AUGUSTA — When I met the National Guardsman who later would become my husband, I had just graduated from college, and the sum total of what I knew about the military would have fit on a postage stamp. But military spouses learn quickly. We have to.

We were married five days before he deployed to Iraq. With my husband serving overseas, I decided that I wanted to do my part to support our troops and their families. That’s why I joined the local National Guard family readiness group to support the wives and kids left behind. Even after my husband came home, I continued to volunteer with the group. I loved the opportunity to serve the National Guard community, the mission and, above all, the people.

That’s why when a job came open as a Family Assistance Center specialist at our local Guard armory, it was a no-brainer to apply. So I started a new career helping military members, veterans and their families cope with life’s challenges.

The resources and referrals we provide to military members, veterans and their families change lives every day. I can’t tell you how many Vietnam-era guys we’ve helped who were living in their cars. Some people have a very specific need – a bill that’s overdue, help with Tricare, a counseling referral – while others have a whole host of issues.

I thought the National Guard valued the services that caseworkers like me provided to military families. But I was wrong.

Earlier this year, the National Guard Bureau allowed the contract with the company that employs me to expire. As a result, hundreds of caseworkers around the country were laid off, including five of us in Maine. It was a hard time for me, but it was even harder for the military families who rely on the critical services we provide. In fact, veterans and service members went six weeks without a lifeline until the National Guard signed a contract with a new company.

I was in a local home-improvement store when I got an email from a co-worker letting us know that the new company was offering to let us come back to work – but with a devastating pay cut.

Under the previous contract, I had earned about $24 per hour. Under the new contract, my pay was slashed to $14 per hour. I made more than that when I managed a Subway in college.

I returned to work, but I knew the pay cut was wrong. My co-workers across the country were equally upset, and we joined together with the advocacy group Good Jobs Nation to file a national wage theft complaint with the federal Department of Labor.

Needless to say, absorbing a pay cut of this magnitude has been difficult for my family. We’ve had to borrow money from family members just to pay the bills. Worst of all, my husband had to abandon his plans to start a small business and go back to work. Because of injuries received in combat and stateside, he’s 90 percent disabled. He’s had two shoulder surgeries and two knee surgeries and wasn’t in a place psychologically where he felt ready to find a job. That he did shows just how important we think Family Assistance Centers are.

It’s been rough on our family, but I’m even more worried about what it will mean for the people we serve.

Last November, I received a call from a young ex-Marine. He was so angry by the time he called me. He described how he’d contacted dozens of agencies for help; each turned him away. He was at his wit’s end – “This is my last chance – I don’t know what else to do,” he told me.

“I’m so glad you called, because I’m going to help you,” I said. I gave him a plan and laid out exactly how I’d follow up.

By the end of the call, his voice was so much softer. “I had completely given up hope,” he said. We didn’t solve all of his problems, but we solved enough that he felt empowered to deal with the rest.

Before I joined the Guard Family Assistance program, I spent a decade in social services. One of my co-workers was an Army drill sergeant for 12 years. You won’t get that level of experience paying people fast-food wages.

The truth is that it’s really our service members and military families who are paying the price.

Politicians always like to talk about supporting those who serve. Well, supporting our troops isn’t just about investing in the newest ships and the latest weapon systems. It’s also about investing in the people. It’s about being there for military families when they need us most.

It’s what we do every day, and this is the thanks we get.

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