bounced on their toes and shuffled their feet trying to stay warm the other day, waiting for a volunteer-run secondhand shop to open its doors at Nellis Air Force Base.
Once inside the Airman’s Attic, they found racks of uniforms, strollers clustered in one corner, a long wall of hanging baby clothes, shelves full of kitchen wares — coffee makers, dishes, pots and pans — a couple of couches and TVs, and a tiny cat statue and other knickknacks.
All of it is free for airmen of the four lowest ranks and their families.
For Airman First Class John Welsh, the early arrival at the Attic paid off: He found a couch, saving what would have been “a big chunk out of my paycheck,” he said. (Welsh’s gross base pay is $1,687.90 per month, but he benefits by living and eating on base.)
The 24-year-old is looking for a second job — dishwashing, bagging groceries, whatever — but he hasn’t had any luck.
“I know plenty of airmen broke and struggling,” Welsh said.
Often, the phrase recession-proof is used to describe the military. And on a macro level it is. Congress, particularly in times of war, doesn’t decrease the Department of Defense’s budget because times are tight (though a few are postulating the recession could hasten a withdrawal from Iraq, given the big price tag — more than $500 billion and counting).
It’s not quite that simple when it comes to individual service members. Typically they’re seen as immune from ups and downs in the economy. After all, there are no layoffs, guaranteed retirement benefits after 20 years’ service, and free health care. And the military picks up the tab for housing and even throws in some cash for clothing. Many are enlisting right now for those very reasons — it’s a pretty good bet in this time of insecurity, deployments be damned.
But the economic malaise is hurting military families in Las Vegas all the same.
Take the Airman’s Attic, where the number of needy military families seeking free merchandise has jumped from about 420 to 550 in the past few months. The thrift store next to it, which is open to all on the base, has gone from selling about $700 to $800 worth of goods each of the four hours it’s open to $1,000 or more. More people, too, are consigning goods at the store to raise extra cash.
It could be that the mentality of the nation — frugality as the new black — is seeping into the military consciousness as well despite the relative security. But there are two factors that say it’s an actual hit on the pocketbook that’s altering behavior.
A military family typically moves every couple of years, meaning a working spouse has to leave one job and find another — a difficult task right now — or the couple must adjust from being a dual-income household to relying solely on the airman’s pay.
Jackie Brown, who works at Nellis’ Airman and Family Readiness Center, said for the first time in her 10 years in the job she’s had spouses repeat a job-seeker course because they’ve struck out in their search and are hoping to learn a new trick to land that elusive job.
And those stationed at Nellis who own their homes are having to sell them at a loss when they get transferred. Or the spouse is staying put hoping the market turns around — another separation in an environment of regular deployments.
But one advantage those in the military do have is a commitment to help their own. A good indicator that’s more than just fluff: All of the items at the Attic are donated by other Nellis airmen.